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Save Me a Seat: Tuition Remission Policies for Student Leave

By Net Assets posted 12-16-2016 02:29 PM

Students studying in tropical place

Enrollment & Financial Aid |

How to balance requests for temporary leave with your school’s financial needs.

Article by Ray McGaughey, High Mountain Institute, and Mairéad O’Grady, School for Ethics and Global Leadership

From the January/February 2017 Net Assets

Image above: High school students studying marine biology at the Island School, Eleuthera, Bahamas. 

Semester- and year-long study-away opportunities have become increasingly popular as independent school students seek extended, out-of-classroom experiences. At the same time, globalization and workforce mobility mean a growing number of families are relocating temporarily for job assignments or sabbaticals. Whatever the circumstances, a school with a departing student must balance the family’s desire for temporary leave with the school’s short- and long-term financial needs. Do you reserve the departing student’s seat or bed? If so, should you impose a “holding fee” to do so? How much (if any) tuition to remit?

In our work at semester schools, we’ve seen independent schools successfully implement a number of policies to accommodate temporary leave requests. In many cases, the schools also publish these policies on their website and/or in their student handbook to facilitate communication with current and prospective families considering leave opportunities. If your school has not yet codified and shared its policies for student leave and tuition remission, we encourage you to do so in 2017.

A School’s Best Interests

Three factors play into an independent school’s policies regarding study-away programs: the school’s financial standing, the school’s admissions and enrollment picture, and the administration’s commitment to educational student leave.

In theory, a school could decide to charge a family anywhere from zero to 100 percent of annual tuition to reserve their child’s spot. There are administrative and opportunity costs associated with leave, after all. But the higher the percentage, the closer a family comes to “double paying” tuition at their home and away schools. Moreover, a school that remits a low percentage of tuition — or none at all — risks student and family dissatisfaction, or even disenrollment. Such a policy could also lead to an inequity in which only affluent families may be able to afford student leave.

We applaud schools that charge no holding fee whatsoever for semesters away, but we understand that not every school is in a position to make such a commitment.

Stefan Anderson
Chair, Semester Schools Network and Head of School, Conserve School

The Semester Schools Network, an affiliation of 12 high school semester schools (among them the two schools where the authors work), recommends capping holding fees at 10 percent of annual tuition for a missed semester in order not to overburden families. Semester schools in the network agree not to actively recruit at independent schools that exceed this percentage. “We applaud schools that charge no holding fee whatsoever for semesters away, but we understand that not every school is in a position to make such a commitment,” said Stefan Anderson, chair of the Semester Schools Network and head of school at Conserve School, a semester school in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin.

Most schools that actively support educational student leave design tuition remission policies to free families from significant financial commitments while still reserving their spots. Packer Collegiate Institute, in Brooklyn, New York, is "committed to offering our students the opportunity to participate in study-away programs. It is our policy to hold the student's seat for up to one year," said Elizabeth H. Winter, chief financial officer. The school “charges an administrative fee equal to 10 percent of Packer's tuition fee based on one semester or the entire academic year, depending upon the length of the study-away program," she said. Special circumstances, such as medical leave, are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, in Santa Monica, California, “has a longstanding commitment to semester-away programs,” according to Barbara Whitney, director of finance and operations. “We see increasing interest among our students in participation in an ever-wider range of options during the junior year. These programs have provided a vital and life-changing experience for many of our students.”

Students studying by mountain lake
An outdoor class at the High Mountain Institute, a semester school in Leadville, Colorado.

To hold seats, Crossroads charges families a flat “holding fee” of $1,000 per semester and otherwise remits 50 percent of annual tuition or 100 percent of a semester’s tuition. This policy reflects a two-pronged approach that sprang from collaboration between the business and admissions offices to account for lost revenue, said Whitney. “First, we enroll one new student for every two who go to a semester program,” aiming to “equalize” the number of students absent each semester, she said. “We are lucky to have healthy enough demand for admission that we are able to adjust our admissions plan for the junior year (when most students choose to attend remote programs) and then correct the potential over-enrollment in the following year through attrition.”

The second part of the approach is the tuition remission, “less $1,000 to cover the additional administrative overhead,” Whitney said. “We believe that our approach reduces the chance that the financial burden for participation would discourage participation.”

We feel fortunate that when a participating student qualifies for financial aid at Greenhill, [the away schools] generally recognize our assessment of a family’s ability to pay by charging an amount similar to what we expect for tuition, making these opportunities available to all students.

Melissa Orth
Greenhill School

Some schools opt for a clean break, charging families no tuition or fees during a student’s semester away. At Greenhill School in Dallas, Texas, three to four students participate in semester-away programs on average each year, according to Melissa Orth, the school’s chief financial officer. “We do not charge these students tuition for the semester they are away because we feel strongly that these programs and experiences fit firmly within the mission of our school and provide incredible opportunities for leadership, personal and academic growth, and enrichment for participating students," she explained.

A commitment like Greenhill's requires advance planning. The school sets enrollment targets to account for students spending a semester away. “Clearly, there are limits to what we can afford, but we have been fortunate to date that the interest has been at a level we can manage,” Orth said. “We also feel fortunate that when a participating student qualifies for financial aid at Greenhill, [the away schools] generally recognize our assessment of a family’s ability to pay by charging an amount similar to what we expect for tuition, making these opportunities available to all students.”

A similar policy holds at Belmont Hill School, in Belmont, Massachusetts. "In an important way, [study-away opportunities] have become part of our school,” said Rick Melvoin, head of school. The school includes information about these programs in marketing materials and actively encourages students to take advantage of them. “Because of that, we do not feel it is appropriate to charge students or families for the time they are away.”

Moreover, Belmont Hill students who receive financial aid can expect to see those awards follow them to study-away programs. “We want to make such opportunities available for every one of our students,” Melvoin said. “We are fortunate that we can afford to do this; we also believe it is the right thing to do in support of our terrific kids on aid if we are going to give them the full experience, or at least opportunities, of our school.”

Ray McGaughey is director of admissions at the High Mountain Institute in Leadville, Colorado. Founded in 1998, HMI offers semester and summer programs to high school students seeking an integration of residential life, wilderness expeditions and academics.
Mairéad O'Grady is associate head of school for external affairs at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, D.C. Established in 2006, SEGL provides semester-long programs that emphasize ethical thinking, leadership development and international affairs.

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