Letting Parents Set Tuition


Rutland, Vt. -- "No negotiation -- there is no negotiation!" A woman in business suit and silky blouse lets her harsh words sink in to the crowd gathered to hear her in a school gymnasium. But this isn't a seminar about how to deal with hostage-takers or with union leaders during a strike or even with used car salesmen. She's talking about school tuition to a group of parents at a Catholic school.

The women is Sister Patricia Houlihan, R.S.M. She advocates a system that abolishes fixed tuitions and lets parents set what they think is the appropriate amount to pay. She is speaking at Christ the King, a parochial elementary school in Rutland. The program, "Fair Ability to Pay" tuition, is in place at St. Teresa of Avala School in Albany where Sister Houlihan is principal.

Sister Houlihan drove up to Rutland to explain what seems like a bizarre approach to budget-keeping as Catholic schools around the country, like this Vermont school of 387 students, look for novel ways to cope with budget-busting expenses.

Like most private schools, Christ the King's tuition doesn't meet per pupil costs. In fact, at Christ the King, the tuition is a per family fee of a little over $1,000 -- no matter how many children that family might have in the school. The low tuition reflects the school's commitment to access.

The school's per pupil costs, however, are around $1,500. The difference between costs and tuition is made up by funds from the parish as well as fund-raising efforts by the parents' club.

Under the Fair Ability to Pay approach, parents are told what the zTC per pupil costs are in their school and then are asked a simple question: How much of that can you afford to pay? That's it. Period. No negotiation.

"Every time you try to set a tuition [with a fixed rate system], it's always a guess as to how much can people pay and how can you meet your expenses. You're trying to balance the two," she said in an interview. "We didn't want people to take their children out of school if we guessed wrong and raised the tuition too high."

Sister Houlihan began using the Fair Ability to Pay system in 1976 at Albany's Holy Cross elementary school. Years before, she had seen a short notice about the plan, only about four lines long, in a magazine. The system had been tried in a Colorado school and was working out well there.

"At the beginning, we had a lot of consternation," she says. "People said, 'We're different from Colorado.' " But she plowed ahead all the same. "You know what sent me over the edge? We had a family who had been 18 years in the parish and were very involved. They moved to the outskirts of the city so they could put their kids in the public school system there. They sold their home; it broke their hearts . . . The only thing worse than not being able to pay tuition is having to say you can't pay it," she said.

The new system keeps budgets as well as dignities intact. The first year she instituted the system, 13 students' parents forked over the full cost of educating their children -- even though that figure was double what the fixed tuition had been the year before. The next year, 18 students paid in full, the year after that 25.

"It went up from there," said Sister Houlihan happily. "What you often find," she said, "is that the parents who are there when the plan goes into effect choose a tuition somewhere between the amount they were paying and the true cost. New parents coming in to the school usually look at the true cost and pay that."

But other parents may pay less. She says one man dutifully came in with $10 every week. "That's what he could afford," she said. And that's what the school accepted.

But why the "no negotiation" stance? One of the pitfalls of the system could be the temptation for parents and principal to bargain with each other. The tuition is set in a private interview with the principal. It shouldn't be a session where personal finances are discussed nor expensive new purchases noted, cautioned Sister Houlihan.

While the principal has to avoid a judgmental approach, parents must avoid the temptation to ask, "What do you think I should pay?" Or to promise to pay more "next time." Or to ask what the "average payment" is. It must be an honest assessment of what they can afford at that time. No promises. No negotiations.

During the first years of the plan she spent many nights wondering if it really was fair for some people to pay more than others. She finally came to realize, however, that she couldn't worry about those things -- they were none of her business. Her business, besides education, is balancing the budget and making her school less dependent on parish subsidies.

That is what brought her to Rutland. Christ the King School's half million dollar budget receives a hefty infusion from parish funds -- $130,000 this past fiscal year. But those subsidies are getting harder to make. Many parish schools can hardly lay claim to that title anymore, making large subsidies sometimes difficult to justify. Christ the King, for example, has approximately 250 families represented in the school, but less than half of those call themselves parishioners. While Catholicity may have been the drawing card for many parochial schools in the past, educational quality seems to be the big attraction now.

Recently she was asked by the diocesan office to say what her school's average tuition was. Her response? "I'm philosophically opposed to giving that figure." No negotiation.

E. L. Sternberg is a Vermont free-lance writer.

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