What's the True Cost of Attending Your School?

What's the True Cost of Attending Your School?

by Margaret Hardy and Tearon Joseph

In 2013, as part of Lakeside School’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, we led a project on the true cost of attendance in order to gain an understanding of whether our school was accessible and affordable for all families, particularly those receiving financial aid.

To do this, we tracked and coded charges from 10-15 individual student accounts at each grade level. With data from our business office, we also looked at average, high, and low fees from labs, textbooks, athletics, arts, and food services. This was no small task, but one that we believe every school can do, even with limited resources. The results were invaluable.

We discovered that many required components of our program—such as field trips, science goggles, class retreats, etc.—were charged individually to student accounts, often requiring no prior approval. Also, students who had more interests participated in more, and therefore had higher costs above tuition. Imagine: the students you want most to enroll and support your programs are, quite literally, paying for it!

Students are also more aware of these issues than we realize. One told us she would wait until late in the day to buy lunch, when prices were lowered. Another said students avoided enrolling in certain art classes because the studio fees were too high. Others mentioned avoiding specific sports and activities for fear of what unexpected costs would arise. Students were intentionally missing out on the depth and breadth of our program to avoid these expenses.

With this information, Lakeside committed to incorporating all costs of required classes and activities into tuition to ensure every student has equal access and opportunity. Because we are now better tracking other costs (such as books, athletics fees, and lunch purchases), financial aid can be more easily applied to cover them, and families can better budget for them.

Reflecting on what we learned through our access and affordability initiative, we recommend enrollment managers consider the following as they look to create more equitable and inclusive communities:

  1. Partner with your business office and school directors/department heads to research all costs beyond tuition, designating what is required for full participation. Evaluate what can be absorbed into tuition or department budgets and what must remain as separate charges.
  2. Be transparent. List expected costs above tuition on your website and in printed materials. Just like our offices, families don’t like surprises. They make important financial decisions based on the information we provide. If you know of common additional charges, communicate them clearly and before enrollment.
  3. Advertise the average tuition for financial aid recipients, rather than the average award. While schools may focus on how much aid they distribute, families want to know one thing: how much they will pay. Highlighting the average family contribution can help show how aid makes your school a more affordable option.
  4. Review the language your school uses in conversation and in publications. Avoid phrases like “financial aid students”; instead, use “financial aid recipients” or “students receiving financial aid.” The former can make students and families feel as though they aren’t full members of your community. It creates an inescapable fixed identity for the student, especially because awards are not static.
  5. Lead focus groups or send anonymous surveys to gather feedback on how your school is (or isn’t) inclusive of those who receive aid—in practice and in impression. Consider parents/guardians receiving aid as active partners and participants.
  6. Decrease the number of times families must inquire if aid is available for non-tuition expenses. It can feel uncomfortable to continually ask a school for financial assistance. Help relieve that burden by being proactive.
  7. Partner with the business office to look for ways to streamline the billing and aid process. With advance notice of known upcoming charges and scheduled payments, you will reduce workload and help families with their own budgeting.
  8. Educate your faculty on the financial aid policies of your school and why some student information is confidential. Faculty should also be sensitive to all charges associated with their classes/programs. Even if a student doesn’t receive aid, it doesn’t necessarily mean their family can comfortably pay for additional costs.
  9. Ask the development office to evaluate how often families are asked to contribute financially, to an annual fund or otherwise. Schools interested in reaching 100% participation should find ways to encourage all levels of family contribution.

As schools increasingly look to diversify their student enrollment, it is important that we also do the necessary work to create an inclusive environment for all families. Regardless of the constraints and realities of your financial aid budget and policies, families receiving aid should always be made to feel as though they, too, have equal right to your school’s educational opportunities.

Tearon Joseph is the financial aid programs director and associate director of admissions, and Margaret Hardy is the associate director of admissions and outreach at Lakeside School (WA).

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