Feature images courtesy of the Gordon School.
New tuition models can significantly impact not only an independent school’s primary revenue source but also its diversity. At the Gordon School, a nursery through grade eight school in East Providence, Rhode Island, the transition to a Family Individualized Tuition (FIT) model has moved the dial on its recruitment, yield and financial aid goals, particularly in terms of equity and access. Gordon’s head of school, director of admissions and chief financial officer discussed the changes in a recent NBOA webinar.
In 2015, the Gordon School’s board of trustees actively engaged enrolled families in conversations about the existing tuition and financial aid system. The talks revealed some major issues that ran contrary to the school’s mission of building an inclusive community. Leaders better understood the make-up of the school community and set measurable goals for attracting a broader range of families, diversifying the payer mix and improving families’ experience. Over a three-year period, Gordon researched, designed and implemented FIT, and now data from the program’s first two years reveals it has helped Gordon meet those goals.
First, Gordon aimed to improve how families received financial aid information by making the application process more transparent and predictable. All applying families use an online portal to answer 11 questions regarding adjusted gross income, net worth and outside tuition support. Before the tuition price is calculated, staff confirm that all information is complete and, when necessary, follow up with families to obtain missing information. Within 10 days of completing an application, families learn their tuition price for the next three years.
[The new tuition model] really gave the parent community a sense of confidence that we were moving in a mission-centered way.
FIT has also helped school leaders spend more time talking to prospective families about the school’s culture and community and less time negotiating discount prices. When parents understand how the tuition price is calculated and that people with similar financial profiles will pay the same amount, they feel “a sense that people in the administration and board were thoughtful in [the model’s] design,” said Tom Cicatiello, chief financial officer. “It really gave the parent community a sense of confidence that we were moving in a mission-centered way.”
“With FIT, we don’t have full-pay families or financial aid families — we have Gordon families,” added Veronica Jutras, admissions director.
Reshuffling the Payer Mix
The FIT model has also helped Gordon diversify its payer mix. In 2015, school leaders found that half of the school’s students were paying full-tuition and half were paying less than 50%. With FIT, every family pays a customized tuition price that is the maximum they can afford. In FY19, the percent of new students paying over $25,000, the top tuition bracket, more than doubled.
Transparency was key to implementing these changes. “When we explain that our enrollment practice is working to create a diverse and economically sustainable cohort — and that payer mix is one of the many things we consider when we’re determining acceptance — we’re very straightforward about our intentions, and this is part of the process,” said Jutras. School leaders interested in taking on diversity, equity and inclusion work must have a holistic understanding of the school, not just a financial one, advised Noni Thomas Lopez, head of school.
In the webinar, Gordon school leaders also addressed annual giving, tuition remission, changing tuition prices due to family circumstances and more. Members can find a recording and slides in the webinar archive.