Thoughts About Tuition Rates
Robin Keehn, Washington
I’ve had some interesting conversations with a number of teachers over the past several months regarding what to charge for tuition. Of course, the amount we charge varies with what part of the country and which country you live in but there are some things worth considering regardless of your location.
I have spoken with a few teachers recently who wanted to make SM very affordable in their communities and were considering charging very low rates. As admirable as the goal is to provide SM to everyone, there are some strong arguments against low rates. Here are some things we have learned in our studio and that I have heard from other SM teachers around the world.
First, SM is a unique program with unique results. There is nothing else like it. As a SM teacher, you have unique training and provide students with not only an extraordinary method but with coaching in managing a long-term relationship. You are in a unique position to train parents to train their children in long-term relationships, accountability, discipline, persistence, etc. Teaching SM for only a matter of weeks will be enough to convince you that this is something special. You have a USP–unique selling proposition with our playing-based approach (for those of you into marketing lingo).
That alone was enough to convince me to charge twice what traditional teachers were charging in my area when I started teaching eight years ago. Did that prevent me from getting students in my town of 5,000 people? No, I started with 40 and quickly got to 60 and convinced my business partner and friend, Carry Madison to become a SM teacher to help me with the demand. Did I have a hard time deciding on that rate ($80 a month for group lessons at the time)? Yes, it took some convincing by Neil but I was SO happy I put my rate up higher than I was initially comfortable with.
What I’ve learned is that PERCEIVED VALUE is very important. For example, what do you think is a better product: Shampoo that costs $3.00 or shampoo that costs $12.00 a bottle? Most of us would conclude that the more expensive product is a better product and we would probably be right. So, charging less than or the same as traditional lessons really indicates to most people that SM LESSONS ARE THE SAME AS TRADITIONAL LESSONS. Is that true? Are the results the same? I don’t think so. Pricing of lessons is important because people look at the cost and make a judgment about the value of what you are offering.
The other thing I know, from my own experience and that of many other teachers, is that the more a person has to personally invest, the more serious they are about learning to play the piano. For example, usually if you are charging a low rate and it doesn’t have a financial impact on a person or family they will not be as committed.
If you are charging a higher rate AND requiring that a coach is present and active in each lesson, you will have a better student and much better retention. No skin in the game = no commitment to playing the game. The more sacrifices someone makes to being in lessons (more money for tuition, spending time as a coach in lessons, making arrangements for other children in the family during lesson time, rearranging other commitments) the better students they are. We have one family with three children who pay $270 a month for SM lessons. That mom has never missed a lesson in six years. Those children keep impeccable playlists. They are awesome students and they are a pleasure to work with.
So, the bottom line is, don’t undervalue your lessons. Don’t give your expertise away. You have an incredible product here and you are specially trained to be a superior method coach. You need to be paid well for what you are able to give students–music as a lifelong companion. You need to have students who value you and SM and are committed to seeing this through.
If you are priced below other teachers of SM, consider getting on the same page. First, it says that we are united in our efforts to a world where everyone plays and that there is continuity in pricing. I don’t think you have to be exactly where other teachers are, but it is a benefit to be close. I think if you set your prices much lower than other teachers in your area, you will eventually end up with fewer students and less committed students. Perceived value is powerful thing.
Cheri S. Utah
I just want to second what Robin has said. A close friend and neighbor of mine has experienced exactly what Robin is talking about. My friend is a very gifted traditional piano teacher. She loves her students, loves music, and has a natural knack for teaching as well as solid training. I’ve watched her do an excellent job teaching in many different circumstances. But she charges very little for piano lessons, and she constantly expresses concern and frustration about students not practicing. The students don’t make progress, so they’re not having fun and neither is she. Because it’s become so unfulfilling, my friend is considering quitting altogether.
Several years ago, I taught traditional piano, and I didn’t charge enough at the beginning. Right away I knew my teaching was worth more. But in order to charge more, I had to raise my rates with current students, and I didn’t feel comfortable raising drastically, because expectations were already set.
I just opened my Simply Music studio this fall. Initially, I was nervous about charging what at first seemed like high tuition. My own past experience plus friend’s made it a lot easier for me to charge what I now feel is a very appropriate rate. Another thing that helped me was to remember that my rates reflect not only on me, but on the product I’m offering. My rates communicate the value of Simply Music to everyone in my community. That affects other teachers in my area, as well as the entire Simply Music brand.
I have had no trouble filling my studio, my students so far are highly committed, and I’ve never had anyone (whether they decided to pursue Simply Music or not) say my rates seemed high. In the early conversations, I present my prices confidently, connecting them with what you’d expect to pay any teacher who has specialized training.
I thank the Simply Music training program for teaching me not only the method but also good business practice. They offer their teachers a truly all-encompassing training program.
Ian M. Indiana
Robin makes some really great points here and I thought I would try to make one more:
Perceived value starts with the teacher. If your price is lower than other SM teachers, the first obstacle to raising your price to a level more in line with the going rate for Simply Music may be YOU. If you hear yourself saying, even after reading Robin’s discussion below, “well, that’s all true, but – ” and then follow that sentence with reasons it won’t work FOR YOU, then you may need to have a serious talk with yourself.
The goal of this talk is to help yourself change your mind.
The economy is down everywhere. You still need to set a price for your lessons that reflects their value, relative to traditional lessons and relative to other SM lessons, and then communicate the value when talking to prospective students.
The final piece of the puzzle here is that you must connect the value of Simply Music to the value of yourself as a Simply Music teacher. If you DO understand the value of Simply Music but DON’T value yourself similarly, there is some psychology at work there and you must find a way to dismiss that psychology and take it on faith that you are more valuable than you think.
That may be a difficult thing to do, but it’s necessary. There probably aren’t a lot of people in this boat, but there may be a few. If you can’t do it by yourself, reach out for help. Teachers you know might be a good place to start, or I’m pretty sure Robin herself would be more than willing to help.
Shanta R. Minnesota
I would like to pipe in and say that when I started teaching Simply Music, I set my fees at a rate that was as high as I thought I could possibly set them based on my local circumstances. My thought was that it’s much easier to drop your rates than to raise them, and that if I didn’t have any students after six months I’d re-evaluate. I charge $140 per month for shared lessons, I take six weeks off per year and I have 32 students after about two years of teaching.
Perceived value is so important. Did you know that people think a wine tastes better if they think it’s more expensive? In blind taste tests where tasters are told that this bottle of wine was $5 and that bottle of wine was $50. They always, on average say that the $50 bottle taste better. What they don’t know is that both bottles are actually exactly the same $10 bottle of wine.
When I consider that my students are learning concepts that I didn’t get until college (which cost $25,000 per year at the time), my rate is the bargain of the century.
John M. AU
I too have found that the tuition rates really had an effect on perceived value of lessons.
I decided to offer a half price discount for some other homeschoolers that I knew. I knew that they were on single incomes, and of course, homeschooling can be quite expensive (especially if you are out sourcing some tuition). I found that these particular parents (I don’t mean homeschoolers in general) really didn’t appreciate what it was that I had to offer, unlike my full fee paying families.
In my studio, students pay for a term in advance and if they miss a lesson, they forfeit the payment for that lesson. I do try to rearrange lessons times for them if needed, to limit this happening though. I know people have different opinions of whether this should be done as a policy, however of the years I have found that if I don’t charge, some students (especially some adults) come home from work feeling tired and decide well if I don’t have to pay, then I’ll stay home tonight. I just don’t feel like it tonight. However, it has really only been the discounted group that I had any issues with this policy. They only missed a few lessons throughout their journey but came to believe that it was their right that they shouldn’t be charged (even though they had agreed to this in the first lessons). They didn’t appreciate the value of the lessons or my time that went into the lessons. They also didn’t understand that just because I wasn’t teaching that particular lesson that I still had lost that time in my schedule to do anything else. In comparison, I have found that the families, who were paying full price, had attitudes of, ‘this method and these lessons are something special’ and in turn, would put more priority on music in their lives. They were also more appreciative of my time and understood that my time was of value also. I have only ever had one parent who was full fee paying ever question it and when I explained my reasoning, they were very receptive.
I also know that there is definitely an invisible line that I look at (who knows where that actual line is). When I purchase something and I think it is very cheap, I automatically think what am I not getting or what is wrong with it. Am I really getting a good deal here if is it just fake and no good. This of course goes the other way if something is too expensive. Are they charging so much just because they think someone is gullible and would pay it.
Also as an extra note, I had someone who plays piano well tell me last week, “Rarely does anyone impress me when they play the piano!” However after an experience of hearing Neil Moore play a “relatively simple” piece, he said “If I ever had any doubt in Simply Music, that was taken away at that moment. It is like that saying, “if a country is considered great it is because of a great leader.” If he is the leader of Simply Music with his natural musicality, then it is definitely going to be a great program.” So there you go. A boost for you Neil and an encouragement to us to see how we have something special to be part of. Let’s not devalue what we have.
Andrea B. Canada
I’m struggling with my tuition cost for two reasons.
1. I’m not sure how much is fair to increase my former traditional students by? I initially increased their tuition by $10 but I’d like to increase it more. Does that seem unfair?
2. Should I be basing my tuition against other traditional studios in my town? Higher but not too much higher? Or has anybody just made the tuition significantly higher with success?
Carrie L. Michigan
I would add that in Michigan where the economy is TERRIBLE the last few years… I only had two students in the last five years that said they were quitting because their parent lost a job and they couldn’t afford it.
At our new studio we’ve more than DOUBLED in the last eight months since we moved in. It’s value in the eyes of the student/teacher and community.
We will be raising our rates in September although we are comparable to those in the area, my husband has thought we should raise them for some time but I’ve been hesitant to do so and it’s my own ‘stories’ about that that have kept me from doing that.
I have throughout the five years however raised my rates two times and both times I lost a couple students because of it, it was worth it to lose those students to value my time, money, effort and experience more highly!
Mark M. New York
One important factor in general in comparison to other non-SM teachers, and especially when transitioning one’s own traditional students, is the difference between private and group rates.
When I taught traditional, I’d set my rate, private-only, of course, based on the rates of other teachers in the area, to be somewhere in the middle of the pack.
When I began teaching Simply Music, I added a noticeable increase to my private rate, putting me closer to the high-end of the pack.
I also, of course, added (and focused on) group SM lessons. For those, I was able to calculate out a group rate that was noticeably lower than my previous traditional private rate and yet that nevertheless, even with a group of just two students, essentially matched my net income (after ed. fees) compared to the new-higher-rate Simply Music private lesson. Net income to you per unit of time is the important thing. That’s what determines how you value your time, not the group rate per student.
This, of course, ideally would be everyone’s goal in setting private vs. group rates, i.e., to make a group of two and a private with one student come out about the same. It means that people have no financial incentive to consider private over group, and it also means that you as a teacher can know that if you have to compromise down to either a group of just two or a private, your time is valued the same, so you have the freedom to make that choice. With three or more in a group, the net income would just go up significantly with each added student, so it’s all sort of gravy from there.
In this way, I was able to consider myself as having, very definitely, increased my rates compared to my previous rates, and yet it also made the whole group vs. private situation very appealing for clients, including allowing the group rate to be somewhat less than at least some area teachers.
Obviously different people will have different preferences, and different markets will bear different things. I can imagine situations, even potentially for myself, when even the group SM rate could be justified as higher than most area private traditional rates. But in principle I don’t see what I’ve done as under-pricing myself at all, because there are the two factors involved: SM vs. traditional, and private vs. group. To me, when a private SM lesson or a group of just two students leaves me with net income that would be considered on the high end compared to most area traditional teachers, and with the huge upside potential of groups beyond that tiny size, this was, and remains, a win-win.
It also bears mentioning that the more frugally you live, the less income you need to make a business sustainable, and therefore the less you can charge your clients, and the more easily you therefore can build a client base. If we’re going to focus on a world where everyone plays, we may as well also tie that into a world where everyone has their economic needs met. And in a world of finite size, looking to be a lot richer than your neighbor works against any of those global solutions. To me, in the biggest picture of all, a certain amount of economic modesty in our tuition rates goes hand in hand with any desire to see musical expression brought democratically out to the world.
Rebecca N. Utah
I agree with everything that has been said about TUITION rates, but when setting up my SM studio, 90% of students I now have came from my traditional studio, and they said that they couldn’t afford a price raise. So how do you raise the rates on parents that told you they couldn’t afford the (low) rate that you have started at? Considering that I can’t afford to lose any students – the well worth it expense of becoming a SM teacher has set me behind and I need to recover those costs and come out ahead so I can cover my bills. Yes, I know if I charged more then I’d make up for that, but not if I lose 90% of my studio. I value the program and value my abilities as a musician and teacher, just know the economic reality of the families that I’ve been teaching for several years in my traditional studio. So incremental increases seem the most logical to me. Or I just move and start a new studio with new students at double the price… Any ideas?
Kim B. Indiana
We had that issue too in our studio. Not that parents were saying they couldn’t afford it, but how to transition the traditional students to SM. So we made them a “deal”. The 1st year, we would charge them the same that they had paid for traditional lessons. Just for one year. Any new students we got, we had a different SM rate for them. At the end of the year we raised our former traditional students to the SM rate. And we actually raised that rate by $1 a month. But the former traditional students’ rate went up by about $17 a month. We lost maybe 3 or 4, but those were students who were going to leave anyway. It didn’t have anything to do with the price increase.
Now with that all said, I know that many people are having a tough time in this economy. My husband’s company just cut everyone’s salaries by 20%. But I think many people use the economy as an excuse. They think if they say it’s the economy that you will feel sorry for them. I really think people are doing this. I also think that people will pay for and do the things they want to do. We have to stand firm on what we are offering and the value that it has.
I had a student who did a workshop last year. They didn’t continue because of the price. They are now back and doing lessons. My price is even a bit higher (remember the $1?) and they want to do it now. I would love to know if they tried any other programs in the meantime. Maybe someday I will ask.
Joy V. Texas
I see two very worthwhile possibilities for you.
First, create a website if you have not already and set your price at the level you want, thereby “grandfathering in” your current students but allowing you to raise the price on any new ones. You may do this on paper as well, but this gives you a reason to get that website up and rolling.
Secondly, gently push your current students into groups. You may tell them the benefits of being in groups (which you may not be convinced of yet) and/or tell them that it is the only way you can maintain the current price structure since the value of your teaching and the results the students will receive has increased incrementally. Even if you can only get students to pair up rather than go into larger groups, you have just doubled your hourly wage, giving you more hours in the day to take on new students at your current rate.
Sue K. AU
You are in a bind, without a doubt. I have found from past experience that many of those who say they can’t afford it can find a way.
These people who say they can’t afford it – I would be guessing they have nice mobile phones, and many luxuries that I know I don’t have. There is a certain amount of manipulation associated with this. When they say they can’t afford it, what they really mean is that they are not used to paying that amount. And they truly believe it. But, if you can help them see the value of your music lessons over the take outs, or the regular movies, or the newest phone – 1 for each of their kids, or a television in each bedroom, etc, etc, etc, – they generally will find a way. For some of them, walking to your lessons and school each day could be enough to reduce their petrol (gas) bills to pay for you. For most people, there is a way. The reality is that not all of your students will stay, maybe you can work out payment plans or bartering or something.
You need to present that this is the way it is from now on. If there is any doubt in your mind of your new value – they will read that and either leave or push you to keep your prices down.
Carrie L. Michigan
When I raised my tuition rates several years ago… from $20 a lesson to $85 a month I believe, (not a huge change!) and revamped my make-up policy. I had about 15-20 students. I lost one family with three children because they felt it was too much money. I was devastated and felt it would have a ripple effect since this family knew two other families with multiple children. I called Neil Moore and cried and he explained to me that one family while it seemed like a lot since I had a small number of students, I would not be out that much money in the long-run. Looking back I was glad that I moved on from this family that would have been a ‘high needs’ family and stuck to what it was that worked for me!
Stan M. Ohio
Robin stated that for some teachers they wanted to have fees that would open up lessons to being more affordable in their communities.
There is no doubt to me that this gem called Simply Music is a diamond and is worth top dollar. There just is no argument in my mind that there is anything out there that has been engineered so cleverly. As a teacher you just can tell there is a thought behind every turn, which leads to success. It’s not performance based, or reading based but playing based which fits the goals I have for my students. It isn’t those other two are absent, it just isn’t the focus as it obviously is in most programs which have them either by design or tradition.
However, as much as this is a gem, it is my opinion that that there is nothing wrong with giving away diamonds as long as it means you can sustain that. As I tithe a section of my lessons to those that couldn’t afford it, I have had several discoveries and solutions I have engineered. But ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is the course you are considering something that you can afford in the long run?
When I have talked to other teachers about this, they usually are looking at how much can I make per lesson vs. how much does it cost me per lesson in set expenses. What is the total expense per year for your lessons (insurance, training, licensing, studio rents, etc) and divide that up into your students. I know when I went through my calculations; I was surprised to see how much of my lesson goes to my expenses. This exercise is usually not addressed until it is too late and now you are closing your studio. That doesn’t help anyone.
As I move forward with reduced rates or tithing lessons for my students, I am going to enact a monthly rebate for these students. I have found, on the average, my students with a reduced rate tend to miss more lessons and practice less. To help them be successful, they are going to pay the first month’s tuition in full, and then if they are practicing and participating at appropriate level (this is a skill and takes time to learn), then they will be rebated down to the reduced rate. If they miss lessons, there is a loss of rebate. If they aren’t practicing, there is a loss of rate.
This idea isn’t for everyone. There are inherited problems. I get all that. When you create solutions, you only create other problems. But it is all part of the game of moving PEOPLE along and for some people they need different carrots.
For those that are considering lower fees so more people can experience this program, I say “Fantastic. I love it.” But just make sure you can do it from a long-term business model otherwise you are not going to make it and that ultimately will hurt the student. And maybe consider a reduced fee for those that can’t afford it vs it being a blanket policy.
I know a teacher that was charging around $10 a lesson. This teacher found that after it was all said and done, the profit was around $5. The teaching time was cutting into the teachers family life etc, and after much debate concluded, it wasn’t worth it and closed the studio. Only a handful of students now take lessons and the rest have not continued. What a shame.
No Mercedes Benz dealer stays in business selling at a loss or marginal profit. And no one even suggests getting a discount on a Mercedes because everyone knows what its real worth is. The service is impeccable and the quality is like nothing out there. Be a generous Mercedes Benz dealer for sure but do it in a way you can be there for the long run. Good luck.
Sandy L. Nebraska
I was interested in Stan’s statements about tithing, or reducing rates for certain circumstances. I have to say that I am in complete agreement with all the discussion that you do not want to under price either SM or yourself.
That said, I am just going to share this one little tidbit of my own experience. I usually start my Level 1 students in a community program that greatly reduces prices of all the classes they offer specifically to make them affordable for all people. After Level 1, I have always had some students who continue with me at my home for the typical SM prices in my area. I have also had some transfer to other local teachers, and some temporarily use the Learn-at-Home materials.
I want to tell you about one special instance, though. I had a group transferring to my home, but one mom approached me and said she was sorry, but they truly could not afford the price, so would not be continuing. Her daughter loved the lessons and was a diligent student in Level 1 at the reduced price venue. I hated to see her drop because of a true financial need. So, I asked the mom what she thought she could pay if her daughter were to continue. She quoted a lower amount than my stated price, and we agreed to just continue at that reduced rate until the family could afford to pay full price.
They are not at full price yet, but this particular student is one of my most diligent. The mom frequently expresses gratitude for the lessons and they rarely if ever miss a lesson.
I realize that if this were my whole studio, I would be in the position of closing up shop, as has been discussed…but I have found that sometimes there are exceptions to things that are generally true. It goes the other way as well. I have had students paying full price who have struggled to meet my requirements and to appreciate the value of what they were getting.
It can be hard to navigate these situations, and mistakes in judgment will be made…then we have to learn from those. I guess it is a process, not an event.
Kerry V. AU
One thought that keeps coming to me (and therefore allowing myself to have permission to have higher prices in my studio) it is NOT only the teaching half hour a week set up we have. We have not only the overheads of rent, utilities, license fees, etc, etc. but that we have spent hours preparing, studying, mentoring, supporting, sharing. (Not to mention admin work). What ever it is, it all leads to you being a better, more powerful and respected teacher.
Do not underestimate the extra time you put in to preparing for your students so that They can have a brilliant result you are wanting for them and your studio. So, charge not thinking of the half hour you have with them, but all of what happens behind the scenes.
Be proud of what you do and show it. If you want, you can always add value for them later such as giving them a new playlist book or notes book. Or doing those special little things for anniversary lessons etc.