Independent-School Applications Rise, In Spite of Marked Increases in Tuition

By Constance G. Kurz & Margaret L. Weeks — June 02, 1982 11 min read
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Applications to many of the nation’s most prestigious college-preparatory schools increased significantly--and in some cases, dramatically--this year, according to an informal survey of private schools by Education Week.

Twenty-six independent schools--mostly boarding schools--reported increases in applications ranging from 5 percent to 46 percent, continuing a pattern of steady growth in interest in private secondary education despite marked increases in the cost of attending such schools. (See related story on page 15.) In the majority of schools, the number of students applying for admission to the 9th and, at some schools, the 10th grade increased by at least 10 percent over last year, according to information collected from their admissions officers in telephone interviews.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) does not compile statistics on applications to member schools, but Marjo Talbott, coordinator of admissions services for the association, said anecdotal evidence suggests that “applications are unusually high this year; increases of 30 percent are not that unusual.” (The NAIS has more than 800 member schools, ranging from day schools offering kindergarten through 12th grade to predominantly or exclusively boarding schools accepting students for the high-school years only.)

Some Unexpected, Dramatic Changes

Although officials at most of the private secondary schools said increases in the number of completed applications were consistent with the annual increases of 5-to-10 percent they have experienced over the last five to eight years, several schools reported unexpected, dramatic changes.

Applications jumped by 46 percent over the 1981-82 figures at the Ethel Walker School, a girls’ boarding school in Simsbury, Conn. According to Nancy Henderson, admissions director, the greatest growth came in applications for the 9th and 11th grades. “Over the past five or six years, we’ve seen an increase at the 11th grade, despite the intense competition for relatively few places.”

Choate Rosemary Hall, a coeducational boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., had an “unanticipated increase of 40 percent,” said Bobette Reed Kahn, associate director of admissions.

“It’s incredible; over the last five years, we’ve had increases every year, but this is phenomenal.”

A 40-percent increase in applications s boarding spots also was reported by the Webb School of California, a boys’ boarding school in Claremont. Increases in applications of 15-to-20 percent were reported by the Lawrenceville School, a boys boarding and day school in Lawrenceville, N.J., and the Emma Willard School, a girls’ boarding school in Troy, N.Y., among others.

‘Double the Normal Increase’

Although its change was comparatively smaller, Phillips Exeter Academy “had double the normal increase in applications"--from the usual 3-to-4-percent increase each year to 6-to-8 percent for openings at the school next fall, said John D. Herney, director of admissions and financial aid for the coeducational boarding school in Exeter, N.H.

Officials at a number of the schools reporting “normal” increases in applications this year said they had experienced surges in applications in the last several years. Milton Academy, for example, a coeducational day and boarding school in Massachusetts, received 30-percent more applications for the current academic year than it had the year before.

One notable exception to the trend was reported by The Cranbrook Schools, a coeducational day and boarding institution in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., 20 miles north of Detroit. Its application rates have fallen off by 5 percent for the coming school year.

“Many of our students’ families are part of the auto industry or in related fields,” said Michael Spence, director of admissions. “Applications dropped at the 6th grade but rose at the 9th grade this year.’'

Only two of the eleven independent day schools contacted by Education Week reported dramatic increases in student applications this year to the upper, precollege grades. However, the schools--located in Denver, Dallas, New York City, Pasadena, San Francisco, and the Washington, D.C. area--reported that applications have been rising gradually, but steadily, over the last several years. However, the University School, a boys school in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, reported a 30-percent increase in the number of applications received. The increase, in part, can be attributed to an active recruitment campaign launched this year, said Jeff Martin, director of admissions. The Westminster Schools in Atlanta also experienced a 10-percent increase in the number of students applying to the coed upper and lower schools.

This year, the number of students taking the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) did not change significantly, according to Sanford Roeser, ssat program director at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, N.J., which administers the test. (The SSAT, according to an ets spokesman, is a “general school-abilities” test that measures reading comprehension and verbal and quantitative aptitude. The test is used by many, but not all, independent schools.)

But over the preceding three years, the number of students taking the test increased by 29 percent, from 40,745 in 1977-78 to 52,461 in 1980-81, the last year for which figures are available.

A number of admissions officers attributed the increases in applications to “multiple applications"--meaning, they said, that students now apply to a handful of schools, rather than just to two or three. But the average number of schools to which students ask ets to send their ssat score reports has not changed significantly, said Mr. Roesner.

Stressing the conjectural nature of their comments, the schools’ admissions officers advanced a variety of other explanations for the apparent increase in interest in private secondary-school education: the rising number of two-income families who can afford private-school tuition; disaffection’ with public education; increasing attention to the quality of secondary education as a prerequisite for a successful college career; and publicity about financial aid available from the schools. nais, for example, has conducted “media spots” on behalf of its member schools, said Ms. Talbott.

Roy E. Bergeson, director of admissions for the Webb School of California, attributed most of the rise in applications to the school to “the new part of the market,” families who have not traditionally considered private schooling--especially boarding schools--for their children.”

Since passage of California’s Proposition 13--which limits property taxes and thus funding for public education in the state--the Webb School’s steadily increasing number of applicants are from families who think of themselves as “public-school people,” he said.

Many are somewhat reluctant to patronize private schools, and in some cases, parents may sit on public boards of education, he added. But because of cuts in funds for public education, they have said that they feel the schools are not offering strong and varied programs.

‘Nontraditional’ Applicants

“We are seeing many more ‘nontraditional’ applicants--applicants from families new to independent schools,” said Ms. Kahn of Choate Rosemary Hall.

“Parents are becoming more concerned with the quality of education and more conscious of it at the primary and secondary level. They aren’t waiting until it’s time for their child to apply to college,” said one admissions officer.

And the parents of this “new clientele” often say that public-school funding cuts--actual or projected have led them to consider private schooling, many other admissions officials said.

“My impression is that it’s not the core academic program that is attracting students, but the whole educational experience we offer,” said another admissions officer. “Where schools are dropping, or there is talk of their dropping, sports or drama or gifted and talented or other advanced programs, the parents of highly able students are concerned,” he added.

Applications are “a form of looking at the options and creating an alternative,” said Ms. Talbott.

In addition, the reorganization of grade levels in many public-school systems has contributed to the record level of applications for 9th-grade spaces at many preparatory schools, admissions officers believe.

“People who are buying in at the 9th grade are seeing the validity of a four-year experience,” said Michael Spence of The Cranbrook Schools. “As public schools have closed down in this area, many districts have reorganized their programs to include the 9th grade as part of the high school. Consequently, 8th graders regard it as a break in their educational careers, and perhaps more of these students are looking at independent schools as an alternative for high school.”

In the case of boarding schools in particular, said Anne Parkin of The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., “Parents are thinking about them for their children at an earlier age.”

Tax-Limitation Measure

Some increases in applications to schools in or near Massachusetts are said to be the result of Proposition 2, the tax-limitation measure adopted by the state.

“Massachusetts parents are quite forward about mentioning Proposition 2,” said Mr. Herney of Phillips Exeter Academy.

Milton Academy’s surprising increase last year can be attributed largely to the measure, said John Charles Smith, the school’s director of admissions. “In this particular state, Proposition 2 has created a great deal of unrest in the public schools, which has urged many families which would never have thought of independent schools to apply.”

Many new applicants to the school come from New England, he said. “What’s happening [to public schools] in Massachusetts has been happening in other New England states although there’s not a single piece of legislation you can point the gun at.”

At Phillips Academy, Andover, which has more applicants than any other boarding school, applications are up by a typical 10 percent.

“I think what all of us in this part of the country have experienced is a sort of peculiar phenomenon. As tuition goes up, applications go up. It’s been a rather consistent and rather steady increase--5-to-10 percent per year in the last five or six years,” said Meredith Price, associate director of admissions for the coeducational boarding school. About 60 percent of Andover’s students come from public schools; that proportion has not changed recently, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, applications from Massachusetts “have increased two and a half times since Proposition 2.”

At the Taft School, a coeducation-al boarding school in Watertown, Conn., applications from Massachusetts students have tripled in the three years since the tax-limitation measure was passed, according to Susan Hendricks, the school’s admissions director.

"[Proposition] 2 is a real boondoggle,” said an official of a girls’ boarding school. “It’s a shame. I went to public school; I think public schools are important, and I hate to see this happen to them. We simply can’t accommodate all the good students,” she added.

Difficult Choice

One effect of the increase on the schools, said a number of officials, is the difficulty it presents to the school officials who must decide which students will be admitted.

Moreover, said John Buxton, director of admissions for the St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., a coeducational boarding and day school, “there is more self-screening among prospective students. The applicant pool [at St. Paul’s] is appreciably stronger, and that makes admissions very hard.”

“With the increase of applicants from public schools, independent schools will tend to rely more on more objective data such as test scores, because they simply are not familiar with the schools from which the students are coming,” said Mr. Smith of Milton Academy.

ets data notwithstanding, many admissions officers believe that students are applying to more schools. With increasing competition, “students are hedging their bets,” said Mr. Herney.

The schools are not expanding to meet the demand, several officials said. Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, is accepting fewer students this year, because for the last two years it has been “overenrolled. It had a higher yield [the number of students accepted who decided to attend],” said Mr. Herney.

Independent schools are “looking at what happened to colleges in the 60’s--they expanded, then folded. Schools are not expanding for fear that demand will dry up if the public schools are restored,” according to Mr. Smith of Milton Academy.

One explanation for the changes in application rates was suggested by an admissions officer for a well-known boarding school: Prospective students and their parents are “being more sophisticated shoppers,” he said. They are applying to more schools and to the more prestigious schools. Parents may still be willing to pay $10,000 a year, but only for the top-ranked schools.

People who five years ago typically applied to three of the best-known schools and perhaps two or three others are now applying only to the top New England schools. And this, he said, may account for overlap--with a student making all of his or her applications to Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, and Choate and other similarly selective schools.

Officials of the following schools were interviewed for this story:

Brearly School, New York City; Choate Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, Conn.; Colorado Academy, Denver, Colo.; The Cranbrook Schools, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Mass.; Emma Willard School, Troy, N.Y.; Governor Dummer Academy, Byfield, Mass.; Hockaday School, Dallas; Holton-Arms School, Bethesda, Md.; The Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, N.J.; Lenox School, New York City; Madeira School, Greenway, Va.; Maret School, Washington, D.C.; The Masters School, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.; Milton Academy, Milton, Mass.; National Cathedral School, Washington, D.C.; Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.; Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, N.H.; San Francisco University High School, San Francisco; St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H.; Taft School, Watertown, Conn.; University School, Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Webb School of California, Claremont, Calif.; The Westminster Schools, Atlanta; Westridge School, Pasadena, Calif.

Anne Bridgman and Peggy Caldwell contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1982 edition of Education Week as Independent-School Applications Rise, In Spite of Marked Increases in Tuition


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