What we’re learning from removing the tuition barrier

I shared this story live with the members of ECMN’s Elected Bodies on Saturday, April 10, 2021. You can find video of that presentation when we post it here.

Before Emilia Allen moved into the Missioner for Communications position, she and I worked together closely on administration for the School for Formation for 3 years. Each year, we struggled with questions about money: how much is the right amount to charge for a course so that we signal that this learning is valuable? How much do we need to cover our costs, and to what degree can we subsidize? Is it more important to make the cost per course a stretch to indicate the seriousness and quality of our course offerings, to ask students to, as the saying goes, “have some skin in the game,” or are our tuition rates a deterrent to those who might be interested but might not have the spare cash? 

We had in place a scholarship program for those in formation, in which faith communities would contribute the cost of some courses, but that program was perennially confusing and poorly-administered, and we kept hearing from folks that the tuition was a barrier.

We really wanted to try using a gift economy, one where the currency of learning and the currency of money flowed as gifts rather than as charges. Our first step was to offer the first course free to those interested in taking a SFF course. It was a small simple experiment, and after a few seasons of running it we saw clearly that having the option to take a course without paying increased our enrollment. That was great – but – it also added to the back-end administration and made a complicated registration system even more complicated. Two steps forward, one step back.

Last March when the pandemic started, it became clear that we would not be meeting in person in the fall, we decided to push the next step in the experiment. We’d always hoped to take away the tuition barrier entirely, and now we saw that people were going to be stuck at home with fewer dollars to spend, and this seemed like the perfect time to offer something to help people get through quarantine. So for this whole program year, we made registration for SFF courses free for everyone. We asked folks to donate what they could, but held no expectation that anyone would pay. We continued to pay our instructors at their same rate.

Here’s what we learned from this experiment:

Enrollment went up. Our average class size jumped from 7 students in the spring to 9 students in the fall. Compared that with the fall of 2019, when we offered those same courses and our average class size was between 4-5 students. 

And, our donations went up–by a factor of about 1/3 – compared to what we had been bringing in through tuition.

We moved to a gift economy, we removed the barrier of tuition along with the barrier of geographic meetings, and we found that enrollment AND income increased.

We’re so stoked about this. And, we know that we’re comparing apples to oranges.

There are a couple of factors that may be in play:

 – a sudden abundance of unasked for free time when the pandemic hit

– a newfound comfort with online learning

– a desire for connection and deepening that may wane as time goes on

– stimulus checks

But, whatever shakes out in our post-pandemic world, we gave a gift of abundance, and we received abundance in return. Going forward, this experiment and its early results gives us a lot of courage to trust the path of generosity, to trust that there is enough when we try to better serve our faith communities, and that God and our neighbors will provide.

This coming fall, we plan to continue having our courses offer several shorter zoom calls rather than in-person meetings on location. Most of our courses will continue with the no-tuition-required registration as well. Those that we offer in partnership with CDSP will direct students to register directly with CDSP, and we can help defray some of those fees if needed. We’re excited to continue this experiment, to continue learning, to continue evolving to best serve ECMN’s congregations and people.