by Karen Wrobbel
What does it cost to educate missionaries’ children overseas? That was one of the questions addressed by the 1998 Intermission MK Education Consultation (IMKEC).
What does it cost to educate missionaries’ children overseas? That was one of the questions addressed by the 1998 Intermission MK Education Consultation (IMKEC). While the data are neither final nor conclusive, the group’s findings are, at the very least, interesting, and they raise issues that merit consideration.
The group focused on trying to find the real cost of MK education, not just the amount covered by parents’ fees. Some of the potentially hidden costs are teacher salaries (when teachers are funded by missionary support), no or low cost use of mission buildings or other facilities, grants from mission agencies or other entities, and gift income. The group recognized that the fees missionary parents pay seldom cover the full cost of children’s education.
While it would have been easier to "let sleeping dogs lie," the IMKEC delegates believed that the study merited attention. Missions dedicate significant resources to providing education for members’ children, and mission leaders need to know whether the costs are acceptable, both to agencies and to supporting constituencies. Costs also influence (although they don’t equal) quality. Schools need to update materials, maintain facilities, etc., and they need to have sufficient resources to do this. To respond to the question of "how can missions provide a cost-effective, quality education?," data on the present costs are necessary.
THE STUDY’S SCOPE
Delegates were asked to collect data during the 1997-98 school year for presentation at the 1998 consultation. The study attempted to include obvious as well as hidden costs, and to gather the data uniformly. Three missions provided fairly uniform and complete data (New Tribes, SIM, and TEAM). Fees paid by missionary students for tuition in "MK" or international Christian schools were reported to range from U.S. $450 to $4,325 per student. The real costs (including hidden costs) at these schools ranged from $2,271 to $11,697. By comparison, a recent study pegged average U.S. costs for elementary and secondary schooling at $15,500 per pupil per year.
A report of typical tuition costs at secular international schools showed costs ranging from $5,898 (Malaysia) to $15,636 in Japan. In light of these figures, then, even the real costs at MK/international Christian schools are lower than at the typical international schools.
Costs of other options, including national and international schools and home schooling, were also reviewed. Home school materials alone may be relatively inexpensive, but when the value of the teaching parent’s time is included, home school cost per student ranged from $1,785 to $6,800.
National schools were the least expensive option, ranging from no cost to $1,529 per student. The missions’ average real cost of MK education (the average is of all options used by families in the mission, such as MK schools, national schools, and home schools) was $1,774.
This study was a first attempt to begin to get a handle on the real costs of MK education, but it is neither final nor conclusive. There are some weaknesses in the study that must be recognized. First, the data are from a limited number of agencies. Three of the six mission agencies represented at the 1997 consultation supplied uniform information, and a fourth supplied estimates. (The other two did not send representatives to the 1998 consultation.) The Association of Christian Schools, International, also reported on MK education costs for ACSI missionaries serving overseas. Representatives of six additional missions joined the 1998 consultation; in 1999, the consultation received data from one of these missions, which helps provide a broader data base upon which to base conclusions.
A second weakness is that, in spite of uniform instructions, not all data were gathered uniformly. Field cost reports varied in quality. Some people found it difficult to gather the requested data, while others found it too time consuming to report it as requested. Some grouped boarding costs with tuition, while others separated these expenses. While clear instructions were certainly the intention, apparently they were not clear enough. In spite of the limitations of the study, the delegates did feel that they could cautiously make some tentative generalizations based on the data and the discussion that followed.
MONEY AND OTHER FACTORS
First, it is clear that the financial cost is not the only relevant factor in evaluating MK educational options. The needs and desires of the student, parental desires and needs, available options, and cost all influence the selection of educational options. Just because an option costs less than another does not make it the best option. However, we also recognize the necessity of stewardship of the resources God provides, and that (real) cost must be one of the factors in the decision-making equation. The bottom line isn’t everything, but it is significant.
The data suggest that the MK education options currently in use are generally good economic values for the missionary parent. Even in cases where a "real" cost of a school was significantly higher than the actual amount paid by missionary families, the cost was still generally lower than that of secular international schools. Missionaries usually pay less for their children’s education than the real cost of providing the service, and agencies are encouraged to convey this perspective to mission families. MK education is heavily subsidized, and the major difference between real and actual cost in schools is teacher support. Teachers who raise support to teach at a mission or international Christian school provide the school and its constituent families with several advantages. One is the financial advantage, because for every dollar raised by teachers, the school saves a dollar from what it would otherwise have to budget and likely pass on to parents as additional costs. Supported teachers will also have prayer supporters who will intercede for the teacher and the school’s ministry, and mission-provided teachers may also be more connected to and involved in the broader goals of the mission agency.
Schools that use supported teachers need to stay aware of the cost of these teachers. Even if the school does not pay their expenses, their expenses are part of the cost of running the school. Supported teachers simply help spread out the fund-raising responsibilities. School leaders need to evaluate staffing practices, such as course offerings, class size, and teacher workload, with fiscal realities. Asking, "if we had to hire this person, would it be justifiable?" may help with this evaluation. If teachers were paid salaries and the costs had to be passed on to parents, would a class size of five be acceptable? Would the school be able to offer a variety of electives in a smaller high school?
SHARING THE LOAD
The delegates affirm the value of cooperation among missions in providing children’s education. Sharing the responsibility distributes economic and human resource requirements. But because of the hidden costs incurred by agencies that run or help run schools (even if indirectly, such as in teacher salaries), mission agencies should encourage schools to charge tuition and fees that are closer to the real cost to those who do not contribute economically to the school (such as by supplying teachers, capital contributions, and other services). This would include nonmission students as well as missionary students whose agencies do not contribute to a given school. In some cases, missionaries benefit from a "mission rate" without providing any resources to the school, while the mission(s) who sponsor or run the school carry the bulk of the responsibility and pay tuition that’s the same or not much lower than the rate paid by missions without responsibilities. Rates for nonmissionary students are usually higher than missionary rates, but are generally still lower than other educational options such as international schools. While charging costs equivalent to international schools may not always be justified (for example, because of limited facilities), schools do need to charge a fair market value for the services they provide.
Larger schools tend to be more cost effective (in terms of the real cost) than smaller ones, especially at the high school level. Small classes are great for individualized attention, but they also have a higher per-pupil cost when teacher salaries are factored in. With a high school program, courses at various levels and appropriate electives are desirable, but in the smaller school, offering course variety means that class sizes will be very small, which raises the per-student cost. Greater cooperation in providing educational delivery systems can help reduce some of these costs.
Running a school alone seems to be more expensive (in terms of money, resources, and personnel) for a mission agency compared to multimission sponsorship. The sponsoring agency in a single-mission run school carries the greatest recruitment responsibility, as well as the lion’s share of the teachers’ salary expense. (Even if teachers raise their own funds, those funds are still technically funds of the sending agency.) However, there can be challenges in decision-making, ownership issues, teacher recruitment, etc., in a multimission school (compared to a single mission school).
Although home schooling may seem to be a less expensive option, this is not always true when the value of the teaching parents’ time is factored in. We recognize that cost is not the only, nor even the most important, factor in selecting an educational option. However, home schooling does take several hours a day, and the teaching parent could potentially spend these hours in ministry outside the home if the child were enrolled in a school. That means, then, according to the IMKEC’s calculations, that a percentage of the parents’ salary needs to be considered a schooling cost. (The study considered half of the salary as the father’s and the other half as the mother’s. Therefore, if it costs $30,000 per year to keep the family overseas, and estimating that the mother spends half of her time teaching the children, then one quarter of their salary, or $7,500, is an education cost. )
The delegates recognized that not every mother would be involved in full-time ministry outside the home even if she weren’t home schooling. They also recognized that some would argue that none of the salary is a schooling cost, because the entire salary is paid to the husband, and it’s the mother who does the home schooling. Practices and expectations differ among agencies; but the IMKEC study sought some degree of uniformity and, therefore, calculated the costs in this way. Thus, from an agency viewpoint, if several families are home schooling, with one parent from each family dedicating several hours a day to teaching, supplying one teacher could be a more cost-effective means of meeting educational needs, other factors being equal.
Mission agencies are committed to providing quality member care, including appropriate options for children’s education. They are also faced with fiscal realities and responsibility to constituents. Balancing these factors is a significant challenge. I believe this cost study will help mission agencies, schools, and other service providers find this delicate balance.
The Intermission MK Education Consultation is an annual forum of mission agencies for networking and strategizing about MK educational matters. Mission representatives with MK education responsibilities are invited to attend, and representatives of MK education service organizations and MK schools may attend upon invitation from the cochairs. (The cochairs are David Wilcox and Karen Wrobbel.) The purposes of IMKEC are to foster intermission cooperation and understanding in MK education; to help promote and uphold standards of excellence in MK education; and to examine areas of mutual concern to mission agencies, with a view to helping missions develop appropriate guidelines and policies in MK education. For information, contact David Wilcox at David__Wilcox@acsi.org or Karen Wrobbel at Paul__KarenWrobbel@compuserve.com.
Karen Wrobbel is MK education coordinator for The Evangelical Alliance Mission (Wheaton, Ill.). She and her husband, Paul, have served as missionaries with TEAM for 18 years. They currently live in Venezuela. An earlier version of this article was published in the Association of Christian Schools International’s World Report.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 56-60. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.