Slump Squeezes Enrollment at Private Schools

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

Private schools across the Washington region have begun to feel the effects of the nation's economic slumber, as some families seek more financial aid to help with staggering tuition bills and others simply opt out of paying for an education.

Independent and parochial schools in the seven Maryland counties closest to Washington lost almost 8,000 students between 2005 and 2007, a 7 percent drop, in a trend that is expected to continue this fall. The Newport School, an esteemed Montgomery County campus, is shutting down for lack of students after 78 years in operation.

The Archdiocese of Washington will offer an unprecedented $2 million in need-based aid this year, including a $400,000 "opportunity fund" targeted at nine struggling schools. The goal is to lure back families that can no longer pay the tuition and attract families that could never afford it. It's a strategy borrowed from commercial airlines: Better a paying customer than an empty seat.

"This economic downturn is affecting everyone, absolutely everyone," said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of schools in the archdiocese.

Enrollment has been declining in some of the area's public schools as well, chiefly because of a slowing birth rate, but not to the same extent. Public school enrollment in the Maryland suburban region slid by 1 percent over the past two years. Public school enrollment is rising in Northern Virginia, while private enrollment is essentially flat. Public enrollment in the District is falling, but enrollment in District archdiocese schools is falling faster.

Private school leaders say their community has seldom faced such a daunting combination of economic and socioeconomic woes. Tuition is rising faster than inflation, partly to meet a spiraling demand for aid. The birth rate is flat, thinning the ranks of prospective students. And consumers are reluctant to spend, unnerved by rising gas costs and falling stock prices.

The LaCourse family of Kensington decided this year that a five-figure annual investment in private education was starting to look more like luxury than necessity. So the LaCourse girls will enter kindergarten and third grade this fall at Kensington Parkwood Elementary, a well-regarded public school. By the time the two are grown, the private school where each began her education will be a distant memory.

"It would have been more than $30,000 for the academic year, and that doesn't count summer, right?" said Lisa LaCourse.

The Washington region is served by a continuum of private schools, their tuition ranging from less than $10,000 a year to more than $30,000. Some are parochial schools that mirror public campuses in structure; others are nationally known independent schools that offer small classes and universal college acceptance.

An informal survey of officials at dozens of schools suggests that the region's most prestigious independent campuses may be least affected by the downturn. Such schools generally have many more applicants than spaces and a sufficient number who can afford the tuition.

"But there's a big caveat here, and that's that we've never experienced the perfect storm before: rising tuitions well beyond inflation in a recessionary climate with a shrinking school-age population," said Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Even the most prestigious schools are dispensing more need-based aid to a greater number, Bassett said, and working harder to sell families on the virtues of a private education. Funds spent on need-based financial aid have almost doubled since 2001 among independent schools, said Betsy Downes, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. Tuition has risen 37 percent in that span; enrollment, 6 percent.

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