Yeshiva-Beth Rivkah helps with the school fees

September 19, 2014 by David Werdiger
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Melbourne’s Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges have launched YBRCAPS, an innovative revamp to their fee structure that makes school fees both more affordable and more accessible.

David Werdiger

David Werdiger

Fees are capped at a percentage of total annual household income no matter how many children are attending the school. The percentage itself varies from 8-18% depending on income band.

Jewish day school affordability is an issue faced by most every Jewish community around the world, and is regularly the subject of vigorous discussion and debate. In Melbourne, various parts of the community have been discussing ways to address this for years. We’ve had regular public debates about consolidation and cost-savings. We’ve even toyed with the idea of ‘super endowment funds’ that will subsidise everyone, forever.

More recently, the local philanthropic community has come together and embarked on some serious analysis and reflection on the issue. There has been an increased level of collaboration between ‘competing’ Jewish schools, and information and idea sharing between schools and stakeholders across the Jewish world. The environment has shifted and there is now a greater sense of urgency, and some fresh thinking to find a solution. This context has helped spawn the most novel approach to the problem of day school funding we’ve seen in a long time.

To understand its impact, it is useful to first reflect on the section of the Pesach Haggadah that discusses the ‘four sons’. Four verses in the Torah relate four distinct responses to children inquiring about Pesach. From this we see the importance of catering to the individual needs of students. The Lubavitcher Rebbe took this one step further and introduced the notion of a fifth son – the one that doesn’t even show up to the family seder. While the four sons each challenge us as to how we should engage them, the fifth offers the biggest challenge of all: how do we bring him to the table in the first place?

Much the same way, one of the biggest challenges in Jewish day school affordability comes not from creative grant schemes, scholarships and bursaries that reduce the fee burden for a particular group of families. For many families, the process of seeking assistance for school fees is an anathema, and they would rather go to the public school system than ask for help with private school fees. They are the proverbial ‘fifth children’ – the ones we want to help but can’t because they aren’t at the table. The challenge is thus extended from finding a financial solution to a problem to doing this in a way that lowers the barriers to entry for prospective parents.

I have seen this first hand in the administration of our family’s education grant program. Research we have conducted confirms that families are very uncomfortable with current fee assistance application processes, and have voted with their feet. What compounds the challenge is that it’s near impossible to identify these families in any systematic way.

The ‘percentage of family income’ model for school fees is in use in many Jewish schools around the world, and YBR has been using this informally for years. The innovation in the YBRCAPS system is that is has introduced an openness and transparency to the school fee assessment process that has not been seen before. There are no committees making intrusive judgements on people’s personal financials and lifestyle decisions. There is no shame of having to ask for special consideration. The criteria is simply stated and easily understood, and is accessible to all.

The YBRCAPS scheme is a well-considered improvement to the Jewish school education landscape in Melbourne. While other Jewish schools may not be able to directly adapt the model, it should certainly stimulate further creative thinking to help address one of the great challenges in our community.

David Werdiger is a technology entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker. He’s involved in several not-for-profits at director and committee level, and has an interest in Jewish community, education, and continuity. You can connect with David on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

The Werdiger Family Jewish Education Grant Scheme is now taking applications for the 2015 academic year. We are also interested in discussing ideas for making Jewish education more accessible.

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