School Choice & Charters

Tuition at Independent Schools Continues to Rise

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 01, 2004 4 min read
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Several of the nation’s most elite private schools have started charging a whopping $25,000 or more per child this school year.

And while such prices can cause sticker shock, the schools haven’t seen any decreased demand for their services.

This year’s K-12 tuition increases continue a trend started in the late 1980s, when independent schools, on average, began raising annual tuition rates beyond the rate of inflation, according to data collected by the National Association of Independent Schools.

For the past 10 years, independent private schools have raised tuition by 3 or 4 percentage points above inflation each year, according to the group, whose data do not cover tuition for parochial schools.

“There is much more demand from our customer base for more offerings, more teachers, more programs, more counselors, more teachers’ aides,” said Patrick F. Bassett, the president of the Washington-based NAIS. “Since the market has dictated that people are willing to pay for it, our schools are responding.”

He said that the competition to get into independent schools seems to be the greatest in the nation’s cities: Rural and suburban independent schools tend to struggle to keep their enrollment bases if they increase tuition dramatically.

Officials at independent schools say the tuition hikes reflect the cost of doing business. They cite the need for new buildings, the cost of educational technology, and the accelerating cost of insurance, particularly health insurance for faculty and staff members.

The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, Calif.

Private schools in the Northeast are not the only ones dramatically increasing their charges. Two years ago, this school began a plan to increase tuition by about $2,000 a year for four years in a row.
Year 2003-04 2004-05
Tuition $17,200 $19,500

Schools charging at least $25,000 in tuition for day students include Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn.; the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y.; and the Brearley School in New York City, where tuition includes all fees.

By comparison, tuition for a year at Harvard University is $27,448.

The Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., and the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., each charges more than $24,000 a year for day students. And schools with tuition between $20,000 and $24,000 include the Collegiate School in New York as well as Sidwell Friends School and St. Alban’s School in Washington.

Pay and Benefits

A tuition increase from $24,325 last fall to $25,885 this school year is expected to pay for some program improvements as well as upgrades in staff benefits at Miss Porter’s School, said Mara Braverman, the school’s director of communications.

For instance, the school decided to pick up the cost of short-term-disability insurance for faculty members and double the amount of money that the school allots each employee for continuing education each year, she said. She noted that Miss Porter’s, which counts the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as an alumna, is also spending more on its student leadership program.

Mike Saxenian, the chief financial officer for Sidwell Friends, which enrolled Chelsea Clinton in the 1990s, said that increased housing costs in the Washington area have pushed up faculty salaries. He said increased tuition reflects those raises as well as the cost of educational technology.

Sidwell Friends has increased tuition by 7.2 percent in the lower school, to $21,415, and 6.9 percent in the middle and upper schools, to $22,415, since last year. Still, demand for the school remains high. The school receives about five applications for every opening, according to Mr. Saxenian.

“We believe we could charge more, and we’re electing not to—the reason is we want to encourage as much economic diversity as we can within our student body,” he said.

Feeling the Squeeze

All of the schools that raised tuition report that they also increased the pool of money available for financial aid. Nationally, 16.7 percent of students at independent schools receive need-based financial aid, according to the NAIS, which has a membership of 1,200 schools.

Lisa Moreira, the director of admissions for Horace Mann, which raised tuition by 6.5 percent—to $26,100—from last school year, said that because her school’s financial aid focuses on the neediest families, tuition increases are harder for middle-income families.

“We have a concern about attracting middle-income families,” she said. “They feel the squeeze.”

Though tuition at independent schools in the Northeast tend to be the highest nationally, the prices are rising elsewhere.

Two years ago, for instance, the school board of the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., voted to raise tuition by about $2,000 each year for four years in a row.

“It was so that we would be more appropriately charging what it costs to educate a child, rather than relying on fund raising,” said Suzanne Weiner, the school’s marketing director. This school year, tuition is $19,500, a 13.4 percent increase over last year.

In 2003-04, according to the most recent NAIS data, the tuition for day students at independent schools ranged from $4,650 to $26,250. The median tuition was $12,770 for 1st grade and $16,528 for 12th grade.

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