Variable Tuition Leads to 10% Growth at Fredericksburg Christian

In May 2013, Rick Yost, Superintendent of Fredericksburg Christian Schools (VA), reached out to me. His school had experienced steady enrollment decline since a high of 1,299 students in 2005-06 to their low of 781 in 2013-14.

As I began working with Rick and his team, we implemented an intensive marketing and enrollment plan. A few months later, I introduced them to the concept of Variable Tuition. Previously, I had had success in helping Indian Rocks Christian School implement this new strategy, which resulted in a student enrollment turnaround and increase of 100 students. Read more in my blog post on Variable Tuition and IRCS.

Through several discussions, including a visit to Florida from their team, they decided to implement Variable Tuition. The result was a dramatic enrollment turnaround and 10% growth the following year. Now, in their second year of implementing this strategy, projections for 2015-16 are for continued growth.

Recently, I asked Rick and his marketing coordinator, Suzie Medina, to answer some important questions about Variable Tuition in this blog post.

What is variable tuition?

“Variable Tuition is a need-based financial aid structure similar to those used by other private schools, and many colleges and universities. Any family in need of assistance may apply for a tuition discount for their family. Actually, financial aid is not real money at our school, and is truly a discount. The concept of variable tuition fits better since it is an adjustment of tuition to match the financial situation of the family. Variable Tuition is a more accurate way to describe financial aid.”

What motivated you to make the change from traditional financial aid to variable tuition?

“Since 2008, our school had seen a steady decline in enrollment, and we realized that we had to do something different. We had heard from Rick Newberry, of a school in Florida that had begun a Variable Tuition program that had given the school positive jump in enrollment. Upon visiting the school and gleaning some information, we essentially learned that the program didn’t differ too much from what we were doing but that it was a new way to market the program.”

How does variable tuition practically work?

“As noted above, for us, Variable Tuition didn’t look that different than what we were already doing. Essentially, it was a new way to market what we were already doing. The biggest difference to us was that we gave our financial aid a much larger budget. And the reason we felt that we could increase that budget is because we would be filling empty seats; thereby helping to cover the expenses of each classroom (predominantly, payroll) by adding tuition dollars.

We use FACTS Grant and Aid to manage our financial aid applications. Along with those applications, we request that applicants provide a cover letter that explains their situation and request for tuition assistance. Many factors including income, family circumstances and the cost of living in our region are taken into consideration when the application is reviewed.

From there, our committee reviews the report from FACTS and the cover letters to determine the variable tuition award that will be given. Then, the family is mailed a letter with this information.”

How did you roll this out to your school community and what was their response?

“We introduced our school community to Variable Tuition through our first ever, State of the School address, which was recorded. We invited parents to a weekday evening event where we gave them information on the status of the school and the direction going forward. It was fairly well attended, but for those who could not attend, we emailed out the video of the event. From there, we asked them to spread the word to families they knew.

Overall, our parents responded very positively. Many were excited to tell their friends who thought they would never be able to send their children to a private Christian school, about our ‘new’ program. It gave them a talking point to be able to comfortably bring us up in conversation.”

How did you market this to prospective families?

“Quite honestly, the most effective way the word was spread was by our school parents. They love our school and it gave them something to talk about with their friends. It also gave them the opportunity to invite friends to an open house.

We also, via email, contacted alumni, parents of alumni, grandparents, and inquiries about our “new” financial assistance program. We did some social media advertising and very limited print advertising where Variable Tuition became our main message. We focused on the themes, ‘Think you can’t afford a private, Christian education for your child?……….Think again’; and, ‘Variable Tuition allows us to match tuition to YOUR family’s income.’ Both were very effective.”

What was the response and how did this help to fuel your enrollment growth? What were the results?

“The response was incredible and much more than we anticipated. Mid-way through the process, we raised our Variable Tuition budget to meet the demand.

Overall, our enrollment increased by 10%. We were thrilled with the results and will begin reviewing our first round of Variable Tuition applications in March.”

Is there any advice that you would offer school leaders considering variable tuition?

“1.  Do not look at Variable Tuition (or whatever your school names it) as “just more financial aid”, because it’s not.

2.  The reluctant Board of Directors should see Variable Tuition as an ongoing, sustainable tool for recruitment and retention. You simply need to control it as you would every other part of the school’s budget.

3.  Have you longed to tell the story of your great school to more families in your community? Variable Tuition is a GREAT way to do that.”

Rick and Suzie, thank you for your responses about Variable Tuition. Based on recent conversations, their enrollment is on a continued path for another year of growth in 2015-16. We will look forward to hearing about your results.

For more information on the Variable Tuition Program at Fredericksburg Christian School, please visit their website.

Is Variable Tuition a strategy that might be right for your school?