Paying for private schools in the recession

Friday, April 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:09 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 17, 2009

COLUMBIA — Columbia Independent School will not raise tuition for the 2009-10 school year. Like many private schools around the country, the school is feeling the effects of the recession and trying to balance the needs of students and their families with the financial concerns of the school.

Head of School Scott K. Gibson III said that though tuition at private schools generally increases from 3 percent to 6 percent annually in response to inflation, in the current economy an increase now would not benefit the school.

Independent Schools in 2008-09

Enrollment: The National Association of Independent Schools represents 1,400 independent schools nationwide. These schools serve 615,000 students.

Tuition: For the schools affiliated with NAIS, the median tuition for independent day schools this year was $15,250 for first-graders and $19,475 for seniors in high school.

Need-based financial aid nationally: Independent schools include both day schools and boarding schools. This year, 18.7 percent of students enrolled in NAIS member schools received need-based financial aid — 17.1 percent of day school students and 35.3 percent of students at boarding schools. The average grant for day school tuition was $11,011. The average grant for boarding school tuition was $24,232. More than $1,267,115,000 in need-based financial aid was granted to NAIS students in 2008-09.

The School and Student Service for Financial Aid: This organization helps schools calculate the financial needs of their students, processing 146,000 applications last year for the current school year. This was an increase in need-based applications of 4.3 percent over the previous year. According to SSS, financial aid applicants’ incomes have increased in recent years.

NAIS spokeswoman Myra McGovern said the organization has heard there are more families currently enrolled in independent schools applying for financial aid than families who are enrolling at the school for the first time.

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“Increased tuition in response to an economic downturn generally leads to increased student attrition,” Gibson said. “Parents generally remove their children from independent schools when times are bad and tuitions are on the rise.”

Gibson said Columbia Independent School can afford to operate without an increase in tuition and that losses to revenue would be higher if the administration of the school raised tuition and lost students.

Kathy Baldwin-Heitman, director of admissions and development at Kansas City Academy, said the school's small student population has been affected by the economy. Like Columbia Independent School, the school does not have a large endowment. She said that while other factors might also be at work, the school's current student population is down by 10. Requests for scholarships are also up, she said.

Still, Baldwin-Heitman said families speak to her about tightening their budgets and working with less money in other areas of their lives to keep their children at Kansas City Academy, where many students focus on music and art. She said 60 percent to 70 percent of the school's students came from public schools.

“A good majority of our population are here because they were not thriving in a traditional, large public school setting,” Baldwin-Heitman said. “They were bored or lost.”

Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., said there is a “core group of families for whom independent school is not considered a luxury expense, but a necessity as important as paying the mortgage or rent.”

McGovern said private schools throughout the country remain cautiously optimistic; there has not been an exodus from them, with some schools even reporting record numbers of visitors.

“In turbulent times, people want greater stability,” McGovern said. “People may be paying tuition, but they see it also as investing in their child's education and joining a community.”

People are choosing to spend money where it will have the greatest effect, McGovern said, and sending a child to a school that meets their child's specific needs has “a profound impact on the life of a child.”

McGovern said many schools have increased their financial aid budgets. Of the 1,400 schools affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools, including Columbia Independent, about 19 percent of students receive financial aid, she said. This will probably increase next year.

Baldwin-Heitman said that Kansas City Academy will “plow along" and that teachers might not receive raises, or building projects and repairs could be delayed. Because of its small endowment, the academy operates primarily through tuition and fundraising. She said that while there has been some decrease in charitable giving this year, she was surprised by the results of the school's fall auction, where there was an increase in both donated items and the number of bids for them.

Baldwin-Heitman thinks people spent more this year because they were weighing their priorities and deciding to make a difference with the money they were able to spend.

Gibson has a similar take.

“Good education is generally always valuable, in good times and bad,” Gibson said. “One cannot acquiesce in low-quality education for several years when funds are scarce and expect to return to high quality education when funding becomes available, once again. Years can be lost in the process.”

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