Price of Independent--School Education Increases 80 Percent Over Past 6 Years

By Blake Rodman — September 24, 1986 5 min read

In the mid-1970’s, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., launched a massive fundraising drive that by January 1980 had raised $50 million. Even so, the next year’s tuition at the independent secondary school jumped 16 percent for boarding students and 14 percent for day students.

And between 1980-81 and the current school year, tuition has shot up by 66 percent from $6,300 to $10,500 for boarders and from $4,800 to $8,000 for day students, or an average increase of more than 10 percent a year.

''We thought we would be able to keep our tuition down,” Christopher L. Shaw, a spokesman for the school, said. “But even our extraordinary fund-raising hasn’t made up the difference.

''We are still over $10,000 a year. And once you pass that mark, you’ve passed a milestone that none of us wanted to see passed as early as 1986.”

The Phillips experience is not unique among the nation’s independent schools. The median tuition for elementary and secondary independent schools-both boarding and day-has risen by roughly 80 percent between 1980-81 and the current school year, an analysis of data collected by the National Association of Independent Schools shows.

The dramatic increase has been necessary to raise teachers’ salaries to a “livable” level, to provide additional financial aid, and, more recently, to cover the skyrocketing cost of liability insurance, independent school officials say.

But some school officials lament the fact that the increasingly high price of an independent- school education could further limit access to the schools at a time when they are trying to attract students from more diverse economic backgrounds.

So far, however, officials say demand for an independent-school education has not decreased.

Although the cost of an independent school’s education varies widely, I depending on a school’s quality and geographic location, as well as a student’s grade level, according to the independent schools’ association, the overall rates of increase have been fairly uniform.

For example, between 1980-81 and the current year, the organization’s data for schools across the nation show that:

  • Median 12th-grade tuition at boarding schools rose 78 percent, I from $6,153 to $11,000.
  • Median 12th-grade tuition at day schools increased 82 percent, from $3,196 to $5,800.
  • Median 1st-grade tuition at day schools jumped 86 percent, from $2,129 to $3,975.
  • The analysis found the most dramatic annual increases in the schools’ tuitions in the past 10 years came in 1980-81, after the first of three years of double-digit inflation.

    That year, the median 12th-grade tuition at day schools-which had risen 8.5 percent in 1979-80, when the Consumer Price Index rot;e 11 percent--jumped 13.4 percent, mirroring the inflation rate. For the next two years, tuition at the schools kept pace with cost-of-living increases.

    But since 1982, tuition increases have far outpaced inflation.

    For example, this year the median tuition at independent schools rose about 9 percent; over the 12 months ending in June, the Consumer Price Index rose 1. 7 -percent.

    “A lot of schools got shocked by the inflation of the late 1970’s,” Mr. Shaw of Phillips Academy said. “It went up faster than we could keep up with, and now we are still trying to catch up.”

    Teacher Salaries

    Teacher salaries at independent schools “didn’t even begin to keep pace with inflation,” said Jonathan E. Slater, headmaster of the Latin School of Chicago, where 12th-grade tuition has risen 72 percent in the past six years, from $3,980 to $6,825.

    The desire to pay teachers “a living wage,” he said, has been “the biggest single influence” driving up independent- school tuitions. “Eighty percent of my operating budget goes toward salary and benefits.”

    The historic gap between teacher salaries at the independent and public schools is beginning to close, said John C. Esty Jr., president of the independent schools’ association.

    Ten years ago, the average salary of an independent-school teacher was 67 percent that of the average public-school teacher, he said. Last year, it was roughly 75 percent of the average public-school teacher’s salary.

    The average salary for all independent- school teachers last year was $19,100, according to the N.A.I.S., while the average salary for public-school teachers was $25,275. (See Education Week, March 19, 1986.)

    “Apparently the increases in tuition have begun to have an effect,” Mr. Esty said.

    Enrollment Trends

    Independent-school leaders note, however, that raising tuition can be risky because of its potential impact on enrollment.

    “It’s our most feared marketing factor,” Mr. Shaw of Phillips said. “Parents who are looking at our schools often look at tuition first, and sometimes they look no further.”

    Average enrollment in the nation’s independent schools dropped last year for the first time since the N.A.I.S. began keeping complete enrollment data on its member schools more than a decade ago. (See Education Week, May 14,1986.)

    Independent-school leaders attribute the decline more to demographic trends-the number of school-age children has decreased-than to rising tuitions. Although they acknowledge that high tuitions diminish access to their schools, they say the demand for the type of education independent schools offer is “inelastic.”

    “No one expects any big decline in independent-school enrollment,” said Thomas Read, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. “The schools are just so attractive to parents that really care about the education of their children.”

    Financial Aid

    But as the tuition of their schools increases, independent-school leaders note, so does the need for student financial aid-particularly if the schools are to be accessible to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “You have this built-in multiplier on tuition,” Mr. Esty said. “When tuitions go up, schools that have a commitment to broadened access automatically have to charge even higher tuition to provide more financial aid.”

    According to the N.A.I.S., the nation’s independent schools increased their spending on financial aid by an average of 85 percent between the 1979-80 and the 1984-85 school years, from an average of $104,000 to $192,000 per school. Examining the data in another way, the schools earmarked an average 7.4 percent of their total operating budgets on financial aid in 1984-85, up from 7 percent five years earlier.

    Insurance Woes

    The climbing cost of premiums is not the only insurance-related cost that has made tuition increases necessary this year, independent-school officials say.

    “Business officers were getting insurance bills that were double, triple, and, in some instances, ninefold increases over previous years,” said Arthur Broadhurst, director of business services for the independent schools’ association.

    But, he noted, the costs of higher deductibles, reduced coverage, and certain exclusions must also be covered.

    “One way or another these costs must be passed. on, and ultimately it’s to the parents who pay the tuitions,” he said.

    A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as Price of Independent--School Education Increases 80 Percent Over Past 6 Years