Thursday, May 19, 2016

What does Project Coach Cost in Comparison to Other Out-of-School Programs?

 Don Siegel

While questions relating to the actual or potential benefits accruing to participants in youth development programs can be difficult to answer at any particular point in time, the question of costs is of immediate interest to those involved in starting, scaling, or funding a program. Although the cost question seems fairly straight forward, it really is a bit more complicated than most people would think. Granting that actual cash expenditures for operations are included in all analyses, things get a bit trickier when trying to estimate the value of in-kind contributions, the use of free or reduced-cost facilities, or how to value the time and expertise of volunteer advisers, tutors and mentors. As well, programs also vary with regard to the breath and depth with which participants engage. Some programs are designed to take large numbers of youth who are provided minimum dosage and supervision, while others take a much smaller number of participants, but who are provided many hours of guidance in a smaller number of activities. This breath-depth variation also plays a role in computing and understanding a program’s cost. 

Nonetheless, having acknowledged the difficulties of computing costs, the Wallace Foundation[1] made an effort to do so, and to provide some benchmarks. Given the “apples and bananas” nature of such analyses, they examined the costs for 111 high quality programs located in six cities (Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, New York and Seattle). High quality was defined as programs having a high attendance rate (averaging 79% or greater), a high staff/youth ratio (averaging 1:8.3 or better), highly qualified staff (based on educational attainment and training - 30+ hours), and having leadership opportunities for older youth. Included in calculations were: staff salaries and benefits, space and utilities, administrative support, transportation, student stipends, and miscellaneous (snacks, meals, materials, staff training, etc.). Although their sample contained programs varying in size, focus, content, age groupings, location, staffing, ratio of staff to children, facilities, in-kind contributions, management and hours of operation, they did acknowledge that the sample was nonrandom, and that one must be careful when using their data to generalize to the universe of Out-of-School programs.

Cross tabulating programs by whether they were primarily for elementary students (ES), high school students (HS), or middle schools students (MS), they produced the estimates found below. On average, the cost of programs for elementary students (ES) was $6/hr. per slot[2], for high school students (HS) $10/hr., and for programs that had ES, middle school (MS), and HS students it was $9/hr. For programs that were solely focused on academics, the average slot cost was $12/hr. Ranges from the 25th to 75th percentile for each program category are also included.

Wallace (Slot Costs)
Range (25th to 75th percentile)
ES/MS Students Only
$4 - $12/hr
$5 - $12/hr
Academic Focus

Where does Project Coach Fall in this Matrix?

Given these values, I was wondering how Project Coach fared when compared to these estimates. Using a similar algorithm as that used by the Wallace Foundation, I estimated slot costs/hour of Project Coach to be $7.03[3]. This falls on the lower end of the range ($5 - $12) for programs with ES, MS, and HS students, and significantly less than the $9 average computed in the Wallace Database. While Project Coach seems relatively inexpensive compared to other programs, a likely reason for this is that, in contrast to the Wallace Foundation that found staff salaries, administration, and benefits to represent approximately 70% of a programs budget, staff salaries, administration, and benefits in Project Coach represent only 36% of the budget. As well, in the Wallace database space and utilities represented 13% of budgets, while in Project Coach space and utilities are in-kind contributions from Smith College and the Springfield School Department. As an aggregate, we see that collaborating with a college, and the school department in which a program is embedded can offset many expenses.

In computing costs, one can always jump to the conclusion that less expensive also means lesser quality. But, Wallace also compiled a list of nine indicators of quality. Many of these indicators have to do with staff training and evaluation, and the ratio of staff to youth. Using these criteria, Project Coach fared quite well. For example, staff meetings take place at least twice a month”. Project Coach has one or more staff meetings each week. Another guideline is that staff members are referred to training sessions. Project Coach has one or more training sessions each week. Guideline 8 states that programs operate with a low-staff-to-youth ratio (less than or equal to 1:10). In Project Coach the ratio of staff to HS students is 1:3[4], and for ES it is 1:3.5[5].

While it is true that variability across programs makes direct cost comparisons inexact, doing such an analysis provides greater understanding about how a program’s dollars are being spent, and how in-kind contributions can off-set out-of-pocket expenses. This brief analysis of Project Coach shows that it is a relatively lower cost program, that also meets the standards of high quality. Yet, it also shows that a large part of it’s cost effectiveness results from it collaborating with Smith College and the Springfield School Department. 

For those interested in estimating the cost of a program the Wallace Foundation provides a cost estimator calculator at

[2] Slot cost/hour is a standard metric used by researchers who compute program costs. It is the cost of serving one more youth over the course of a program schedule (e.g., having an average daily attendance—ADA—of 101 versus 100). Cost per slot is calculated by dividing the total cost by a program’s ADA.
[3] I used 90% attendance for MS/HS participants and 80% attendance for ES students.
[4] This ratio goes to 1:1 when HS students are tutored by Smith College Students.
[5] This low ratio is a result of MS/HS students being considered staff when tutoring and coaching ES students.