Why I Abandoned a Tuition Payment Plan Forever

Why I Abandoned a Tuition Payment Plan Forever

Go to the profile of Emily Ann Peterson

Emily Ann Peterson

Jan 18, 2017

I abandoned accepting regular monthly payments from my music students. I had all of them sending me a medium-sized check once each month for my tuition payment plan. Super simple concept, right?

Well, not really. There was a lot of emailing, texting and calling about scheduling and collecting payment. It seemed like I had a part-time job as bill collector. Yuck.

As teachers, we ask our students to practice (hopefully daily) so the notion of external and internal motivators should be a familiar concept to you. But, just in case, here’s a refresher…

External motivators: things we cannot control that enforce a system or habit.

Here are some personal examples:

  • Homework deadlines were the only thing that got me to finish that paperwork.
  • School starting promptly at 7:20am was the only thing that got me to get ready like lightning hitting a metal pole in the middle of a Texas pasture.
  • And I’ll admit, (like most high schoolers) there were some days the only external motivator for practising music was my mother nagging me.

Internal motivators: the things we control within ourselves that enforce a system or habit.

Here are some examples:

  • I really did want to get an A on that homework (with a deadline) so I spent some extra time doing research.
  • I really didn’t want to miss my first class of the day in Junior High: orchestra!
  • I really did want to play my newly assigned Saint Saens cello solo, so I practised it.

The internal and external motivators happen all over the learning process and also within a business. What I learned early on as a professional musician, business owner, and music teacher is that the desire to pay someone for their services is an internal motivator. It is a must. After all, if you don’t value your music teacher or learning your instrument then you probably won’t take lessons in the first place.

But what is also a must, is the external motivator of a teacher’s payment structure. If there is no external motivator in place, then even the most well-intentioned student is less likely to pay up, requiring the teacher herself to go hunting them down like a bill collector.

When I started to teach full-time (with no day job on the side) I wanted to avoid this problem as much as possible. When there are bills due, you don’t want to be chasing down a check from a student.

So, to avoid this problem early on in my teaching career, a mentor told me to adopt a tuition payment plan for my lessons. This meant every September I would unroll the next 12 months of lesson dates to my students and ask them to commit to paying for a full year of lessons in monthly instalments. Committing to a full year of music lessons was kinda ballsy, right?

When I first started teaching here’s how that policy read:

“The full monthly fee is to be paid whether or not the student attends all lessons; lessons missed by the student for any reason will not be made-up nor tuition refunded. Notification of inability to attend a lesson is appreciated, but does not excuse payment for contracted lessons. Tuition is due on or before the first day of each month. Late payment before or on the fifth of the month will result in a late fee of $30. Your teacher reserves the right to increase the late fee in $15 increments per five days should payment be made even later than the fifth of the month.”

Woah. Tight-in-the-face much?! If you’ve ever met me, what you just read in the above policy statement is NOT me. It took a lot of guts to stick up for myself in that way.

Here’s why I adopted a tuition model: I knew I needed the consistent income from monthly lessons without students dropping like flies during Christmas and Summer. So, monthly payments seemed like a great idea, right?

But here’s another thing about external motivating systems: if they don’t fit you, your business or your lifestyle they stop working and leave you with the mess to clean it up with your own internal motivators.

Be True To Yourself

My iron-fist approach to studio policies (seen above) was essentially written with my fingers crossed. I was hoping that if I sounded like a bad-ass, then someone wouldn’t take advantage of me. To some extent, that proved to be a good idea.

But can you guess what happened when someone, for whatever reason, decided to rebel against my iron-fist policy statement? Yep. I, the-sheep-wearing-a-wolf-onesie, had to enforce it. I did OK with enforcing it. But things were definitely not peachy.

I hated having to take such a tough approach about money with my students. Yes, I deserved it. Yes, I worked hard for it. Yes, the student was legally obligated to pay up. But because the tuition policy was ultimately enforced with only internal motivators, I was less likely to actually get paid, even with the iron-fist of studio policies.

This comes from the realistic experience that I have with externally motivated payment structures, even as an adult.

Here are a couple examples:

  • if those automatic payments aren’t happening, I’ll get distracted by the next email and forget to pay the invoice.
  • If the grocery store didn’t have the cashiers at the exit, I’d probably go full-on Space Cadet and walk out of the store without purchasing my beloved 2% milk.

Your Policies Should Complement Your Work

Here’s my big point: policies should fit your business, not the other way around. That’s the thing I wish my previously mentioned mentor had told me instead. Forcing my business to fit around a policy ultimately didn’t work.

Lesson learned: just because it’s the standard does not mean it’s your standard.

As time unfolded, I switched from a tuition model to a pay-as-you-go model. At first, I did this switch because my own schedule was less and less predictable. I was performing, touring, and travelling more often and I felt like a jerk making my students stick to a scheduling commitment that I myself was unable to keep.

Initially, this switch looked like my students forking out more for five or 10 lessons at a time. But then I heard about Fons and now my life is SOOOOOO much easier.

New Payment Policy: New Fons Model

Lessons are $XX/hour. All lessons will automatically be charged to a credit card at the time of your lesson. In the event the instructor cancels a lesson, you will not be charged for that lesson. Absences by the student inside XX hours of the lesson will be charged their lesson fee at the time the lesson was scheduled. Reschedules incur no additional fees, and are at the discretion of the instructor.

All of that ^^^ is built into the Fons app. Here’s the true beauty of it: I don’t have to enforce ANY of it. It’s all an externally motivated, externally enforced policy and system.

Now, for those of us scaredy-cats out there who think that the world is out to get us, I’m on your side (and right there with you). The world is a terrifying place. But what I’ve learned over 10 years of experience teaching music lessons is that my instincts are always spot on.

Always. Every. Single. Time.

So, the reality that students sometimes will drop like flies during the Summer or holiday season is not a fear anymore because I switched my business model to fit both the contextual economy of being a music teacher and my own personality. The (now former) fear that a student will up and vanish on me is now a factor that I’m already prepared for! The pay-per-lesson business model gives the potential students on my waiting list a greater chance to start taking lessons with me!

It’s just good customer service. Not only does it naturally enforce payment from my students, but it naturally enforces that I listen to my own instincts and warning signs about a student dropping.

Those red flags you get about that adult student who is clearly way too busy to be taking music lessons? They’re valid. Those yellow flags you get when you notice a student has started to dilly-dally on their daily practising? They’re valid. Those warning signs are also great opportunities to actually teach your students, not just enforce your policies with an iron-fist.

These days, during a student’s first trial lesson with me, we have the 30-day notice talk.

I just lay it all out there and tell them:

“You know, I can tell when a student is going to quit. I have this sixth sense about it. I am under no illusion that you will be my student until the day you die. This fact says nothing about my teaching style and nothing about your commitment level. Things happen. Life happens. Before you join my teaching studio, what I ask of you is to give me at least 30 days notice before we schedule your ‘goodbye lesson.’ Doing this goodbye lesson teaches both of us to honor the time and effort we’ve put into your education.”

I know Fons understands this premise. It understands teachers, and it means I never have to rule with an iron-fist again. But I also know that whichever external motivator you set in place for yourself and your business…

Your business should fit to YOU so you can do your job.

Emily Ann Peterson is a teaching artist who spent 17 years with her cello. It was her second voice until she was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological hand tremor. Refusing to resign to fate and genetics, she expanded her skills to include the piano and solo songwriting. This act of neurological defiance broke through her creative glass ceiling and then swept her up in the expansive limits.

Her podcast, Bare Naked Bravery, features conversations with everyday heroes about the quiet successes and loud failures required to do the brave things for which we know and love them.

Peterson’s mission is inspire a global resonance and magnanimous community through the marriage of art and whole-person development.

Her music is available everywhere music is sold online and at www.emilyannpeterson.com