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Private Schools Face Painful Dilemma In Calculating Need For

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Pittsburgh--For more than a decade, an unprecedented national divorce rate and the dramatic changes in families it signals have posed special concerns for public and private schools, called upon to provide additional services and understanding for students and separate-but-equal access to documents, records, grades, and teachers for parents who are no longer married.

But for the nation's more than 800 independent schools, according to school financial-aid officers meeting here recently, the increase in divorce among the parents of their tuition-paying students has spawned a perplexing new dilemma: When the "family" divides and multiplies, how do schools evaluate requests for scholarship aid?

With most financial-aid awards based on "a family's ability to pay,'' this question has no easy answer, said school representatives attending a crowded panel discussion at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

In 1979-80, nais schools provided $91 million in aid to 51,000 students (16.4 percent of their total enrollment). And the consequences of divorce--"multiple parents" and the reduced incomes of single-parent households--have led more and more institutions to re-examine their practices and, in some cases, to "codify" their policies on divorce and scholarship aid, according to the financial-aid officers.

Spirited Discussion of Ethics

Just what those policies should be, however, aroused spirited discussion of ethics, finances, and fairness among the more than 75 financial-aid officers and school heads at the session.

If a school grants aid to a student with divorced parents on the basis of one parent's income when a second parent is able to contribute, the pool of money available to deserving students is unnecessarily diminished, the aid officers said. Yet if financial aid is denied, and the second parent refuses to contribute, the student is penalized and the school may lose an able candidate.

But how schools determine a family's ability to pay tuition when parents are divorced raises such ques-tions as whether schools "can or should require" the income of a parent who does not have legal custody to be taken into account; whether it is "ethical" to include stepparents' income in determining a student's eligibility for scholarship aid; and whether, in considering the income of one parent, schools "are giving an advantage" to divorced parents, said Carol Sachar, director of financial aid and admissions for the Mary Institute in St. Louis.

'Multiple Parents'

Standard approaches to granting scholarships do not take new family structures--and the proliferation of parents--into account, said Ms. Sachar, who is a member of the School Scholarship Service (sss) committee of the independent-school association.

The committee determines the "philosophy" of the association with respect to financial aid; it also contracts with the Educational Testing Service to analyze parents' financial statements and assess what parents can afford to contribute toward school costs.

Court decrees, remarriage resulting in "multiple parents," and unwillingness of a parent to provide support for the child, are among the factors schools must consider in making financial-aid decisions, said Ms. Sachar.

"The sss policy is that there are no pat answers," she added. "Final decisions rest with the schools. Every case is different and deserves special consideration."

Over the last five years, however, most of the larger boarding schools have "made explicit" their position with respect to divorce, said Frederick Gerstell, a panelist and financial-aid chairman at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a well-known boys' preparatory school. Lawrenceville's policy, he said, is that parents who can contribute, should contribute.

"We can't go on paying for people's divorces," Mr. Gerstell said. ''I'm not talking about the poor, I'm talking about the typical suburban, middle-class divorce where the father is perfectly capable of paying."

'Divorce Paragraphs'

With more divorces, he said, "divorce paragraphs" written into school policies reduce the number of financial-aid applications "that you know you will have to turn down."

Lawrenceville's policy, Mr. Gerstell told the audience, states that ''the school will consider the assets of both natural parents and cannot be bound by the assertion that either parent has disclaimed responsibility for educational expenses."

It further states that "if the custodial parent has remarried, the school will consider also the assets of the stepparent, bearing in mind the obligation of parents to their natural children."

By and large, Mr. Gerstell said, this policy recognizes that the custodial parent is often the mother, and that fathers, natural or by marriage, generally make more money. "This is a fact, not a sexist remark," he added.

The school does not approach a noncustodial stepparent, Mr. Gerstell said, and it "tries to avoid" using the income of three parents in determining eligiblity for scholarships.

"Theoretically, we can go after all three incomes, but the wealth of the new husband [when the mother has remarried] has an effect on how zealously we pursue the natural father. It's a question of where are the assets you can legitimately attack."

The school's policy, he added, tries to deal with the situation in which a divorced mother, who is the custodial parent, typically has a part-time job and wishes to be treated as a single parent. The school believes that "the father should pay before we should," he said.

"Some fathers," he conceded, "refuse to have anything to do with us. You have to harden your heart to the extent that you are going to lose some good boys." But this has rarely happened at Lawrenceville, he added.

Lawrenceville provides $560,000 in scholarship aid to 140 boys (out of a total enrollment of 680), Mr. Gerstell said in a later interview. The school's tuition, room, and board come to $6,800.

When fathers or stepparents are able to pay their full share, he told the audience, money remains for a scholarship for another boy.

But, responded Albrecht Saalfield, an attorney in Concord, Mass., and a former independent-school headmaster, "Where do you stop? What if the people aren't married, what about grandparents?"

He cautioned his listeners that the admissions process is the first contact parents and a child have with a school. "If you go aggressively after money," he asked, "what idea of the school's values are you conveying? ... Are we giving scholarship aid to the family or to the child?"

One way for schools to approach noncustodial parents, he suggested, is to ask them for charitable contributions. But tax-deductible gifts, he said, cannot be taken in lieu of tuition.

Fairness Questioned

Several representatives from day schools enrolling younger children expressed, at the session and in the interviews, reservations about the "fairness" of a policy such as Lawrenceville's.

"What do you do when divorce takes place after students are enrolled in the school--turn them out if the father refuses to pay?" asked one aid officer.

"Even Lawrenceville," Mr. Gerstell responded, "makes exceptions for children already in school."

But for schools without much money, said another aid officer, the problems can be "heartbreaking."

"We had a young child whose parents separated and began divorce proceedings," the speaker noted. "Their lawyers told them not to pay any bills, and on my recommendation, the school carried the child in the expectation that after the divorce, the parents would pay. But that didn't happen. And I wasn't very popular."

"But the child was going through a difficult time. What do you do, be hardhearted?"

One observer said she believed that assessing the income of a stepparent in the wake of a divorce was not "ethical," because in doing so a school made judgments about responsibilities for children that were the province of the courts.

Another suggested that schools would be defining what constitutes a child's family and its responsibilities when those arrangements were the result of delicate and emotional agreements among the individuals involved. Schools, she said, should not make these independent judgments.

"Decisions have to be made on an individual basis," said the financial-aid director of a day school.

Consider the situation, she said, "of a father who pays alimony and child support to his first wife, has married a woman with children of her own, and together they have children.

"The father is supporting three sets of children. There has to be special consideration."

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