Reexamining the Language of Financial Aid

Winter 2020

By Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee

You know that student. The one who rides the bus or walks everywhere. That student participates eagerly and fully in all the free stuff but rarely does anything that requires fees or equipment. That student borrows from the library instead of buying books. That student always wants to know what’s necessary for school and what’s fluff. Somehow, their family makes the necessary happen, but this student seems anxious about money all the time. That student is a hardworking, smart, and eager star. You think, “Someday, people will know how much they have given to this community.”
You know that donor. The one who is quietly one of your big champions. That donor is responsible for the new camping equipment that shows up when the school’s is wearing down. That donor anonymously meets the gap when your matching grant is running short of your goal. That donor creates a lot of buzz and interest in the community and brings in collaborators and benefactors. You think, “Someday, people will know how much they have given to this community.”
They are the same person. 
I am that person. 
I had tremendous educational opportunities as result of the sacrifices, generosity, and philanthropy of others. Through luck, effort, talent, and circumstance, I now have the kind of resources that can make a difference for organizations. I work at Seattle Girls’ School (WA) as a teacher and outreach specialist. I believe in the school’s mission and its commitment to walking its talk. I am also familiar with the greater independent school world because of my roles in NAIS conferences and institutes as well as my diversity consulting work, which has brought me into contact with more than 200 independent schools.
From this position, I have watched the financial-aid landscape of independent schools morph tremendously in the past decade or so. Financial aid used to mean access aid. We were giving access to children who have the skills and aptitude to be in our schools, who would contribute important perspectives and experiences to the community, but who come from families that could never afford the tuition without assistance. Now, financial aid has evolved at many schools to include—or even prioritize—affordability aid. We are trying to be a more attractive choice to families who have multiple children, who have the capacity to give robustly to our annual funds and other fundraisers, who look at tuition reduction as a factor as they shop for independent schools. I see this shift even reflected in the language schools use, as we start using terms such as “individualized tuition plan,” “award package,” “indexed tuition,” and more.
Access aid moves our institutions toward diversity, inclusion, equity, and cultural competence. Affordability aid is good for our financial sustainability as we build additional facilities, add more staff and programs, and increase our tuition. I understand that it is not a one-or-the-other binary choice, but I wonder if schools are deeply engaged in identifying competing priorities and drawing a philosophical line in the sand about which are the most important ones. I wonder if the language reflects schools’ actual practices. I wonder how many schools say they are committed to socioeconomic diversity but divert most of the resources to affordability aid for the wealthy and fail to address the true cost of inclusion. 

More Than Access and Affordability

Running the business of independent schools is complex and nuanced. There is no magic formula for financial sustainability, and history and context matters. What I hope for is greater clarity of and commitment to values, and for ensuring that our policies and practices reflect those values. There are myriad intersections and considerations I see in the current climate; here are just a few.
Fewer families can pay full tuition. Independent school tuition has long outpaced inflation and cost of living, making paying full tuition possible for a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. Given this trend, simply filling the seats we have and keeping our doors open can be a challenge. Schools are trying to address this reality through tuition freezes, increased affordability aid to attract wealthy (but not full-pay) families, and more.
Donor expectations can be challenging. Independent schools have historically relied on keeping key donor bases happy through the naming of buildings, extravagant thank-you events, preference in admission, and so on. Reliance on these practices, however, has also proved problematic when schools try to evolve with the context of the times—increasing demographic diversity in the population, teaching toward cultural competency by including multiple perspectives in literature and history, improving civic engagement through community partnerships and service learning, etc. Often schools worry that changes will upset donors and jeopardize their continued generosity, and that worry is sometimes substantiated by a few families that threaten to pull their children or their donations should the school not comply with their wishes.  
The costs go beyond tuition. Independent schools are increasingly aware that tuition is not the full price of the school experience. Trips, fees, materials, extracurricular activities, and key events add more dollars to the true cost of having a full experience at schools. Independent schools try to address families’ frustration and feelings of exclusion by absorbing additional costs into the tuition, increasing aid beyond tuition, transparency of costs, and other strategies.
Competition is intense. Independent schools face a greater level of competition from public schools, charter schools, for-profit schools, online schools, and home-schooling. In this competitive market, independent schools justify high tuition with state-of-the-art facilities, extensive programmatic offerings, individual attention and support from a higher ratio of adults to students, and other strategies to make their education seem a cut above the rest. 
The nature of philanthropy is changing. Independent schools know the necessity of cultivating philanthropy in the entire school community. Very few schools can rely on a large endowment or a few generous donors to cover all their needs and goals. Annual funds, capital campaigns, special programs, and more require a wider participation from board members, families, staff, alumni, granting agencies, and community philanthropists. Schools are attempting to increase giving through segmentation stewardship, addressing poor experiences of people who do not give, improving experiences of people who do give, and other strategies. 

Deeper Commitment

Seattle Girls’ School (SGS) opened in 2001 with 32 sixth grade students. Instead of spending our early dollars on elaborate facilities, the school contracted a new modular building company hungry for business and opened a modest building just big enough to house the classrooms and a few offices. This choice allowed SGS to award financial aid to 50% of the students at a high percentage of the tuition, which was unheard of at the time in the region. Instead of opening in the suburbs, we situated ourselves in the Central District, the center of the city and in the heart of a historically black neighborhood, making the school more physically accessible to all children and particularly to those who had been denied resources and opportunity through historical redlining and other forms of racism. Within the first few years of the school’s opening, SGS began an endowment fund specifically designated for financial aid, an unusual move for a school so young. In 2008, when the recession turned many full-pay families into financial-aid families, we decided to support those families to follow through on our commitment to them and keep up the aid budget to new families to ensure continued socioeconomic diversity. Today, SGS continues to allocate a significant percentage of its income to financial aid and commits all of the proceeds of the annual fundraising luncheon to making access possible for as many children as possible.
Of course, these choices were not without consequences. We do not attract families looking for a beautiful campus with new facilities, international travel opportunities, and high-ceremony events. As a teacher, I get paid modestly, and there were times when I had to tighten classroom budgets and forgo raises to help the school make ends meet. Our choices have resulted in a few scary years when we were in the red, and we had to make Herculean fundraising efforts to get back into the black.
These choices also have wonderful and priceless consequences, too. We have a wider socioeconomic diversity than many independent schools in the region and the country, and students from all walks of life contribute to richer and more relevant discussions and academic excellence. Many families are drawn to us specifically for our diversity and mission. We can remain true to keeping our mission at the core instead of worrying about what major donors want. We have unusually high participation from multiple constituencies in our annual fund. We have young alumnae giving back to their middle school through donations, volunteerism, and word of mouth. Our annual luncheon draws hundreds of people, many of them not connected to the school, who give generously to be part of something bigger. 
This is a school where the younger me would have thrived. I know my parents would have received significant financial assistance, and they would not have been stressed by surprise costs and fees or embarrassed with the prospect of asking for more help when additional costs became apparent. I know the younger me would have felt a deeper sense of belonging by the sheer number of peers in similar financial circumstances. Educators here would have seen me as a valuable contributor instead of a charity case who should be “grateful to be here.” 
This is a school where the older me is deeply committed. I have turned down generous offers from more resourced schools because I don’t see the level of commitment to all forms of diversity, including socioeconomic diversity. I don’t give to my alma mater because they have never acknowledged or addressed the disparate experience I had as a poor immigrant kid. I choose to give a significant portion of my philanthropic dollars right back to my place of employment because it is a place I believe in. 

Further Examination

As independent schools grapple with financial sustainability in today’s context, I hope there is a deep investigation into school mission and what it means in the 21st century. How do we distinguish ourselves from other educational options? Who is in our school, and who is not? What perspectives are we missing, and what do we lose as a result?
What does the budget distribution say about our most important priorities? What is the true cost of the full experience at school? Is this cost reflected in the tuition or in a series of invisible fees, materials, and other extras? What does our financial aid distribution say about our true commitment to socioeconomic diversity?
What is the experience of our students? Do they remember us as a springboard to opportunity, self-discovery, and empathy for others? Or do they remember us as a place where they experienced isolation and shame or where they felt pressure to compete in the game of haves and have-mores?
And who gives to the school and who does not? Do we know why or why not?
With a deeper examination of these and other questions, I believe schools can better identify their true priorities and aim for financial sustainability that is mission-aligned. And by being transparent about those priorities (putting our mouth where our money is) and decreasing the distance between our professed values and our practices (putting our money where our mouth is) independent schools can become more focused and successful in who comes to our schools, who thrives in our schools, and who gives to our schools

Go Deeper

Read more about financial aid, access, sustainability, socioeconomic diversity, and more with these NAIS resources.
Check out the Summer 2016 issue of Independent School magazine, which is focused on access and affordability in an age of growing inequities. It includes articles such as: The Independent Ideas blog has covered financial aid in several posts over the past few years, including a series by Mark J. Mitchell, NAIS vice president. Check out the following blog posts:
Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee

Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee (she/her/hers) is faculty and outreach specialist at Seattle Girls’ School in Seattle, Washington.