$26,000 Cost Pushes Up Barriers to Area Private Schools

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

Tuition at some of the region's elite private schools will exceed $26,000 this fall, sparking new worries about how to attract middle- and low-income students and recruit more minorities when even families that traditionally had donated to the schools are seeking financial aid to offset increases.

The 2006-07 tuition tab at St. Albans School in the District, for example, will be $26,501 for a day student, $13,000 more than a decade ago. That's within striking distance of New York's famously hefty private school prices -- now beyond $31,000 at some places -- and not far behind some of the nation's top colleges. Stanford University's tuition will be $33,000 in the fall.

Private school tuitions have been steadily increasing. A few years ago, school officials were concerned about breaking the $20,000 barrier. Now they say they don't know when -- or if -- the financial burden will ease, given the rising costs of teacher salaries, new construction, learning specialists, financial aid programs, technology improvements and other initiatives that have combined to push tuitions to heights unimagined.

"Twenty years ago, people said that once we hit $5,000, everybody would stop coming," said Mark Mitchell, vice president for school information services at the National Association of Independent Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit group. "And then once we hit $10,000, everybody would stop coming. And once we hit $15,000 and $20,000, it would happen. And now we're hitting $25,000, and everybody is worried again."

There may be good reason, school officials say. Although some marquee schools have more applications than they can handle -- more than 10 for every spot -- smaller institutions report lower demand, in part because of cost. Last summer, a few schools discovered they had openings and had to scramble to fill them for the fall.

Marjo Talbott, head of the private K-12 Maret School in the District, said that although applications outnumber openings at her school, she has seen more discussion within families about when and how many children to send to private school.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult for families, especially with more than one child," she said. "Families are more likely to think about saying, 'Maybe we'll pay the private school tuition for the elementary school years and then go to the public school,' or the opposite of that," she said. "People are making tough decisions."

And they are asking for help. Some families that used to be donors in addition to paying tuition are now seeking financial aid for their children, according to the heads of several private schools. Other families -- a greater number than ever before -- simply put their children in public schools.

Even with some of the best public school systems in the country, the Washington region has an estimated 15 percent of school-age children in private schools, higher than the national average of 10 percent.

Most area private schools, which number more than 300, cost far less than St. Albans, but even at less expensive institutions, families are feeling the pinch.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, which has more than 100 schools, tuitions are going up in part because of an adjustment to teachers' salaries. Pay will increase to at least 80 percent of teachers' salaries in Prince George's County Public Schools, where starting pay is about $40,000 a year, said Susan Gibbs, the archdiocese's communications director. At Holy Redeemer School in Kensington, for example, tuition will jump from $4,900 to $5,390 in the fall, she said.

At schools where tuitions are quadruple that amount, officials say they are less worried about filling seats and more worried about who is filling them. Private schools have worked to increase economic and racial diversity at institutions where homogeneity had ruled. Now officials are worried that those efforts may be arrested.

"It's become a serious problem," said Barbara Patterson, head of the nonprofit Black Student Fund. The organization provides scholarships for low-income black students to attend independent schools, private institutions that have their own boards and that are mostly supported by tuition, donations and endowment revenue.

Although many of the area's independent schools help her students with financial aid, she said, tuitions have become so high that she has not been able to add to her roster of 275 children for two years. Furthermore, she said, it's not only the poorest kids who are getting hurt: "They are out-pricing the middle class."

The statistical middle class, based on Census Bureau figures, is a family that makes about $42,000 to about $62,000. But in the world of independent schools, families can make far more to qualify for financial aid.

"If you talk to independent school administrators and leaders, especially in the Washington, D.C., area, they will cite a figure about two times that" as being middle class, Mitchell said. The middle-class families that elite independent schools worry about, he said, are those that make between $80,000 and $120,000.

Schools increasingly want to help, but the issue becomes troubling because they always wish they had funds for all needy families. "How responsible is it to give more to people who have more?" Mitchell said. "So that becomes a funding issue and a philosophical dilemma for schools."

Many schools have been boosting their financial aid programs. Aid as a percentage of gross tuition was 8.6 percent for members of the nonprofit Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington in 1994-95, compared with 9.9 percent this year. But such gains help fuel the need for tuition increases, which at some schools averaged 6 to 7 percent each of the past five years.

"People are struggling to send their kids to these schools," said Bruce B. Stewart, head of Sidwell Friends School in the District, where one in five students gets some amount of financial aid from the school. "Mother and Dad are both working. Grandparents are helping. Aunts are helping. We have to make the effort worth it for them to keep coming."

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