Each weekday morning, single mom Cynthia Gamez drops off three of her five kids at St. Elizabeth’s School, a private K-8 school in east Denver, where full-price tuition runs around $17,000 per year. She then heads to school herself where she’s getting an associate’s degree in human resources, and then to her job doing payroll for a transportation company. Because St. Elizabeth’s sliding scale tuition takes into account an entire household’s financial situation and adjusts the amount of tuition accordingly, Gamez is able to afford a good education at a school she knows her kids love. “I don’t own a home or have a lot of money in the bank, so what I’m going to leave my children is education,” she says.
St. Elizabeth’s is one of several Colorado schools using the sliding scale model of payment—a system that’s been used in a variety of settings including healthcare and behavioral therapy. In education, sliding scale tuition is an alternative to financial aid, loans, grants, or scholarships. The ability for schools and programs to offer reduced-price tuition typically comes from donations, tuition, and, in some cases, tax payers.
“The sliding scale concept…was predicated on the idea that a family’s financial commitment should be in equitable proportion to its economic resources,” explains Roger Mintz, interim director of finance for The Manhattan Country School (MCS), a school on New York’s Upper West Side, on which St. Elizabeth’s was modeled.
MCS was founded on the tuition model with the goal of building a school that is truly economically and racially mixed: Statistics from the school’s enrollment show that 65 percent of MCS is made up of students of color, including many notable alumni who are impacting society in their respective fields.
“Financial aid, scholarships, etc., are labels used that identify students with ‘less than’—in this case, less resources than are needed to pay the tuition,” Mintz says. The sliding-scale tuition model, he says, eliminates the need to apply labels to any student based upon the amount of tuition their family pays.
It’s a system with the potential to build more equitable experiences for kids, starting in early childhood, and create school cultures where diversity is both the norm and a creative advantage.
A Sliding Scale Culture
The goal at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal K-8 independent school (meaning, it is not funded by a religious organization but instead by outside funders and tuition), is to ensure that every class has students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. One third of families pay full or close to full tuition, one third fall in the middle income range, and one third typically qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. About 80 percent of St. Elizabeth’s families are on some type of reduced tuition—some paying as little as $550 per year. During re-enrollment, the school reassesses everyone’s financial situation.
“It’s not a perfect science,” says Diane Grove, director of admissions at St. Elizabeth’s. “We start with the data point of a family’s total adjusted gross income from their most recently submitted income taxes. If something has changed like someone lost a job, they’re supporting a family member, incurred medical expenses—anything that falls above and beyond normal household operation expenses, we can take into account.”
A family’s enrollment in the school remains secure regardless of whether their finances improve or not. “Though our hope is that their financial situation gets better over the years,” says Grove. Families’ level of assistance and financial situation is never known to others. Uniforms take away “wardrobe privilege,” as Grove puts it, and no one can tell who is receiving free, reduced price, or full price lunches.
Opportunities to implement sliding scale tuition start early in a child’s education. According to Bill Jaeger, vice president of Early Childhood and Policy Initiatives for Colorado Children’s Campaign, only about half of all Colorado children between the ages of three and four attend preschool of any type.
The Denver Preschool Program (DPP), funded through a city tax initiative that voters renew or deny every 10 years, provides sliding scale tuition to families who apply for children ages three and four. Parents can choose from one of 260 quality preschool providers in Denver.
DPP’s application process starts by looking at a family’s income, how many people are in the household, the quality of the program the family is interested in, and the number of hours they want to attend each week.
“We’re a universal program, so one of the important things about the tuition scale is that all families qualify at different levels—regardless of income, every child can get access,” says Elsa Holguín, DPP president and CEO. “Our scale can go as low as [offering] $60 per month to a higher income family to $1,000 per month to families in the lowest income tiers attending the highest quality [program] levels.”
Advantages of a Diverse Population
Besides increasing educational opportunities, sliding scale tuition provides a range of diversity, and all that goes with it, to the student body.
“Our commitment [at St. Elizabeth’s] isn’t just to a broad base of socioeconomic backgrounds, but we’re committed to having a diversity of race, ethnicity, family culture, and faith, and we celebrate what everyone brings to the table,” says Grove. “Given that these children and families develop really close relationships with classmates who may live in a world that’s very different from theirs at home, we want to make sure that whatever represents ‘different’ in [their] mind is not scary—it’s beautiful and accepted.”
Grove adds that having a diversity of friendships helps students prepare for the workplace and the rest of their lives. “When, from a very young age, you are in friendship with people who struggle with something you don’t, or are part of something you’re not, or believe something you don’t, conversations about equity are no longer academic—they’re about my best friend. It becomes very real to you—it’s lived instead of just discussed.”
The Future of Sliding Scale
The passing of Proposition EE last November set Colorado on the path to make universal, part-day preschool available for all children. “Making programs free is a more substantial public investment than doing what sliding scale is, which is a cost-sharing strategy to say families pay some and the public pays some,” Jaeger says.
However, he sees sliding scale as a helper to a system that still needs work. “If well-structured, sliding scale tuition can be a way we extend what may be limited resources further, to be able to serve all families in a way that helps them achieve equitable opportunities for their children. For the schools, it can allow them to lower barriers to access for families that might not otherwise be able to afford opportunities.”
Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor.