Time to Reevaluate the Sacred Cow of Tuition?

Earlier today, I posted about how confronting once sacred cows in our budget really helped my husband and me grow in our financial responsibility.

In the comments section, a number of you talked about the sacred cow of day school tuition. This is a subject I’ve danced around in the past but never really faced full-on. There are a number of reasons, including:

(1) In Kansas City, our day school tuition is laughable in comparison to what those of you in bigger markets and especially on the East Coast are paying. That doesn’t mean it’s “nothing”, but it’s probably 1/3rd of what many of you are facing.

(2) The whole tuition issue is a huge quagmire. I prefer to avoid conflict and leave the harder hitting stuff to bloggers who aren’t chatting about coupons and freebies. The most controversial I’ve gotten in the past on Jewish sacred cows is the summer camp debate.

But after reading all the comments on my post from this morning, I couldn’t stop myself from formulating this response. If this blog is truly about living on a “budget”, then I really can’t ignore the fact that many, many Jewish families are spending $50K a year or more on tuition – which is what the average American family earns in a year.

{Forgive me in advance if I offend or annoy any one.}


There are many ways that one can define what “making it” financially means. Some would say that as long as you are living within your means – i.e. not accruing new debt every month – then you are “making it”.

But with the extreme expense of day school tuition, even so-called high earning families (six figures) may feel like they are just barely “making it” according to this definition.

If tuition is preventing families from saving for their retirement, or for their kids’ future, or just for a rainy day (i.e. having an emergency fund), then I have to ask: Is that *really* making it?

When credit cards are the emergency fund, that sounds like living on the edge, not “making it”. One year of day school tuition is the safety net that so many families are missing.

I believe that all families must make their own best decisions based on their priorities and values. But as far as sacred cows go, I think day school tuition is one whose time has really come for reevaluation.

What do you think? At what cost – individually and as a community – are we willing to continue absorbing the high expense of day school tuition?


  1. I cling to the quote I once heard, that basically investing in private school in elementary years hedges against college costs. Meaning that if you pack in high quality early education, they have increased chances for scholarships in college. I’m not saying I firmly believe this, but I sure like to! Plus, at least in my area, scholarship money for day schools and Jewish camps are pretty generous. Families making $50k a year can send their kids to school. Not without sacrifice, but not without selling blood, either.

    • I wonder if that quote holds for yeshiva education. Some have secular studies on par with Blue Ribbon public schools. But not all of them.

  2. Wow! Can’t believe you went there. I have no comment but that it is every individual’s choice how he or she spends his or her money. If people prefer to spend every last dollar to send their children to day school, that is his/her decision.

    • Right, of course it’s their decision. I agree 1000%.

      But when families are doing that (and based on reader emails, I think a lot of families *are* doing that) doesn’t that have ramifications for our wider community? I guess that’s what I mean about the “cost” – not just individually, but also communally. Does that make sense?

      • Thanks for tackling this, Mara. I know it’s not an easy subject. I do think there is a communal cost, particularly in those areas where tuition reaches insanity levels. But even in areas with large Jewish populations, the alternatives for Jewish education (i.e., not day school but afterschool programs, etc.) usually are relatively weak compared to what a kid would learn in day school. That’s the problem I’m focused on: if we don’t do day school, how hard would it be to cobble together enough opportunities to make up that missing Jewish learning? Is it even possible?

        • I don’t know – these are all questions I ask myself, even at our lower tuition rate! And then there is the intangible “environment” issue. (There’s no wonder this issue is a quagmire!) The thing that makes me the saddest is that I know – personally and through the blog – *so* many families that are suffering. Either financially, b/c every last penny is going to tuition and they are digging a deeper and deeper hole of debt… or communally, b/c they are facing social “back-lash” (for lack of a better word) when they decide to pull-out of the tuition rat race and either homeschool or send to public school.

  3. My opinion? That the real problems lie in a combination of the increasing “specialization” of schooling to every nuance of hashkafa, the “pyramidazation” [I made that up] of the community with each generation larger [much] than the previous and the fact that tuition alone cannot support a school. If we have an obligation to give maaser and a community has a halachic obligation to build and support a school (which it does – can’t quote where to find it in the shulchan aruch, but I”m sure my dh can), there should be more focus on tzedak dollars staying in home communities and going to the schools.

  4. This is something we are facing now that we are moving. My 4 y.o. can go to a local pre-school for free for half the day, or we have to pay to send her to the Jewish school. I am concerned that if we don’t send her to the Jewish school that she won’t fit in, that she will lose something of value since the community we live in will be a very very small/tight Jewish community. I always told myself that I didn’t want to be one of those parents who raised their kids in a environment that encouraged assimilation, and by moving to a small community, I feel that it is even more important for my children to have a strong foundation in a proud Jewish identity, where she doesn’t feel like the outsider, like only a child raised in Israel can experience. So, there really isn’t any question on what we should do, but it is so tempting to send her to Pre-K free for one year.

    I really never did think of asking for a scholarship (I guess I didn’t really expect it for such a young age), but it won’t hurt to ask.

    • Good luck with your move. That must be a lot to balance all at once. We paid for synagogue preschool for my older two boys but frankly, I don’t know that I will be doing it with my daughter. It’s just too much. My big worries, though, are dealing with Halloween, Valentine’s Day and the big tree in December.

  5. Our day school was not very good in a lot of ways, and we finally left. We use some of the money to send our kids to an excellent Jewish overnight camp that we couldn’t afford otherwise. On a recent Shabbat at our house , our guest , a local Jewish educator, said the research shows that sending kids to overnight Jewish camp is the No. 1 way to keep kids Jewishly identified, even more than day school. I do feel less guilty now…

    • Isn’t it amazing how much guilt plays a role in our decision-making. Wish I knew the magic cure for that! 🙂

  6. we don’t have kids yet, so tuition isn’t really an issue for us. but everywhere I turn I hear people talking about the “tuition crisis”. Most of them throw their hands up and say nothing will change. the few people that go to board meetings and question the schools about the money they spend are usually considered crazy.

  7. Mara, your words ring very true. However, I would say this. IF someone is in a community where there are lower cost options that will still provide their child with a quality Jewish religious education, or if moving to a location with less expensive Jewish schooling is a possibility, then I agree whole heartedly. Ivy League pre-schools? Come on!
    But if neither of those (sending to a less expensive Jewish school or moving ‘out of town’) is an option, then I don’t see it as a choice.

    • You don’t see it as a choice for the families – meaning they “have” to send regardless of the tuition hardships?

  8. I think it’s import that you went here. This is a chrisis in the community so much so that there was an article in news week about the Frum community all being broke over tuition. There needs to be a revamp of some sort , somethingnin the Jewish school system that can lower the costs. I don’t have an answer but what happeningnis not working. We play the money dance every month . You know if we are late on electric than we can pay tuition to this school a day late and that one a week late. etc etc etc, and I’ll be completely honest here we are a 6 figure family. We never ever take family vacations, I coupon till I’m blue in the face, and our cars are run down vintage circa 1990 era. We are not making it each month and my third isn’t even in school yet. Without Yeshiva/ Cheder payments we would be living a pretty comfortable life. With this all said……My children are living a life I didn’t have receiving a Jewish education that i wished for as a child. To give this to them is priceless and that I would pay anything for.

    • Do you know when that article in Newsweek was Sheva? I’d love to track it down. Thank you for sharing your family’s story!

  9. I was going to ask my Rav this hypothetical question:

    Suppose I make $5k/month and tuition is $1k/month. Which scenario is preferable:

    A Pay $1k/month tuition and not save at all? This would require me to rely on charity in the even of loss of income or an expensive car repair.

    B Pay $500/month tuition and put $500/month in savings? This would require me to rely on charity to make up the balance of my tuition payment.

    This year I am choosing scenario B (these numbers are completely made up). I am also enrolling my kids in public school just in case I can’t work out the money angle. Though I really hope it works out as I value Jewish education. 🙁

    However, I value peace of mind and financial stability, too.

    • TDR – If you do ask this question, I would love to hear his response.

      Plus, the other thing I was thinking: Even if you already have an Emergency Fund in place, an emergency could wipe it out – which means you’d need “extra” income to build it back up. And this doesn’t even account for wiggle room to do retirement savings, college savings, etc.

  10. Elisabeth M. says

    One of the reasons we think we may not have another child (we just have one daughter) is because of tuition costs. I can’t imagine paying as much as we do now- and doubling that. Though I’m still in grad school, and hopefully once I secure a job after that we’ll be able to reevaluate the second child thing…

  11. i posted a comment on FB. but i wanted to add something. Here in Ontario, there are two gov’t funded school systems. The public system and the Catholic school board. Yes that’s right. One of the Jewish schools has some kind of payment arrangement for those who don’t get scholarships. They get a charity receipt when they pay full cost. I’m not sure how, but it would be nice to get some kind of tax thing given that sending any kid to any private school takes the edge off of an already over burdened public school system.

  12. We are going through this very situation right now. My husband was out of work for the past year, and I am a stay-at-home mom. Returning to work would have only paid for the extra hours my youngest daughter would have needed to be in school.
    I am meeting today with the financial aid person at school – but where I am – the Jewish day schools do not provide a stellar secular education, nor do some provide a stellar Jewish education. Our community school was just accommodated by our reform day school, and our Orthodox school just doesn’t have the secular education we want for our children.
    So, I’m meeting today to see if I can get enough financial help to send my children to a reform school that doesn’t meet our needs.
    We are seriously considering the public school. I have been working with a group to create a supplemental Judaics program/learning community for our children and sometimes feel confident that we can create something exceptional that will meet our family’s needs.
    This is a great topic – whether we want to talk about it or not – and I think the issue of high tuition in day schools needs to be addressed. They say that Jewish identity (though I’d like to know how you define and /or measure Jewish identity) is strongest from – Jewish day school, summer camp, and trips to Israel.

    • The high cost is frustrating enough, but when there are no options that even come close to being “ideal” – cost aside… wow, that must be extremely frustrating! Good luck in making the right choice for your family this coming y ear.

  13. For me day school is really the only option, but the tuition system is broken. In the Chicago area full tuition is between 10 and 11K per person per year. There is no easy answer to this. This often a discussion around my parents table growing up and now that I am entering that “parsha” it is still a hot topic with my peers. The best we have come up with is that the schools need to start generating investment income to supplement tuition. Of course that takes a large amount of capital to start with.
    The other thing that bothers me, and I have not been able to confirm this, the rumor is that tuition is inflated in order for those that can afford it to offset those who cannot. This ends up hurting the “middle class” who end up begging for assistance that they would not have to otherwise, if tuition was a more accurate number.

    • I don’t know if “inflated” is the right word. Full tuition doesn’t cover the cost of the expense to educate a child in day schools. That’s why schools have to develop their endowment and fundraise as well.

      • @Chava, I agree with you that full tuition probably does not cover the entire cost of schooling a child, but I still think that the portion it is ment to cover is less than full tuition in order to subsidize others. If it was a more accurate number to start with I think less people would need to ask for assistance.

  14. This is absolutely THE topic of conversation for almost every NY Jewish family that I know. We even know families making 200K who have requested scholarship. It’s nuts!
    If there was an Orthodox Talmud Torah, I would absolutely be willing to send my child to public school from Kindergarten- 3rd grade. Unfortunately, there is none where we live.
    We limited ourselves to 2 children so that our expenses dont exceed our incomes. Even then, our raises dont keep pace with the raises in tuitions. I hate to contemplate what my children will face.

  15. Plus, at least in my area, scholarship money for day schools and Jewish camps are pretty generous. Families making $50k a year can send their kids to school. Not without sacrifice, but not without selling blood, either.

    I’ve found this to be true and this is a big part of the problem imho. Unfortunately, for families that aren’t rolling in dough but are firmly in the upper income levels (and paying the taxes to show for it!), they are being asked to carry more and more of the cost of running the schools. And this group is shrinking as average family size grows, more and more families are entering the school before finishing their own school and establishing careers.

    A family with a 50K income might be asked to pay 10%-15% of their pre-tax income for tuition. A family with the same number of kids that has surpassed the 6 figure threshold isn’t guaranteed any discounts and might end up paying 30-50% of their pre-tax income in tuition for the same number of children. These families are also being taxed at a marginal rate of 15 or 25% and are being phased out of tax credits. The 50K family is paying 0 or 10% federal tax and might qualify for non-refundable credits too, i.e. they might get back in tax more than they paid in.

    Mara-As my favorite coupon blogger, if you want to remove my comment to keep the conversation civil, please feel free to do so.

    • Um, your comment is civil, well-reasoned, and completely appropriate. You don’t insult anyone or imply that others are immoral. I can’t even imagine why anyone would take offense to it.

    • Orthonomics – Your comment was totally civil. As long as people use their big girl/boy words, I’m totally down with disagreements. (Plus you know how much I appreciate you – I could never delete a comment from YOU!)

      I hear what you are saying … If a family earning, say, $125K should have less disposable income than a family earning, say $50K, after tuition (and tax), then that is clearly very problematic. But that doesn’t change the fact that NEITHER family can afford the tuition.

      I wonder how Catholic schools manage to keep their tuition so much more affordable than Jewish day schools (either MO/Yeshivish or community). I presume it’s from tithing by the wider community.

      • Right. Which brings us back to my original post about the need for tzedaka to stay in the community and focus on supporting the schools.

    • I totally agree with you comment. That’s exactly what’s happening to the middle class, as it is struggling more than both low-income and rich families. Also, the middle class doesn’t get any other federal or state breaks compared to low income ones, e.g. in medical insurance etc, which also may leave them with less disposable income after all the non-discretionary items are paid for.

      • Only sort of related, but I got a phone call from a polling firm (calling about extending a local smoking ban in public) and agreed to answer. The last question was “how do you identify yourself socio-economically? Upper middle-class, middle-class…” I answered “I’m not sure how to answer that. We’d probably be upper middle-class were it not for the 8 kids that constantly keep us bankrupt.” Stunned silence and then the guy started cracking up. Either his job is reaaaaaaally boring, or that was just a more honesty than he expected.

  16. I know it sounds crazy that a family making 200k probably could use a scholarship, do the math ( mind you were are not a 200k family). Lets say you have a typical frum family of 6 kids…
    1 in yeshiva: 14,000
    1 in seminary 13,000
    2 in day school 16,000
    2 in Gan 12,000
    That is over 55 thousand just in tuition a year and there are other bills don’t forget. A family this size eats a lot, needs a lot of clothes, and uses a lot of electricity. Now lets take a family that is making 100k a year, not a bad income, well after tuition you are now making about 55 thousand a year and with 6 kids that puts you on the poverty level.
    Scholarships are actually not available for people making this much because when you apply they dont just look at your income the evaluate they type of cars you drive the home you live in and how many family vacations you take. We were actually told by a day school that if we cant afford tuition we should sell our home and rent. Hmmmmm

  17. i found this article not sure if it was the one i originally read but an interesting insight

  18. I do not believe any of these thoughts could be controversial or offensive. They are merely a consequence of some very real struggles.

    It’s very sad that many families decide to have less children due to the anticipated costs of day school. That’s a significant problem and needs to be addressed by our Jewish day schools as well as Jewish philanthropists who might be able to help build those cushions that would lower costs.

    It’s a problem beyond day school as well – I read a statistic somewhere that estimated where the Jewish people would be if we continue to have smaller families. It was a disturbing stat – we think we’re a small percentage of the population now……

    While we all struggle – and many figure out how to keep their children in day school – I can’t help but think of all the people for whom day school was never an option. There just aren’t enough sacrifices they can make to be able to afford it .

    Thank you for raising this topic.

  19. I think it is very interesting that the term Mara used to kick off this topic was “Sacred Cow,” whose dictionary definition is “One that is immune from criticism, often unreasonably so.” Herein lays the problem for so many people. The concept of sending our children to day school of any kind is ingrained in many of our psyches that we cannot even fathom any other options. And many of us look to justify this stance without fully considering the alternative.

    I was a product of both public school and day school. Looking back I think that my years as one of the only Jews in a New Jersey public school had as much to do with forming my Jewish identity as anything else. Of course my parents played a full role in supplementing my Jewish education in those years too. And when I made the switch to a day school by the middle school years, I had very little ground to make up. And my parents were able to pay full tuition in part thanks to the pact that they had saved so much in the K-through-6 years.

    Ultimately I fear many people would never consider such an option more because “it’s not what’s done” than any other reason. When I see people here write they send their children to Jewish schools that don’t meet their educational goals – either Jewish or secular – I find it very disturbing. And to see others write that they consider not having more children because tuition is too great a burden… What has happened to us?!?!

    For sure I agree with those that wrote these are issues that must be tackled as a community. For the sake of the Jewish people, communities far and wide with more than one school should be looking to band together for everyone’s sake. Even if that just means sharing buildings, English teachers, etc. It may be a logistic headache, but it’s one that can be solved for the sake of our children. But until that happens, Jewish day schools cannot continue to be a Sacred Cow. For those that can’t afford it, there are options. And another that should always be considered – if our children’s Jewish education is truly our biggest priority, much of this issue can be solved by moving to Israel.

    • I wish that what you did were the community norm. I wish that people sent their kids to public school from kindergarten through fifth grade and then sent them to Jewish schools for middle school and high school. Jewish high school should be non-negotiable as a community priority. I went to one of the finest public high schools in the United States (ranked number one by US News and World Report several years ago), and I would never want to put a frum teenager in that enviroment. I could not participate in the theatre program; I couldn’t play sports; and I had zero social life. It is just too difficult to be frum in a high school where observant Jewish living is not supported.

  20. Perhaps I am missing something, but what exactly is the choice here that families need to make decision about? Going to public school in not an option.

    • It’s fine for you to determine that public school is not an option for your family. But there are people that are not making ends meet b/x of day school tuition. Even after scholarships. To tell them that public school is not an option is the same as telling them to be prepared to eat dog food at age 65. Or to let their kids know now that b/c they paid for their day school education instead of saving for the future and retirement, that the parents will be living with the kids from ago 60 too.

      Perhaps the real solution is as a community – all of whom are paying taxes – to send children to schools, even if only in the early years. If there are 10 observant Jewish kids in a class, the school will naturally have to adjust to meet their needs too.

      • So, basically we’re talking yeshiva/day school vs. public school. Perhaps, public school may seem as an option if there is a bunch of observant kids in a class. But how can you make them be there? The reality is that there are hardly any. Do you personally want your kid to be the only observant kid in the class with all the pressure it puts on the kid and the environment exposing him to many things you don’t necessarily want to? And where would you fit Jewish curriculum if the public school ends 3 pm in the afternoon? How long of a school day can your child endure? And at that you still need to pay for Jewish education, either as an afterschool or private tutor.
        Free education sounds good, but I would like to hear from the experience of parents who actually made the choice against the Jewish day school, how it’s working for them and their kids, and where the Jewish education comes in.

        • In my experience of 12 years of day school, school days always went past 3. When I was younger, it was 3:15. When I got to middle school, I had to be at school by 7:30 for davening and classes ended at 4:30. It was an unpleasant experience, but I survived. High school classes ended at 4:30, with 8AM-9AM davening. My fiance went to a public school and his days ended at 3:30, 3:00, and 2:50 for elementary, middle, and high school (and he took a language in middle and high school, and also had P.E. every day, which I didn’t). Using our experiences as an example, day school students are expected to be in school at least an hour longer than public school students, without counting davening in the morning. I am not sure if I “endured” the long day very well. But again, I survived.

          Even enrolling your child in a day school won’t ensure that your kid is surrounded by other osbervant kids. I was more observant than most of my classmates in my elementary schools and less observant than most of my classmates in middle school.

          I don’t have kids of my own yet, but this is a debate I often have with myself. I think my exposure to the outside world helped solidify my Jewish identity and allowed me to be observant wherever I went, no matter the situation. Some people I grew up with left the derech completely when they entered the outside world.

    • One choice is homeschooling. Another choice is for like-minded parents to start their own small program such as the co-op in Florida which has been replicated in West Orange.

      Personally I don’t care for the statement “going to public school is ot an option.” Leaving aside money issues, sometimes a kid simply needs the services offered in public schools making them the best place at that particular time for that particular child.

      • Personally I don’t care for the statement “going to public school is not an option.” Leaving aside money issues, sometimes a kid simply needs the services offered in public schools making them the best place at that particular time for that particular child.

        Ditto that. But I’ll throw money issues back in and basically concur with Tali above.

        • Ditto both what Mara and Orthonomics said. Sometimes day school is not the best choice for a child in reality, though it is in theory.

          • Those atypical situations have to be addressed separately and are really not directly related to the budget-cutting discussion. The tuition part of the formula, however, affect the whole community.

  21. While I don’t judge people for the choices they make regarding family size, I just think its soooo incredibly sad that people are forced to limit the amount of kids they have because of how expensive tutition is. I mean if there was ever a definition for the this crisis, I think that’s it! I’ve heard people joke that the price of yeshiva/Jewish Day school tuition is the best form of birth control but its a joke with a sad reality behind it…

    • It makes me very sad, too, Dina. Definitely a community crisis for the religion with the mitzvah of pru u’rvu.

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