Under the microscope: Affordability

There are two ways to tell this story. The first is familiar: a group of immigrants from the Netherlands’ Reformed churches come to Canada. The year is 1951. They know in their bones that “It’s a troublesome world. All the people who’re in it / are troubled by troubles almost every minute” (as Dr. Seuss says). Yet they also know that God created and sustains this troublesome world (as Hebrews says). They want to pass that knowledge on; they need a place where kids see the Creator and serve him in everything they do. They raise funds, buy land, build and begin. “Priority” isn’t a strong enough word to convey their passion for independent Christian schools.

Nearly 60 years later, most of these schools still exist across Canada. Thousands of people are just as committed to the vision for Christ-centred education as those post-war immigrants. Some Christian schools receive government funding; many have expanded to include families from a wide variety of denominations. And an understanding that this kind of commitment requires sacrifice has been passed down from generation to generation like a baton. Christian education didn’t make financial sense for my grandparents; it didn’t look possible based on my parents’ budget, and if you want to examine our family’s income/expense sheet, the math makes zero sense. Nevertheless, none of us would change a thing. You can’t really measure Christian values in hard currency.

So let me say right here that numbers don’t tell the whole story. I skim over statistics myself. But I have been wondering, lately, what story Christian school tuition numbers would tell, if given the chance. So I collected a few.

When my mom was a Grade Two kid in 1957, the local Christian school had just opened. Tuition was $1.50 a week per family. When I was a Grade Two kid in 1987, tuition had risen to $4,200 a year.

Now it’s 2015, and we have a daughter in Grade Two. Tuition is over $11,000.

The occasional kitchen table conversation with friends gets honest: how are you managing? Some of us are close to desperate: unable to afford new socks, gratefully accepting financial aid, leaving unpaid bills in God’s hands and praying for a miracle. Wonderful examples of provision flourish in this kind of space – I could share some. Which would be another (important) way of telling the same story.

But a different conversation is happening on top of this. It has a few refrains: “Young families today have the wrong priorities.” “You want new cars and resort vacations – things your grandparents never had.” “If you learned how to budget and/or sacrifice, Christian school tuition would be manageable.”

Until recently, I would have agreed. Besides the fact that my group of friends includes families that can barely afford to go camping, I thought the problem was with my generation’s standard of living. But after gathering some data, I wonder if that’s true.

Upward trend     
Costs have gone up, but so has household income. Therefore Christian education has been equally accessible over time, right? Given enough determination?

In 1960, parents paid $200 per year for tuition (including busing), and made an average of $3,940 per year. That means tuition was roughly five percent of income. In 1990, tuition was $4,400 per family, approximately eight percent when the yearly household income was $57,400. Today, the average cost of sending two children to one Christian school (in a province that does not receive government funding) is $11,725. For households with a total income of $62,000, tuition takes up 19 percent.*

Wiser minds than mine need to examine this trajectory more closely. Why the increase? Is it because it’s more expensive to run a good school nowadays, that there is less community support or that we earn less, adjusted for inflation, than our grandparents did? I’m sure there’s a multitude of factors I’m missing. But as a parent, writing out tuition cheques, I’d like to challenge the accepted rhetoric here. Maybe some members of my generation do insist on new cars and resort vacations. But a larger group may be having a genuinely hard time with Christian school tuition that has nothing to do with mixed up priorities or a lack of willingness to sacrifice. Can members of the middle class still make this work?

I hope so, because the world, troublesome as ever, needs Christian school graduates as much as ever, seeking and serving the Creator in everything they do.

*A note on research methods: The tuition amount from 1960 is the average of two sample schools; the amount from 1990 is the average of three sample schools, and the current rate is the average of eight sample schools in two provinces that do not receive government funding. In each case the rate applies to a family with two children in one elementary school also making use of busing. In most cases three or more children wouldn’t increase that amount.
The income data comes directly from Statistics Canada based on a request for information submitted by Christian Courier. The 1960 figure is an average taken from the Canada Year Book. The 1990 amount represents median earnings from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics. The recent number is taken from the Canadian Income Survey – again, the median across Canada per household (2012). All of these numbers are unadjusted for inflation.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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