Why Tuition?

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Education is expensive. The price of education can be estimated and paid in dollars, so that we are sometimes given an estimate of what the public school system pays on average per student. A recent figure I heard was $12,000 per student.

Learning is expensive too. The price of learning is harder to measure in dollars. When it is least expensive, the price of learning is paid in the effort of hard work and attention. When it is more expensive, it is paid through suffering. That’s what is known as “learning the hard way.”

The price of public education is hidden behind taxes that affect everyone, so public education seems to be inexpensive, even free. That’s a hard price to beat. But private (non-public) education still exists. Why? It wouldn’t exist if there were not reasons for families to send their children for the opportunity to learn in private education. Those reasons can help us to understand why many families decide that paying for the high cost of education in a non-public school is preferable to using the public education system.

In a private school, the families sending their children to school help to pay the costs of the school’s operation. Most of the costs are for the personnel, especially the teachers. Private schools strive to pay a living wage comparable to what those teachers could receive in any school or similar position where they could be working. This doesn’t always work out, and private schools often have difficulty finding teachers willing to teach. This is partly because private schools tend to be more demanding in certain ways. For example, Columbia Lutheran School doesn’t have enough personnel available to give its teachers regular break times, so that the teachers find themselves managing students throughout the entire school day. This is even true of the principal position, which is added to the regular teaching duties for all middle-school age students. “Break” times and regular opportunities for administrative work occur only well after the end of teaching days. This is mentioned here only to provide a context for understanding that private education asks a lot from its teachers, so that their compensation is well-earned.

Other costs of private education include supplies, curriculum, and durable things that are needed from time to time. When teachers and others choose to donate some of their personal resources to supplement classes, it helps keep these costs down.

Private schools that operate independently must also pay for the space they occupy, their utilities, and similar expenses. In a parochial school like Columbia, the congregation owning the school is effectively donating most of these costs, which has the effect of reducing tuition. We are thankful for the state of our classrooms and library space, which has resulted from donations from Bethany Lutheran Church; from its members; from Covenant Christian Academy; from Our Savior Lutheran School in Lake Havasu City, AZ; from Our Savior Lutheran School in Princeton, MN; from grants provided through the Evangelical Lutheran Synod; and from many extra hours of labor on the part of our staff.

A parochial school is a collaboration led by the congregation that operates it. The church determines the way things are done at the school, and it provides a well-defined, predictable experience in the school. It also affects the amount of tuition necessary for the school to operate.

Part of the CLS school philosophy states, “CLS and its congregation, Bethany Lutheran Church, constantly have in view the long-term financial sustainability of the school. To accomplish this, they have resolved to charge actual cost-per-pupil tuition, while establishing a tuition assistance program for those in need” (See Handbook, p. 8). 

At Columbia, we operate at a much lower per-student cost than the public school system. Even without full classrooms in 2019-2020, it’s about $9,200 per student. The year before, with fuller classrooms, it was about $6,700 per student. Our families can easily calculate that their own tuition contributions don’t come near the full cost. The rest of the cost must be provided through gifts that the school receives throughout the year. It has been an act of God that Columbia has continued to operate through these first six years! Thanks be to God for His blessings upon the congregation and school families of Columbia Lutheran School!

By why does a family decide to pay tuition rather than make use of the “free” public school system? The reasons are many, and vary from family to family. Here are some:

  • Private schools are free to teach the complete body of knowledge involving all fields of study, where public schools are forced to omit the unifying foundational truth that all knowledge and skill comes ultimately from our Creator, and relates to the salvation He provides through Jesus Christ.
  • Private schools can omit teachings that contradict God’s truth, or teach them in a context where students can learn to respond with divine wisdom.
  • Private schools may have more control over aspects of student safety.
  • Private schools welcome hands-on assistance from student families in the education of their children.
  • Parochial schools provide a single, predictable approach to teaching the religious aspects found in every field of knowledge. (See the article Why Parochial?)
  • Private schools usually have smaller class sizes, providing much more direct teacher attention to the lessons of each student.

Affording private school tuition is not mostly a matter of wealth. It is mostly a matter of priorities. If things like the above points are important enough to a family, the family will be able to afford tuition in most cases. They might not take the same vacations or drive the same vehicles that they otherwise could have chosen, but they will enjoy the advantages of private education that they find important enough to choose.

How does a family of limited means afford private education? Here are some choices they make, but each family makes its own choices:

  • Budget every dollar of income, every month, covering priorities like tuition before deciding how much will be spent on other things like restaurants, entertainment, or even groceries.
  • Choose not to carry debts if there is any way at all to avoid it, so that income is not eaten away by payments and there is less temptation to spend beyond means.
  • Save special gifts or boons like tax returns for tuition.
  • Combine family “vacation” trips with necessary business to reduce costs.
  • Join in school fundraising activities to have part of the proceeds credited to their own tuition account.
  • Apply for tuition assistance so that if there is money to be distributed, they will be included.
  • (New this year – see the arrangement) Refer other families. New student referrals will receive a tuition credit. Multiple referrals stack.

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