“Diversity” in most industries, including independent schools, is synonymous with race and ethnicity. Even with the acknowledgement of the different forms of diversity through cultural identifiers; age, ability, gender, family structure, racial/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc., the world often defaults to race and ethnicity. In the majority of our school communities, this is no different. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice, and Belonging (DEIJB) continues to trend in the world around us and has shifted from a buzz word to an action word in our school communities. While devastating and tragic, the loss of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 instigated the rise of the Black@ Movement that documented age-old stories of how students and alums of color were made to feel less than within the privileged walls of independent schools. Schools were forced to answer some difficult questions from their current and prospective students, parents/guardians, faculty, staff, and alums, and in most cases responded with lofty statements making promises of ways that they would invest in DEIJB initiatives. This was eye-opening for schools because between the testimonies via Black@ accounts and the tough questions they were receiving about their efforts, many started to realize that not only had DEIJB become a table stake, but it is also all encompassing.
The focus of this post is financial aid in our schools through a DEIJB lens. Independent schools have leveraged financial aid budgets as an enrollment tool to increase “diversity” in our communities, namely racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversities. These efforts have increased access to families who would otherwise be unable to make independent school education a reality. While schools have increased access in many ways, barriers in the financial aid application process still exist, as eloquently highlighted by Clarity CEO Brennan Stark in his most recent article.
In addition to continuing to reduce the barriers in the way of accessibility, our schools need to also prioritize reducing the barriers that are standing in the way of inclusivity and belonging. The truth is, accessibility is only half the battle because tuition is just the tip of the iceberg. Once a student has been admitted, the journey of belonging begins. There are many ways that students from marginalized backgrounds are reminded that they are mere guests within these privileged communities; not seeing themselves reflected in the Board of Trustees, administration, faculty, and staff; policies; activities; curriculum; food; pictures around campus, etc. On average, tuition only covers educating a student for approximately 60% of the academic year. Hidden costs vary from school to school, day to boarding, and include, but is not limited to books, laptop, lunch, athletic gear, team swag, weekend activities, testing (national exams, AP, IB, etc.), prom, international trips, SAT/ACT prep, and the list goes on. Not being able to participate in experiences that are essential to the student experience at the school is just another one of those reminders that these schools were not established with accessibility in mind.
Schools can begin to mitigate the barriers preventing inclusivity and belonging by creating financial aid philosophies that support students beyond the cost of tuition. Easier said than done with fixed financial aid budgets, unless you are a school that has what feels like an unlimited endowment. However, I have seen it done at schools with average endowments, so I know that it is possible. It requires some internal research at your school, partnering with your Chief Financial Officer, a paradigm shift and getting creative with the budget by putting structures and scaffolding in place. First, do an audit of the school by soliciting each department within your school (i.e. academic disciplines, athletics, arts, dean’s office, college counseling, etc.) to identify all of the hidden costs. Once you have that figure, begin to include it into your financial aid calculations to discount the families by that amount, so that after tuition they can account for those expenses; or create a financial aid structure that will allow the family to automatically be charged the amount after the percentage of financial aid they receive towards tuition. The automatic piece is key because this reduces the amount of asks families receiving financial aid must humble themselves to make to the school. While shifting financial aid processes and philosophies to mirror the institution’s commitment to DEIJB is not the easiest to do, simply put, it is the right thing to do.