Three weeks ago, a message from the finance committee announced that next year’s full tuition would be $57,000, a $4000 increase from this past year. Almost immediately, parents wrote to the board and to the finance committee, expressing concerns. Some people merely wanted to know what this increase would cover, most people were writing to know what the annually increasing tuition would mean for the culture, philosophy, and community of the school.
Following their initial announcement, the finance committee released an FAQ and held an hour-long zoom meeting to explain its justification for the increase. In an interview, Tom Geniesse, a parent and the head of the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees, explained that, contrary to popular belief, “the tuition increase for next year is not intended to pay for this year’s additional costs.” Instead, the increase is meant to allow for a sense of stability in finances during the 2021-2022 school year.
Mr. Geniesse further clarified, “the school is just trying to pay for its operations, and having a modest surplus each year is what every nonprofit institution tries to do. And the reason is that if you lose money every year, you have to figure out how to pay for that. You have to find a source of funds.”
In their original letter, the committee explained its justification, believing that the increase upheld the school’s mission. Olivia Douglas, the head of the Board, wrote, “The Board approved next year’s tuition increase only after thorough consideration of all other options—after having scrubbed the budget for savings and, where we had flexibility, keeping expense increases to a minimum.”
It appears that for most parents, the successful organization of finances was not the topic of debate. Rather, the “cosmic questions,” as Mr. Geniesse refers to them, are the cause for concern. As Andy Bragen, alumni and current parent at the school, said, “I don’t question [the board’s] math in terms of all of that. What I do question is again the larger approach.”
A common topic of discussion amidst any change in tuition is the barbell effect, a phenomenon in which only extremely wealthy or heavily aided students are able to attend a school, leaving middle-income students behind. Mr. Bragen voiced his concern in a letter addressed to Ms. Douglas and Mr. Geniesse.
He wrote that the increasing tuition “is creating two classes of families: those with significant resources who can easily afford that tuition, and those who are there on scholarship.”
When discussing this exact question, Mr. Geniesse and Ms. Douglas had the same answer. Ms. Douglas answered in an interview with the Gazette that, “one of the ways in which we have tried to address that tendency is through financial aid at many different levels. So not just a full award of full tuition, but partial tuition grants and that allows us to attract families across the income spectrum.”
Still, Mr. Bragen explained that the community has changed, seemingly in part due to the continued increase. He wrote, “Grace is a very different school than the one I went to in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and while that may be unavoidable, a tuition at that level risks squeezing out what’s left of the professional classes who made up the bulk of the families when I was there.”
When discussing the Board’s reasoning, Mr. Bragen, who currently has a student at the school receiving financial aid, explained that “a $57,000 tuition would have meant that my parents wouldn’t have looked at the school certainly.”
His concern was accompanied by a great love for the school and the time he spent at Grace as a student. He said “There’s been some amazing growth in the school,” referencing work done in and by the community on admissions, financial aid, and race, “but knowing who the students were [when he was a student], there was a sort of larger what we’ll call a middle-class.”
For many parents and students, after exploring the idea of the barbell effect, many other questions about the culture and future of the school arose. Does the culture of the school suffer when so much money is involved? Mr. Bragen, along with other parents polled, wondered about this same question.
In his letter, he wrote that he “worr[ies] that the school’s current tuition gives too much power to money, and that this culture of money puts at risk Grace’s professed culture and community values, threatening to overwhelm and supersede them. I worry that it contributes to a growing customer service mentality from the parents and from the school as a whole. Parents become ever more obsessed with getting value for their money, and teachers and administration are forced to spend ever more time placating and pleasing.”
These questions, among other concerns, have been debated and discussed among many members of the community for the past few weeks.
Mr. Bragen commented, “[the board] can always build a logical argument for something, but if the results are so inimical to the school you want to create and so different from what perhaps the professed values at the school as connected to the Episcopal church are as well…I think there are bigger questions to ask.”
The Board has addressed that they too do not have the answers to these “bigger questions.” However, its leaders have stated that there is a concern and reverence on the board towards solving these puzzles.
Ms. Douglas explained that a new committee called the Institutional Culture Committee (ICC) is dedicated to ensuring the professed culture of the school remains intact. Concerns, like Mr. Bragen’s concerns about money becoming a bigger part of the school’s culture, fall under the duties of the committee. The ICC along with the Long Range Planning Committee were specifically created to tackle many of the aforementioned questions.
Ms. Douglas also emphasized the importance of diversity in making these decisions and looking toward the future. “Diversity of all kinds is really important at grace, on the board, and on the committees too. One of the things some people ask is, why is the board so big? One of the reasons is because we want to reflect our community on the board.”
Both Ms. Douglas and Mr. Geniesse assured that these committees have dedicated members with a range of socio-economic status.
Despite the differing perspectives, everyone seemed to share in their concern and care for the school and its community.. When asked if foregoing the cost of hybrid learning had ever been an option, Mr. Geniesse replied, “Our priorities are students. Our priority is to have an in-person learning experience because we know that’s better and let’s figure out what we can do to make that happen and make it happen safely.”
Ms. Douglas echoed this sentiment when explaining that the ICC is meant to be “a standing committee that will always be asking ourselves if we’re living up to our mission…our mission and our commitment to our families and our students.”
Mr. Bragen closed our interview by saying that “as a member of the Grace community, I feel deeply invested in the school’s present and future in some ways it forms me. That community has been formative for me. Those alum who are communicating are trying to sort of protect what we feel are the core values of the school.”
Based on the level of participation in this discussion, it seems that much of the community is in agreement; $57,000 is an enormous sum. In the next two years, a $60,000 tuition will be a reality. Grace seems to be at a crossroads with two priorities at odds; preserving those core values, and retaining important aspects of the students’ education. To achieve both is going to take a lot of work – and a lot of commitment from the community.
Banner Illustration by Evelyn Ward ’21