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Foundations of Flexible Tuition

By Net Assets posted 10-22-2019 09:14 AM

Flexible foundations

Enrollment & Financial Aid |

A school at the forefront of “flexible tuition” explains how it’s done and why it works for the school’s mission and market.

Article by Christopher Portman

Founded in 1895, Lick-Wilmerding High School (LWHS) was tuition-free for the first 77 years of its 125-year history, and the school has maintained a commitment to being accessible to students from all walks of life. The 528-student grades 9-12 day school in San Francisco has eschewed using the term "financial aid" in favor of "flexible tuition” for more than 20 years. The school switched terminology in large part because of parent feedback and in hopes of encouraging more middle-income families — who otherwise might feel that they would not or should not qualify for aid — to apply.

Although the school uses the term “flexible tuition,” the application is very similar to a traditional financial aid process. Families apply for flexible tuition and submit a Parent Financial Statement through SSS in January, and their current year tax returns are due in mid-February. The school’s flexible tuition committee then reviews all of the applications and determines what level of tuition a family can afford, and the school informs families of their decisions in mid-March.

The goal of the flexible tuition program is not to increase enrollment, as the school is in the fortunate position of having seven to eight applicants for every available spot, according to Jeanette Moore, LWHS’s chief financial and operations officer. Rather, flexible tuition is designed to make LWHS more affordable for middle-income families and more accessible for lower-income families.

The numbers bear this out. LWHS’s stated goal is that up to 40% of families receive flexible tuition, and 35% of currently-enrolled families do. For that group, the average tuition rate is around $15,000, or less than one-third of the $49,215 tuition for 2019-2020, with awards ranging from $2,000 to $48,500. To ensure that all students can benefit fully from the school experience, tuition is inclusive of textbooks, course materials, daily lunch, yearbook, athletic uniforms, co-curricular activities and grade level retreats. Flexible tuition students also receive funding for public transportation, laptops and other support services as needed.

 Achieving the goal of 40% of students on flexible tuition while still maintaining financial viability is a core part of our board and finance committee discussions.

Jeanette Moore
Lick-Wilmerding High School

Approximately one half of new applicant families apply for flexible tuition annually. For the 2019-2020 school year, 37% of the incoming freshman are enrolled in the program; in addition, 137 returning families applied for flexible tuition, with 127 qualifying.

The flexible tuition program accounts for 28% of the school’s operating budget, with a total cost of around $6.5 million for the 2019-2020 school year. “This does create some welcome tension in our financial model,” Moore said. “Achieving the goal of 40% of students on flexible tuition while still maintaining financial viability is a core part of our board and finance committee discussions.” Flexible tuition, with its goals of accessibility and affordability, “is a major focus of our philanthropic giving,” she added. But with an annual endowment draw of $2.2 million and an annual fund of around $1.7 million, philanthropy alone does not cover the cost of the program. Because of the key role that flexible tuition now plays in supporting LWHS’s mission, “we think of the remainder as an operating cost, and we need to limit other spending to make it happen,” Moore explained. 

Christopher Portman is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois. He formerly directed communications at the Frances Xavier Warde School and the Avery Coonley School, both in the Chicago area.



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