Monday, July 11, 2011

the economics of orthodoxy

Yesterday one of my daughters was looking at the price of camps and even she, who has a teenager's sense of economy, was amazed at the price tags of some of the more well known "modern orthodox" (I don't like to use labels, but I don't have any pejorative meaning in mind here) camps. When you add up $22,000 in tuition, which is what some of the modern schools in my neck of the woods are charging, and another $8000+ in camp costs, you have blown through $30,000 before you even clothe and feed your teenager. How can people afford this? It boggles my mind. Maybe I should credit the modern orthodox community for their ideological commitment in being moseir nefesh to send to their own schools and camps that cost far in excess of what comparables in the "yeshiva world" cost. Even on the smaller scale of day camp, my youngest (10 years old) is attending a camp that costs less than $1000 for the entire summer while a neighbor sends to a summer day camp run by a modern school that charges $3000 a summer. I guess if you can afford it, why not, but I really don't see how a little kid's summer enjoyment is worth treble the price.

Of course, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. My son's yeshiva, for example, costs far less than a typical modern Hebrew academy style high school, but it does not offer a foreign language class; there is no art class; there is no music class; there is no mandatory gym period; there are only a few AP classes (which is a notch above most "yeshivishe" places that offer none). He will in all likelihood never be accepted to Harvard without those extras, but he has no aspiration to go to college, much less an Ivy league school. He has an adequate education (English, math, history, science) to attend CUNY or some other mid-tier school if he desires, and for us, that's good enough. The trade off (which we are happy making) is that his learning is far above and beyond the level that he would have gotten out of any modern orthodox high school program.

But what do those extras really get you? In June I remember reading in some of the local papers the list of college programs some of the modern yeshivos were advertising that their graduates would be attending, and there were lots of CUNY and SUNY names in the mix. Don't get me wrong -- I think you can get a perfectly good education at a city or state university, but you can also get into those schools without three years of French and without being able to recognize a Beethovan symphony. What's the point of paying tens of thousands of dollars more than your "yeshivishe" neighbor to send your kid to a high school that offers a "better" secular education if your kid ends up in Queens or Brooklyn College or even YU? And please don't tell me it's all lishma, knowledge for it's own sake -- you can get that at the public library.

The yeshiva world has its own economic problems -- it's ludicrous to think that everyone can learn in kollel
for extended periods of time with no one paying the price -- but the grass is economically no greener on the side of the fence.


  1. You wrote, “[My son] will in all likelihood never be accepted to Harvard without those extras”.

    Not necessarily. I was accepted to Cooper Union, and did fairly well there, from a “yeshivish” high-school education. The work needed to get an “honors” Regent’s diploma, and self-study toward the SAT & relevant SAT-IIs will get you into many top schools.

  2. Having worked at both an Agudah and MO/DL camp, let me explain the reasons I saw at these two places for the difference in price.

    At the MO camp, which was triple the price, there was a full range of activities. Down at the waterfront there were swimming, canoeing, and sailing lessons. There was a functioning arts & crafts program. There were music lessons for those who wanted. All this in addition to daily shiurim. In addition, the counsellors were paid a decent wage and there was a small support staff of "camp moms" for kids having difficulties.

    At the Agudah camp, the water activities consisted of an hour a day of running around on the beach and jumping into the water. There were no lessons. There were canoes and kayaks but you had to figure out how to use them yourself. The only supervision of any kind was a solitary lifeguard. The arts & crafts building was open only during the girls' session but locked up tight when the boys were there. The only activities offered outside of that 1 hour on the waterfront were sports. If you weren't learning you were sent to the sports field. Music lessions? Hah. That was it for their day. The counsellors were not paid anything but instead were offered a high school credit for working the summer. As for food, the kids were expected to bring their own breakfast cereals. The camp did provide some minimal breakfast but most kids heeded the warning. That's how they kept costs down.

    As for the frills, you're right that there's the library but left to their own 99% of kids will never go there. The point of the arts part of a curriculum is to take the kid who's only interested in sports and show him some other beautiful things that he might not otherwise come in contact with.

  3. I hear what you are saying re: camp - and I guess people just pay for what they want/can afford. I will say that when we were kids it seemed like "everyone" went to camp for 2 months and now it is much more prevelant to only send kids for 1 month -- even in the MO world, because it just gets too expensive. Also there was the whole discussion earlier in the year if families who send to NSCY kollel or other Israel summer programs will get scholarship. So I think this issue is already impacting the MO world as well.

    Re: school, I think the discussion is very different. I went to a MO high school and learned French for 2 years and don't remember anything (and probably never learned any of it in the first place), so at least in my mind, that's not the issue. The point is that if you send your kid to a yeshivish HS, there is a significant chance that your kid will go to no college -not even SUNY or CUNY. Yes, there are kids who do go, but there are many who do not - both on the boys and girls side. And even if you as a parent want that, you are putting your kid in a difficult position to buck the trend of his peers. And even if you could force it, will you really be able to convince your child to value education/parnasa/whatever when the culture of the place where his ikar education has been, thinks otherwise?

    I recognize that what I wrote is not true of all yeshivish places but it is definitely a siginificant factor in many cases -- and I have seen numerous cases where parents have tried to send their kids to the more yeshivish place for high school, only to find (to their dismay) that their son will never go to college and leads to situations where well into his 20s, married with kids, not clear how he will earn a parnasa.

    So I think the reason here is an investment in the future (and relating to the last line of the post). That doesn't address the fundamental question of why can't the MO find a way to do it cheaper and are all of the extras necessary (I dont necessarily think all of them are) and the investment should not have to be so high -- but I think to approach your question, you have to take both a broader view and a more practical one.

    Of course in addition to all of this, there are cultural/hashkafa/educational/social reasons to send to a yeshivish versus MO school, but that is all way beyond the scope of this discussion.

  4. I once had the highly regarded founder of a seminary at my house. I asked him on what basis he sets the tuition at his seminary. He said, and I quote, "Whatever the market will bear." He was, by the way, one of Kennedy's speechwriters.

    In any case,

  5. Anonymous1:57 PM

    " can get that at the public library."

    No, you won't get the humanities or liberal arts shebeal peh, if you will. Book-learning (and educational video-watching etc.) can't suffice for a liberal education. That is not to say anything about the merits of liberal education relative to other goods, only to point out that it lies just beyond the reach of even a disciplined, wide-ranging autodidact.

  6. anon23:21 PM

    I don't begrudge well-off people their ability to spend more on things than I could or would want to. Everyone has to make his/her own personal cost/benefit analysis.

    Note, though, that, in many regions, the Jewish communities are in the affluent neighborhoods and nowhere else. Less affluent Jews who must live there are under extra financial pressure, and not only regarding summer camps.

  7. chaim b.7:24 PM

    Garnel -- I admit freely that there is a difference. The question I am asking is how people can afford $8000+ a summer for those benefits. There is a difference in quality between a Rolls Royce and my present car, but that doesn't mean I am in the market to buy a Rolls.

    Anon1, with respect to schools, I alluded to the issue you raise in my last sentence. The kollel system is not sustainable. That being said, it is possible to find less "extreme" options in the yeshiva world that allow for outlets other than learning full time, be it via a Touro degree or some other program.
    I also did not mean to suggest that one's choice of school be dictated by cost alone, as there are many other factors at play. My point was that given that some parents would, for ideological or other reasons, prefer enrolling in a modern orthodox educational system, it would behoove the leaders running that system to make it more affordable.

    >>>Book-learning (and educational video-watching etc.) can't suffice for a liberal education.

    The fact that home schooled children excel in almost every academic area would seem to prove that school has nothing to do (I would even go far as to say in some cases it is a hinderance) with real education. You know what Mark Twain said about schooling and education...

  8. chaim b.7:28 PM

    >>>"Whatever the market will bear."

    I think that's why women's shiurim cost about $10 a pop and most men's shiurim are free.

    >>>I don't begrudge well-off people their ability to spend more on things than I could or would want to.

    Either do it. The problem is when there are no other options. What if every car dealer in your neighborhood sold luxury automobiles? The fact that the rich can spend their money as they please doesn't do you much good if you are in the market to buy an economy car and have no access to one. It's not so easy to move neighborhoods, and esp. in the current economic downturn families once rich may find themselves suddenly on the other end of the spectrum.