High school tuition waiver alters donor dynamics

Fewer people willing to aid poor students since start of no-fees policy

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

The new tuition waiver at public high schools is making some people less willing to support high school students from single-parent households who are forced to give up further education amid financial difficulties.

“It was reported last fall that students collecting street donations for one-parent students were told by passersby that the donations would not be needed anymore under the tuition-free program,” said Toshihiko Kudo, an executive board member of Ashinaga, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization.

Ashinaga, the Japanese title of the American novel “Daddy Long Legs,” provides financial assistance to orphans and the children of single-parent households.

As of the end of the last school year on March 31, around 28,000 donors, or “Ashinaga-san” as the NPO calls them, were supporting some 6,000 students from the high school to graduate school level, with annual donations totaling about ¥2.24 billion.

“We’ve also received inquiries over the phone at our office” since the policy instituted by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s administration took effect, Kudo said.

The law, introduced at the start of the new school year last month, waives tuition fees at public high schools run by local governments, with the central government compensating local authorities for ensuing shortfalls in revenues.

Private schools are paid up to around ¥240,000 per student, while other schools that are considered equivalent to high schools also receive the aid.

Emphasizing Kudo’s comments, 121 people stopped providing donations to Ashinaga this spring, almost double the number from last year.

While it is unclear if they stopped being donors because of the introduction of the free tuition, one former donor noted on the last payment slip: “I decided to quit as an Ashinaga-san as high school tuition is exempted. As a pensioner, I have to protect myself.”

Kudo attributed this view to a misunderstanding.

Because around 60 percent of Ashinaga scholarship high school students had already seen their tuition reduced or exempted under the previous system, “the new policy will not greatly benefit them,” he said.

The annual costs of education excluding tuition are estimated at around ¥400,000 for a public high school student, and this amount is not covered by the new policy.

“Other than tuition, I needed a lot of money to attend high school, such as for commuting and school excursions,” said Miki Matsutate, a 19-year-old sophomore at Nishogakusha University who has received the Ashinaga scholarship.

Tatsuya Higashi, a 20-year-old sophomore at Tokyo University of Science, also said that while he was exempted from tuition fees at high school, “I still needed money for study materials and extra classes.”

“Ordinary households could divert the exempted tuition to the expenditures for cram schools or home tutors, although poor students can’t benefit much from the free tuition,” Kudo said. “The blanket program may further expand educational gaps among students.”

The latest Ashinaga survey found that the college advancement rate for high school graduates receiving its aid stood at 41.2 percent this spring, 12.7 points lower than the national average.

It also showed that among the scholarship recipients who sought jobs after graduating from high school, 33.1 percent said they decided to work “to support the family finances,” while 16.5 percent said they gave up on higher education due to economic reasons.

Analyzing the figures, Ashinaga presumed almost 50 percent of the scholarship recipients abandoned their hopes for further education because of financial difficulties.

As for single-mother families, their annual income stands at around ¥1.34 million, less than one-third the amount of ordinary households, according to Ashinaga. While 80 percent of single mothers are working, their employment status is unstable because some 60 percent of them are nonregular workers.

Matsutate, who lost her father when she was in the third grade, made an appeal with other students at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on a recent weekend for donations for single-parent students.

“I thought I had better work when I graduated from high school, but I can attend college now with the help of Ashinaga and other scholarships,” she said. Her sister, now a first-year high school student, is also receiving financial support from Ashinaga.