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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do Belts Are Expensive

Taekwon-Do belt with pricetag

CC logo Sakoppi (modified)

Considering Taekwon-Do clubs all offer the same basic service, they can charge wildly different prices. One club might ask for next to nothing while another down the street charges over $150 a month. Some use contracts to guarantee payment while others wouldn’t think of it. Some charge for lessons on a monthly basis while others charge for longer blocks of time. There’s no standard way for a club to bill for its time. But one thing nearly all of them do is charge a fee to test for each belt level.

This fee might be tiny. Or it could be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a black belt test. Often, the higher the belt rank, the higher the cost.

I have no idea when this practice started, but it seems to be the way that things have been done in the martial arts for a long time now.

What’s the big deal about exam fees?

Exam fees are important for a club. They supplement the school’s income, on top of the monthly tuition. Even if your club happens to charge next to nothing there are still bills to pay, so the money has to come from somewhere.

But from a student’s point of view, exam fees can be a sore point. I’ve talked to people who delayed their belt exams because they couldn’t afford them. When the ranks keep getting more expensive, that can hold a student back. What’s worse is when a family on a tight budget has to pay for several belt exams at once. No one should be held back because of finances. Students who don’t feel like they are progressing are not happy students.

Sometimes students (or their parents) sign up without fully understanding how the testing fees work. They don’t get that they have to keep dishing out for belts—at least not until they (or the kids) are already hooked. A few of the shadier schools don’t even tell their students about belt testing fees until it’s time to test for yellow stripe.

The fees aren’t a serious issue for most people. If they enjoy what they’re doing and feel that they’re getting their money’s worth, they’ll shell out the cash. But at the same time, students who don’t know about hidden costs may not be satisfied.

And don’t even get me started on re-charging exam fees to those students who fail their first attempt.

What are we paying for?

If you think about it, exam fees make no sense. We’re paying extra money to perform a couple of patterns and spar for a few minutes—and maybe do some step sparring, breaking, or whatever—all while the instructor sits at a table and decides if we meet his or her expectations. And we’re doing this in a time slot that would normally have been used for regular classes. That’s right, classes got cancelled for a night—classes that you paid for—so that you can pay extra money to get your new belt.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that belt rank is useful, and we need to have a way to be able to assess and assign that rank. But I don’t really understand the fees. If I’m at a club, I’m paying to learn what the instructor is able to teach me. I’m paying for the instructor’s time and knowledge. But then I have to pay a premium to find out if I can perform what they think I should know? Am I paying for the privilege of moving to the next rank? I can’t be paying for the instructor’s time or the use of the dojang, because that’s already been paid for with tuition. I’m certainly not paying all that money for a strip of cloth around my waist. So what am I paying for?

All that being said, there is one situation where I understand the need for exam fees. In most TKD federations, instructors can only test students if they have at least a 4th degree black belt. However, to open a school you only need to be a 1st degree black belt. Furthermore, to test a student for 2nd dan, the examiner has to be at least a 5th dan. To test for 3rd, the examiner has to be a 6th dan. And so on.

If a club has to bring in a higher-ranking black belt to conduct the exam, the fees makes sense. The students are paying for the examiner’s time. I have a feeling this is how exam fees started in the first place, but I don’t have any evidence of that.

So what is a club to do?

As I said earlier, exam fees are an important part of a club’s income. So we can’t just drop them wholesale and expect everything to continue on as normal. No organization wants to take a hit to the wallet like that.

If your students are going to be spending this much money with your school anyway, why not make it easier for everybody? If you’re able to do your own belt exams and want to get rid of the exam fees, find out the average amount that each student is spending on belt exams per year. Divide that number by 12 months. Take that final number and tack it on to the monthly tuition. The school will still make the same amount of money per year, and will get paid more consistently instead of having to rely on students testing for their next belts. The students will have consistent fees without having to worry about making extra payments each time they test for a new belt.

Yes, this will make tuition more expensive, but the change might be less than you think. For example, if you find out that the average student is spending $120 a year on exams, that only amounts to a $10 per month increase in tuition. I can’t speak for everyone, but to me the convenience of paying an extra $10 a month to never worry about an exam fee again is worth it.

How do I know this works? Because I’ve seen it done. I’ve been a member of, and even ran, a school that charged a little more per month than the competition, but never charged a single exam fee. Trust me when I say that it takes a lot of the headaches out of belt tests.

If you’re able to do so, this structure should cover black belt tests as well. There’s nothing special enough about a black belt exam to warrant paying for it when all the other exams are included in the cost of tuition.

Of course, it’s easier if you already have the rank to be able to administer all the exams yourself. But this system could also cover the cost of an outside examiner. The extra tuition fees would go into a fund that is used to pay the examiner.

All this makes it even easier to get rid of standard belt exams. If the fees are included in the tuition anyway, you don’t have to figure out exactly when to charge for the test.

So what are you waiting for? Stop charging for things you don’t need to.