The Big Challenge: Can We Beat the Rising Cost of Christian Schooling?

Retiring Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) President Ken Smitherman is sounding the alarm. According to a study of ACSI tuition statistics, over the past twenty years ACSI member school costs have risen an average of five percent a year.

(Quick math: At these rates, a $3,000 tuition in 1988 now costs more than $7,500—a 152% in- crease. Compare that rate of increase with the Consumer Price Index, which rose an average of 3.06% per year during the same period. If ACSI tuition costs had held to the CPI, a $3,000 tuition would be just over $5,300—a 77% increase.)

“Given recent economic trends,” says Smitherman, “these tuition rates are not sustainable.” Affordability, he says, is one of five critical challenges facing the Christian school movement in the next decades. In his 60-minute workshop, he discusses finances for more than half the time.

And Smitherman’s concern is not isolated. In a recent blog, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) President Pat Basse noted the fol- lowing:

  1. Schools that have experienced a downturn in applications and/or “pushback” from parents on tuition increases have reached their “price-break point” and should consider moderating tuition increases in the future. Some of these will consider freezing tuition or even reducing tuitions. All will likely effectively reduce tuitions for a larger proportion of current and future families by increasing financial aid.

  2. The 25-year average trend of CPI+3 (Consumer Price Index, plus three percentage points) is unsustainable for much longer and…financial sustainability for the future would recommend much more modest increases.

The current crisis might recommend, even for schools with continued strong admis- sions indicators, a more modest increase in tuition than in the past — as acknowledgment to the anxiety parents are feeling about their own capacity to pay and give. A data point to consider here: 2007 was the first year since 1966 when family income for the top 5 percent actually declined. And 2008 is certain to be another such year, probably a much greater decline.

In general, ACSI and NAIS represent two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum of American private schools. Both models, however, are feeling an identical pinch.

On the one hand, ACSI schools have more typically appealed to parents on the basis of affordable pricing. Many ACSI schools advertise tuition in monthly increments—the message being that families can figure out how to afford private education on the same terms as they justify car payments or the Christmas savings club.

The parents who first enrolled their children in ACSI schools in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly the product of public schools. As public schools became increasingly secular, they opted for the new Christian schools with public school equivalent academics, gaining the bonus of Christian faculty, Bible study, and devotional activities. Despite
near universal efforts to control costs through low salaries and other “efficiencies,” however, tuition continues to balloon.

NAIS schools tend to appeal to more affluent families for whom private schooling is an automatic expectation. Old boarding schools with historic reputations are the backbone of the NAIS tradition, and the distinctive culture of each school is its main attractive feature. As you can infer from Basse ’s comments above, there has been a natural expectation among many NAIS member schools that private education is expensive and mainly for those families who can afford the rapidly rising costs. If you apply the above mentioned CPI+3 formula to the 20-year inflation average, NAIS school prices have risen by an average of greater than 6% each year. (At that rate, a $7,000 tuition in 1988 would now be $21,408—a 206% increase.)

Perhaps no more.

Before we start accusing private schools of mismanagement or malfeasance, it is important to remember that there are legitimate economic reasons for these costs. Research by Independent School Management, Inc. has associated the cost of running private schools with cost structures in other service industries. The problem with services like education, social work, legal, etc. is that technology cannot decrease costs and increase productivity to the extent possible in manufacturing and other industry sectors. Our basic delivery method is people. The longer they are with us and the more value they contribute to our schools, the more expensive they get.

So, what will we do? If even wealthy families are nearing the break-point on how much they are willing to spend on tuition, where does that leave the rest of us? There are at least two areas which many schools could focus on to begin to alleviate the mounting stress.

Pricing and Value

Since most school budgets are heavily dependent on tuition, it is unrealistic to expect that Christian schooling will somehow become less expensive over time. However, it is worth considering both how well the program is supported by our tuition structures and the impact on families over time.

If we think outside of the typical tuition box, we can spread the cost of quality education to reduce both the short-term cost crunch and to lessen the impact of cost increases over time. In the past three years, I have worked with schools that have been willing to address this challenge head-on. The results have been to strengthen the value to parents and to predict more manageable tuition increases.

In the midst of record state budget deficits, there is also an opportunity for Christian school to demonstrate superiority over public school offerings. California is poised to lay off 20,000 state workers, one result of which will be reduced staffing and deep programming cuts. Private schools will continue to offer art, music, and other educationally vital programs. All of a sudden, the qualitative difference between “free” education that is susceptible to economic shifts or legislative mismanagement and private schooling that enriches and shapes students consistently is evident.

Leveraging the Right Things

When examining a school’s finances, I frequently encounter operational costs associated with unfunded capital projects or budget deficits. I’m not a debt hawk, but I have been shocked recently by the extent to which heads and boards are willing to leverage their schools’ assets and growth projections. The days of easy credit may be gone for now, but in my view, easy money for schools is a slippery slope that both drives up costs and puts a school’s entire mission at risk.

It is also often true that a heavily mortgaged school has not learned to raise money on the basis of its mission. Developing a prevailing attitude of investment in mission within a school community takes effort, patience, and considerable skill. A school that has been making ends meet with fish fries and magazine sales will likely not be able to instantly generate the commitment and enthusiasm necessary for a multi-million dollar campaign.

If we cut corners with credit, we exacerbate the inflationary pressure that seems to be putting so many schools at risk. Board financial policies need to spell out the tolerance for debt maintenance in our operating budgets. Percentages of total debt to annual revenue need to be defined. And we need to learn to ask people to give to the reason that we exist—our mission. If I did not believe in the value of authentic Christian education to students, families, the church, and our culture, recent financial trends might make me more anxious. As it is, however,
I have a great deal of confidence in the future of Christian education. But we must face reality, and we must respond with creative plans and the determination to do what we do with greater attention to excellence than ever before.

Wisdom and Eloquence

I really enjoyed reading Wisdom and Eloquence by Robert Littlejohn and Charles Evans. This is a well-written book, with certain chapters that should be read and re-read by all educators seeking to provide a classical and Christian education. There is good information here for everyone involved in the work of recovering a classical and Christian education.

The book also exhibits a central pedagogical departure from the application of Dorothy Sayer’s insight in The Lost Tools of Learning. In order for me to set forth this departure appropriately, it is necessary for me to back up, and give some background history. When our founding board began discussing what kind of education we should seek to provide, we knew that we did not want a fundamentalist reactionary academy, and we knew that we did not want a compromised prep school. So we came up with the motto, “a classical and Christ-centered education.” The word classical excluded a truncated fundamentalism, and the Christ-centered excluded a compromise with unbelief. Somewhere in this process I remembered an article by Sayers that I had read some years before. We tracked down a copy, and, with the view that this represented considerably more wisdom than we knew about, we adopted it, and resolved to give it a try.

Now the heart of Sayers’s article is her application of the Trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) to the natural stages of child development. Her argument is that the Trivium is foundational, giving the kids the “tools of learning.” Now at the time, we could not have told you anything about the history of the Trivium and its relationship to child development issues beyond what we had read in Sayers. But what we did know (from Sayers), we put into practice and the results can only be described as a roaring success.

As the years went by, we read up on what we were doing, and learned a great deal more about it. In other words, we started blind, but we didn’t stay that way. And so it turns out a lot rides on whether we describe what Sayers was advocating as her historical explication of the medieval practice or, instead of this, describing it as the Sayers insight—what somebody really ought to try sometime (for the first time). Littlejohn and Evans point out (rightly, in my view) that the historical application of the Trivium did not do it the Sayers’s way. In other words, I don’t think that little kids in 1352 were taken through the grammar stage (the way they are at Logos), and then on to the dialectic stage, and so forth.

In my book, The Case for Classical Christian Education (2003), I refer repeatedly to the Sayers insight, and this is the reason why I referred to it this way. I believe that Littlejohn and Evans are quite correct on the historical point. In other words, if we look to Sayers for information on how they were doing it “back in the day,” we are going to miss the mark. But if we look to Sayers for a valuable idea on how this approach to the Trivium could and should be applied to modern education, we will find ourselves cooking with propane and extremely pleased with the results. And that is exactly what has happened to us at Logos. There are numerous indicators that I could point to here—from stellar test scores to nationally-recognized accomplishments of graduates. We have won the state championship in mock trial nine years (out of twelve years competing), and sent a mock trial team to national competition ve times. In short, as the sage once put it, “if it ain’t broke, don’t x it.”

A proposed departure from this is a significant part of the argument presented in Wisdom and Eloquence, and the point is reiterated a number of times. In short, the central contribution that Sayers has to offer (in my view) is the major thing that Littlejohn and Evans take issue with. This is not the end of the world, and I am sure that both gentlemen remain very fine educators despite disagreeing with Sayers on this. But it does represent a significant disagreement within the classical and Christian education world, and every classical Christian school needs to decide what they are going to do on this point. Both are fine dances, but you can’t waltz and do the Texas two-step at the same time. For their part, Littlejohn and Evans want to “separate the arts from the question of cognitive development altogether” (W&E, p. 39).

There is a significant amount of agreement in this disagreement. I agree that child development was not in view eight centuries ago. But suppose we reject the Sayers point considered as historical exegesis but go on to accept it considered as a new proposed pedagogical paradigm. The people who tried this in the early eighties in north Idaho didn’t know any different, and so we just went after it. The educational results have been astounding, and so if it was all based on a mistake it was therefore a very happy mistake. And further, the mistake would have been ours for assuming that Sayers was talking about how education used to be, and not about how it ought to be. I am not saying that Sayers shared any of our possible confusion on the point.

There is also an additional argument against going back to the purist view of the Trivium. One of the central reasons why we should not just return to the Trivium “as it was in the medieval period” is because
it used to be a pretty confusing hodgepodge. The simultaneous inculcation of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (along with the Quadrivium) is something that could get away from you pretty easily, and in the middle ages, it certainly did. Reading this book by Littlejohn and Evans makes me think that they have it well in hand, but this is more than could be said for some early forms of it.

Just two final comments and I am done. The first is to make sure we keep this difference where it ought to be—as a matter of important emphasis, and not as a matter of fundamental substance. In other words, every advocate of a graded approach to the Trivium acknowledges that none of these three stages are “pure,” free from all contamination from the others. Spelling is taught in the grammar stage, and spelling is a rhetorical matter.

It is important for ACCS educators to recognize that it is not going to be “pure grammar,” and then “pure dialectic,” and then “pure rhetoric.” These are not watertight categories. Nevertheless the Sayers Insight means that we emphasize the grammar of all subjects in the elementary years, the dialectic of all subjects in the junior high years, and the rhetoric of all subjects in the high school years. But of course, each stage will have important elements of the others contained within them. Students in the rhetoric years still have to memorize things, and students in the grammar stage learn to make letters that stay within the lines, thus presenting a more pleasant rhetorical effect. For their part, Littlejohn and Evans retain an understanding of the importance of gradation—they just don’t tie it together with the language of the Trivium (e.g. pp. 130, 164).

Having said all this, I suppose it means that I believe that the Sayers Insight represents a better application of the medieval Trivium than was practiced in the medieval period itself. And it would follow from this that I believe schools that follow the Sayers Insight will enjoy richer educational fruit than schools that simply return to the practice of teaching all seven of the liberal arts at every age.

But this is just a disagreement, not a collision. I still recommend this book highly—there is much to be gained from it. Schools that follow the pattern suggested here will no doubt be superior to many of the typical American schools around them. At the same time, I do believe that ACCS schools should be encouraged to stay the course on this point. But of course I would say that—you don’t work for MacDonalds in order to sell Wendy’s burgers.

Secrets of a Classical Classroom

The fourth graders were learning about the American Civil War and the Gettysburg Address. The exercise on the day I observed had students re-writing Lincoln’s immortal speech in their own words. A simple, common assignment, but something about it didn’t sit well with me.

After a few minutes, I realized that in learning the speech by re-writing it, the students were losing Lincoln’s words. The ideas in the “Gettysburg Address” are not original. It is a eulogy. I could have written that eulogy, any fourth grader could have written it, if our only concern was to get some ideas across—the sorrow of loss, the hope of a united nation, the symbolic struggle for freedom.

But the Gettysburg Address is beautiful. The words and the way Lincoln strung them together are even beatific. And that’s the point.

The classical classroom is oriented around big ideas and important events. But this is only our starting point. Our focus extends from important content—Who was Abraham Lincoln? What was he doing at Gettysburg?—to the importance of how the ideas that shape events are captured by the great statesmen and poets in our tradition. To lose Lincoln’s words in a flurry of fourth grade paraphrases is to undermine the real educational value of his speech.

In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s journalist character recalls how her father developed the habit in her of looking for a better word, a better way to say everything. In the movie character, the constant pursuit of a better word produced neuroses that made her interesting to movie goers. In our students, however, the search for better words, for more beautiful words, is the mark of a classical education.

Next time you read a famous work by a famous person with your students, ask the question: Why is this work famous? Examine the words, and lead your students in a discussion of the beauty of the words and the choices that the author made in order to make them lovely.

The heart of classical learning is eloquence, and the heart of a classical classroom is learning to recognize and use beautiful words.