Sunday, May 6, 2012

Testing Fees

Testing Fees...

Sue C's blog post about the cost of obtaining a black belt got me thinking about infamous testing fees. I'm not sure what they are like in other schools or what everyone's experience with them is, but here is my two cents: Testing Fees are BOGUS.

(Not going to lie, that felt really good to type)

Anyway, I'm sure it varies from school to school and in what part of the country/world you are in, but here in the U.S. testing fees can be astronomical.

Sensei Nick's perspective: Part of the reason he left his old school was this very reason. He wanted to test for his 5th dan but the fee was $600. Nick has explained it as "$600 for no real perceived benefit. Over time my certificates felt like they were worth less and less because the people who were also earning them achieved them with less and less effort."

Think about it. If you take a college class, you pay for the class and the materials up front. You take the class. You have your mid terms, and you take your final. You pay for your books and materials up front at the beginning of the class. (You buy your Gi, sparring gear, patches, student handbook, etc. up front.) They don't charge you to take your midterm or your final. You may even have to buy your blue book, but it's only $2 or $3. (If you have to charge, charge them for the belt or the certificate, which might be $8) Plus, you don't raise the price based on the student. Can you imagine walking into the book store, picking up your scan-tron sheets or blue book and getting to the register and having the cashier ask you if you are a graduate or undergrad student? If you're a freshman it's $2, if you're a sophomore it's $4, if you're a junior it's $6 and if you're a senior it's $10. If you're a graduate student it's $20. For the exact same blue book.

From my point, which also actually ending up affecting Sensei Nick, though I didn't know it till much later: In 2004 and 2005 I was a student of Sensei Nick's while I was in high school. I was testing for my 9th Kyu, first stripe in Aiki. After I passed my test Sensei Nick told me I could pay my testing fee at the front desk. This was the first time I had heard of a testing fee and I stared at him for a moment before breaking into tears and walking away.

Some of my adult friends pulled me aside to find out what was wrong and I explained to them that I would have to skip classes next month in order to pay for my test as I could not afford to pay the testing fee (which was only $30) and tuition for the next month (Which was only $40) at the same time. These are not very big amounts, but at that time I was going to school full time, working two jobs and paying for most of my own expenses. I'm sure this is a pretty common story and everyone can relate to this on some level, if not in high school certainly in college. Every extra cent I had went towards class. I had maybe $2.00 in my bank account at the time, which was the norm between paychecks after I had paid for gas, insurance, lunches, and tuition for class.

My friends ended up paying my testing fee for me and in the process had to explain to Nick why they were doing so. I ended up moving away to college/Colorado a short time after that and had to leave the school, but when I got back in touch with Nick 2010 I found out that because of what happened with me he eliminated testing fees from his school altogether. He said that he "could not believe he had made someone feel the way that the ass hole who told him his next test was $600 had made him feel". Guinn Martial Arts does not have any fees outside of purchasing your Gi and monthly tuition. When we get our Karate classes attendance up we will probably ask students to purchase their own sparring gear.

Sensei Nick and I are of the opinion that rank/testing fees are generally a way for more commercial schools to pump more money out of their students. Of course some people/instructors might try to defend their testing fee by saying "It covers the cost of the test and the belt and the certificate." etc. I do understand you have to run a business and make a profit to live, but at what point do the charges become exorbitant?

I don't know how most schools do testing, but I can say that most of the schools I have attended hold testing during normal dojo hours, at least until you get to brown or black belt and your tests are taking 3 hours or more. Even then, most of the schools I know of still hold these tests at certain dates of the year instead of Saturday classes, or other happenings during dojo open hours.

Nick has looked into and divided out the costs of common testing materials. A certificate costs no more then $2.00 per certificate to print, even on nice paper with color ink (It's closer to $1.20). A belt generally costs $5.00. With the exception of black belts which can cost up to $20, plus embroidery which can cost up to $30, raising the total cost of a very nice black belt to $50. Boards for breaking run about $1 a board.

I had a second experience when I was studying Kempo, they wanted me to test for my Orange belt and I told them I could not afford the testing fee. They pretty much insisted I attend the test that month and I needed to pay my fee in advance. It was a $75 fee on top of the $195 a month I was already paying for classes. My yellow belt test had been $60, and the fees went up with every belt. I looked my instructor square in the face and told him that if it was that important to him then I would test, but in order to do so I would be going hungry that month. He blinked at me like it had never occurred to him that people might not actually have money oozing out of their pockets.

So, if the dojo is open anyway, and the instructor would normally be running a class, and materials/supplies are generally under $10.00 per student per test, why are schools asking students to pay $65, $70, $120, $300, $600 and up per test???

Are organizational fees really this high??? Sensei Nick said that when he was looking at registering his black belt with different international organizations it was $25 and $35 to register, depending on which organization he went with. They didn't take registration for anything less then black belt. So why ask students to pay $400 for a 1st kyu or even 3rd kyu? If an organization's fees ARE this high, you should probably take a really good, long, hard look at what you get for being a member.

What are your school's testing fees? Do you feel these are adequate or exorbitant? Does your school do anything special for testing? (One school I went to gave t-shirts, a belt, and a certificate with your new rank.) If you ran your own school, or if you do run your own school, what would be/what is your testing fee policy and why?


  1. My previous dojo in Illinois charged $20 per test, which covered time and materials for the test. I do believe the black belt test cost $200 (I didn't get that far myself) but the tests took 5+ hours and were done at times when classes were not normally held, in addition to the fact that they require a panel of black belts whose time needs to be given for the test, and then the organization fees that had to be paid to register you as a black belt, plus the cost of the belt itself. Even so, I can readily admit that my previous dojo was a commercial dojo--the fact that they still taught good, solid karate doesn't change that and there isn't anything inherently wrong with making money by teaching karate so I'm okay with it. I do see your point in that not all people can afford those types of things, but at that point it is up to you to evaluate whether it is worth continuing or if you are better off finding a place that does not charge for things like that.

    My current dojo charges for the belts and certificates, I believe, which comes out to around $8. I could be wrong, though--they didn't charge any of us brown belts when I tested in March, and our Sensei actually bought nice, embroidered Shureido belts for everybody except me (I asked for a certificate from Okinawa instead, since they cost the same, I already have a brown belt that works just fine and it was my first official rank in a new style).

    If I were to run my own dojo, I think I would charge for the cost of the belt and any cost associated with the organization I belong to. Then again, I'm strongly considering using a white->brown->black belt system whenever I do run my own school, which would mean fewer tests anyway. I don't know if I would be allowed to do that and still be part of my organization, though.

    1. See... $8, that's not bad. That's pretty reasonable, That I could understand. But even $200 just seems exorbitant to me... I think I just have a bad taste in my mouth over the whole thing.

      Most Martial Arts originally had a white > black belt system. You were simple a white belt till you proved you were worthy of a black belt. I think it was a judo instructor (you might want to double check that) who first introduced colored belts as part of a way to keep the sport alive, it was a way to denote achievement and also to help sort out who had been studying for a while. You might have a white belt who had been there for 5 years and could take a fall and all that with a white belt who had been there a week and knew nothing. No way to know unless you talked to each other, with belts, at a glance, you can tell the general skill level of each or your students. Later on Karate adopted the system to keep up and it's students from switching over to judo. So, I can see the pros and cons to both.

    2. Something else to consider, if the cost of the belt and the certificate are that much of an expense, Nick and I have talked about raising the cost of monthly tuition. Even just like, a dollar or two per month should be enough to cover the cost of the belt and the certificate by the time they are ready to test...

  2. I once asked an org what it would take to test and certify for the rank of Roku-dan. He quoted me some outlandish price around the same level you present.

    I asked, why so expensive and his answer, "It is commensurate with other organizations." I expected some long answer about supporting the org, paying for other costs such as seminars, etc. but just "it is about the same as everyone else."

    I, like you, suspected rightly so that this was a money machine. Sigh, but then again, that is the way of the west.

    The proverbial master of the system I practice once wrote me from Okinawa and said I needed to send him money so he could send me a certificate for the next rank. No test, no perform on video requirement, etc. simply send him the money and "whalla" I would be a ????-dan. Sigh

    Good post, thanks.

    1. Nick has encountered similar issues. At once of his schools the head instructor said he would test three students three times that year for their next dan grades at a discounted rate if they would pay him $300 per test in cash up front. It was found out that the instructor had got into some financial trouble or some such and had bills to pay.

      Doesn't matter if you're ready, just pay me some money and I'll increase your rank. :(

  3. Our kyu rank tests are not done in usual lesson time so the grading officer has to rent premises for the test (our instructor does not own a dojo - our lessons are in a local school gym which has to be hired by the hour)so he has to cover his costs plus his time for doing the testing. So our grading fees are £16 (including the belt and certificate). Black belt gradings are done at the Organisation level before a panel of 3 grading officers. They hire a very expensive National judo training centre for the test and around 10 - 20 students grade in various dan grades each time. The test lasts about 5 -6 hours. Dan grading costs £100 regardless of which dan it is. I don't think these grading fees are too high in the circumstances, especially as normal lesson fees are very reasonable (works out between £2.50 to £5.00 per lesson depending on how many times a week you train and whether you have a family membership or not).

    1. I can see that... I think if that were the case at any of the schools I had been to, I would be much less apt to be so opposed to testing fees. You're very lucky Ms. Sue.

  4. Interesting...

    My first school was in a community center (free space, which meant our classes were free as well). We graded with many other schools in our organization in a college gym that was also cost nothing. Testing fees were about $25 for kyus/underbelts and $100 for black belt. From what I've been told, part of the fee went as an honorarium for the shihan who "supervised" the gradings. Ironically, he was not there for my black belt test, but it was still $100.

    At my "new" school (I've been there three years already, so it's not so new, LOL), there is montly tuition, which is reasonable ($60) and the grading fees cover the cost of the belts (if applicable) and certificates. Everyone there to beat the snot out of...I mean, "assist" with the grading, donates their time. No shihan honorariums or anything like that.

    I teach at the sister/satellite school. Our space is free and our tuition is only $25 a year (students buy their own gis, sparring gear and summer t-shirts - but we order them at a discount for less than $90 total). Our grading fees are $10 - to cover the cost of the belts, certificates and school patches (for the 9th kyus). But we also don't have any overhead to cover.

    I can see charging fees to help cover expenses (rental of halls, belts, certificates, etc), but when that money is just going to pad the pockets of administrators or association heads, well, that's just senseless. $600 for any grading is ridiculous IMHO - unless it comes with tickets to a Broadway show, dinner and a hotel room :-)

    1. Hmm... I am starting to see a trend here... most serious martial artists actually come from schools that have very decent fees... and all the McDojo schools I know about charge closer to $200 a month in tuition. Might be something to take note of if you or students or anyone else ever has to find a new school.

  5. Our dojo does not charge testing fees. We test 4 times a year during scheduled class time. Black belt testings are held during the Federation training seminar in front of a testing board. There are Federation testing fees for black belt which are the same regardless of dan rank.

  6. You wrote, "I looked my instructor square in the face and told him that if it was that important to him then I would test, but in order to do so I would be going hungry that month."

    LOL. I thought you said you were a shy person!

    At my school the test fee is about $50. While I feel that the price definitely supplies a good profit margin, I dont mind paying it to my instructor as he charges well below local market value for his lessons ($80/mo) and I know for a fact that some of my classmates train for free (kids w/o parental help and students strapped for cash). He even let me train a few months for free when I was saving for my wedding.

    Some schools, though, they're nothing like your sensei and mine.

    1. I am shy! But if you upset me enough my mouth usually gets the better of my shyness. :x

      Plus I'd know him for a couple months at that point so it wasn't exactly like having to go and introduce myself to a stranger. TOTALLY different situation.

      If that is the case with your school, then awesome! More power to you, especially if the instructors are willing to work with people. If that's the case, I can see that being alright. But still... for me, at this point in my life, being self employeed, $50 is an AWFUL lot of money for a belt test.

  7. As an acknowledged McDojo student, I know I'm paying through the nose for everything. But yes fees still get to me. And they have been steadily increasing. Blue belt test fee was $95, an increase ($75 and $65 for the previous two tests I believe). However the duration of the tests have also been increasing. This one was 2.5 hours (and can be more I'm told). As a business owner I can understand the need to charge for your time (and expenses). I understand the black belt fee is $500, and the test is 8 hours long. I guess I'd have to sit down and work out the economics of running a dojo to really understand expenses. Even with 5 instructors present at the test, with about 15+ lower rank belts testing (~1 to 1.5hr test) and 6+ midranks testing clearly they are making a bit (~$1500/test). Not sure what instructors are getting paid but clearly more than half of that is profit. Should dojos use the co-op / nonprofit model? That doesn't mean instructors work for free, just that there is no profit above and beyond salaries, expenses, and a modest growth/improvements plan.
    Clearly the McDojo/franchise model is the worst, with profits going back to headquarters as well. And the standard small dojo model is reasonable (for profit but has to stay in business and stay competitive with most likely a fairly small number of students).