One of the most frequently discussed issues confronting our community – and, quite likely, the most difficult hurdle plaguing our community in recent years – is the “tuition crisis.”
In order to provide the best education possible to our community’s youth, our private community schools need to charge exorbitant tuition prices. From paying their rent and maintenance costs, their teachers and their all other staff members, to purchasing every fork, spoon, and computer your child uses, the fact is it simply takes a lot of financing to fund a private school. Now, consider a typical tuition rate and multiply those fees by the number of children in a typical community family – and we arrive at a frighteningly astronomical sum required for tuition, figures that result in even many middle-class community members struggling to pay their bills. These struggles exact a heavy toll on families, often leading to marital problems, the decision to have only a small number of children, and, in some cases, parents sending their children to public schools.
It is incumbent upon us as a community to ensure that every one of our children attends and receives a yeshiva education, and is not denied it because of money. Especially in today’s day and age, when we live submerged in a society whose culture and values so drastically clash with ours, a strong Torah education must be our very highest priority. Our children are our most precious and important commodity, and we must therefore see to it that they are all enrolled in proper Jewish institutions. There is no denying that yeshiva education is the central pillar of the process of transmitting our sacred traditions to future generations.
So, what can we do to enable our yeshivot to provide the outstanding Jewish education we want for our children, without subjecting families to crippling financial strain? Can we host more bake sales? Can we approach the wealthier community members and ask them to shoulder the burden of supporting the schools?
What makes this topic so difficult to broach, and so sensitive, is that many people in the community feel they already pay more than their fair share to the schools by simply paying for their children to attend. Truth be told, they can hardly be blamed for feeling this way, given the astronomical sums being paid in tuition fees.
People throughout the community have complained about, and agonized over, this touchy subject for many years, but not much has been done in terms of devising an effective, long-term strategy. Has the time come to just give up, or is there perhaps a new paradigm that can be put into action to address and solve this ever so difficult problem?
An Initiative Eight Years in the Making
Approximately eight years ago, a group of community businessmen decided to get together and make this pressing issue their highest priority, and to brainstorm to arrive at a creative and effective means of raising money to alleviate the overwhelming financial burden of tuition. The name of the bold, revolutionary initiative they devised with is the United Children’s Education Foundation, or UCEF.
These pioneers recognized that the community’s greatest financial asset is its large number of business owners. And so, they set their sights on devising some system whereby the successful dealings of our community’s talented and experienced businessmen financially benefit the community’s educational institutions. What they came up with as an ingenious model – one with proven success – for harnessing this as-of-yet untapped goldmine of potential to tackle our community’s most pressing challenge.
Here’s how it works.
Suppose Robert owns a business, and virtually every day, he uses certain services and vendors, such as a credit card processor, a factor, or maybe an office furniture company, in order to run his business. Of course, as the expression goes, there are many fish in the sea, and a wide array of different companies are eager to get Robert’s business. As a devoted and concerned member of our community, Robert takes a moment before hiring a vendor to call UCEF, or check the organization’s website, to see the list of its participating vendors.
What is a participating vendor, and how does Robert know that the vendors on UCEF’s list are offering competitive prices?
The way it works is that UCEF arranges with its participating vendors to offer its customers a fair price for its services. If Albert can find a better price elsewhere, then he is fully entitled and expected to choose the option that best suits his business. Otherwise, if he hires a vendor through UCEF, the vendor pays the organization a royalty fee, which is then allocated towards community families’ tuition bills. The model is set up to be a “win-win-win” scenario: the vendor receives higher volume through UCEF, the business owner receives a better price on some of his business expenses; and participating community members receive deductions off their tuition bills through UCEF.
“We Have Only Scratched the Surface”
In just two years since UCEF has gone public and begun putting its plan to work, it has dispensed $750,000 towards community members’ tuition bills. Not a single dollar of these $750,000 was solicited through traditional fundraising methods. This number is expected to grow each year, with the hope and expectation that more and more community business owners will either register as a UCEF vendor or give UCEF vendors a shot at receiving their business.
“In just two years, UCEF has given out $750,000 to families who could use it, and I feel as though we have only scratched the surface,” said UCEF Executive Director Sammy Esses. “I estimate in the near future, we will be able to fund millions in tuition bills.”
UCEF emphasizes that any business done with its vendors is strictly confidential. Your business is given a number, not a name. No one on the UCEF board sees your business dealings, as your information is held solely by the vendor and never disclosed to anybody involved in UCEF. The organization considers confidentiality its highest priority also with regard to the families’ applications for grants, which are reviewed by a third party, which then informs UCEF of who qualifies.
Well aware of the broad scope of the tuition crisis, and that even families with a large income may very well be struggling to meet their tuition payments, UCEF has set standards of qualification that include many community families, including those who do not otherwise rely on charitable assistance. Two of the main qualifications are having two or more children in community yeshivot, and having a gross annual income under $350k a year. Further information and details are available at UCEF.com, under the F.A.Q. section. The website also provides information about the 2019 application period, which is planned for around February 2019.
“A Win for Everyone”
Another unique feature of the UCEF system is that it avoids the cumbersome and uncomfortable process of studying each family’s situation and arriving at a figure for a tuition reduction. Instead, UCEF simply divides its revenue evenly among all qualifying applicants. Checks are sent directly to the schools, and the parents see an automatic deduction on their tuition bill. The “take-home message” is that the more UCEF brings in each year, the more the organization can help out each qualifying family. This is why it is so vital for every community member to make a commitment to get involved in this great organization in any way he or she can.”
“Our community needs to transform future leaders, and a strong education is the engine part of our growth,” says UCEF Vice President Sam Sasson. “Our young men and women need to go to yeshivas that will offer them core family and community values, as well as a strong education. Education is important to both our kids’ personal and professional lives. The level of education is often paramount to future success and quality of life.”
Sasson then adds. “As we all have experienced in the past five years, the cost of tuition prices is hitting our families very hard. By working with UCEF, we can reduce pressure on our families. We are tapping into our buying power without burdening our costs. It’s a win for everyone.”
The vendors that are currently working with UCEF have been vigorously vetted to assure that they meet premium standards of quality, service and price. Take All-ways, for example, a freight forwarding company and the first vendor to sign on with UCEF. The company is being hailed as a driving force for UCEF, and remains the organization’s top participating vendor to date. This company’s dependability and excellent reputation set the high standard that is demanded of all current and future vendors.
“We All Need to Step Up”
“We truly want to make community schools affordable; that’s our goal,” says UCEF Executive Director Sammy Esses. “If the community understood what we were doing, we would get there, no doubt.” Esses expressed, “We all need to realize this and step up, it’s not going to cost you money or hurt you in any way, just talk to us and give our vendors a fair shot.”
Beyond the obvious benefit of the UCEF system in lowering tuition costs for community families, it also benefits community businesses by helping them find top vendors at competitive prices. Whether you’re looking for a trucking company, office supplies or any other vital service for your company, UCEF will be happy to help you find what you need. Everybody wins.
Participating vendors also benefit from the UCEF model because it essentially provides them with free advertising. Community businesses looking for a specific service know to turn to UCEF, and thus vendors on the organization’s list get automatic exposure. Even more importantly, vendors who partner with UCEF are intertwining their enterprise with one of the greatest forms of charity – making Torah education more affordable to hundreds upon hundreds of community families. This will, without doubt, bring blessing to the business. Community entrepreneurs thus get to help and receive at the same time.
UCEF has thus far dealt with 16 different participating vendors, and expects to increase that number tenfold in the coming months and years. The organization’s plan is to expand into areas such as party planning and travel. UCEF believes that it should be involved whenever money is being spent. If the organization’s scope continues to grow as expected, the tuition crisis will become a thing of the past.
UCEF encourages all community members to take a moment and visit its website, UCEF.com, browse through the list of participating vendors, and to see if perhaps they already work with one or more vendors. If so, they can simply inform the vendor of their desire to join the program. The vendor will then pay a slightly lower amount than the usual royalty, at absolutely no cost whatsoever to the customer.
Another way to get involved and help assure this novel initiative’s success is to become a UCEF Supporter, by paying an annual fee in exchange for advertising benefits in the form of email blasts and social media posts about the supporter’s business, depending on the level of sponsorship. Supporters also have the opportunity to put the UCEF logo as a stamp on their materials and in their email signature, indicating that they support this worthy cause. This marketing tool is another ingenious means of incentivizing community members to get their companies involved in advancing UCEF’s program.
“UCEF is the first ‘business model’ initiative in our community dedicated to generating profits and using those profits to defray the tuition costs directly for our families in our community,” says UCEF President Jack Albert Kassin. “Many of our community businesses have participated and found that our suppliers are very good, very competitive, and the transactions have been highly beneficial to their business,” he adds, emphasizing the success enjoyed by businesses who have utilized the UCEF system.
Kassin is proud of his organization’s accomplishments, reporting, “Over the last two years, we have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to several of our yeshivas for the direct benefit of hundreds of families. The money came right off their tuition bills.”
Reflecting on the unique benefits of the UCEF program, Kassin concludes, “This model can only be described as a ‘WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN’ model because the following participants all ‘win’ with UCEF: community businesses, UCEF, the children and families of our community, our yeshivas, and our community’s future, religion and values.”
The problem has been identified, and the solution – a proven model for success – has been put into place. The founders of UCEF say that it is now time for us to stop complaining about tuition and to start thinking how we can get involved in the solution. If we succeed in mobilizing the community and utilizing our buying power to our own advantage, we can start giving back to our hard-working community families in the name of education and the future of Torah Judaism.