High Price to Pay


More Private School Parents Checking Pockets for Change

More and more private and parochial schools in the area are hearing a jingling sound coming from parents’ pockets as families worry about mon-ey matters when enrolling their children into Washing-ton’s pricey private academies.

The worrying even extends to families that previously didn’t think twice about spending thousands per year on a private education. Many local schools are seeing an increase in financial aid applications from families who hadn’t ever applied before, including people presently paying all tuition and fees themselves, said Mark Mitchell, vice president for school information services at the D.C.-based National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

Indeed, the combination of soaring tuitions — ironically in part to cover financial aid costs — declining enrollment all around, and the bleak national economic picture has squeezed even some of the area’s most popular private schools.

For instance, at Georgetown Preparatory School, in Bethesda, Md., there’s been an increase in financial aid applications over the past year, confirmed Brian Gantt, the school’s communications director. A Jesuit school for boys grades nine through 12, Georgetown Prep offers both day school (with tuition running ,200 per year) and boarding (which brings tuition up to ,150).

Walter Ailes, director of finance and operations, at Lowell School, agreed that many upper middle-income families are taking a hard look at private school prices. Lowell, located near Rock Creek Park in Washington, has a tuition range of ,710 to ,850 this year. “Clearly there’s a change. Everywhere in the D.C. area, not just at Lowell, people who 10 years ago would not have considered themselves financial aid candidates are applying,” he said.

And schools are listening up: There’s now financial support for high-earning families, even those making 0,000 up to 0,000, for instance, depending on the number of children and particular circumstances.

Compared to many other parts of the country, the nation’s capital has an abundance of private schools for the region’s residents, which tend to be in the upper brackets in terms of education, income and employment.

“The market is very competitive here because you have a lot of schools in a small area,” Mitchell of NAIS said. Another important difference is the higher tuition rates, he added, noting that newcomers may easily experience “sticker shock” when they see schools in the ,000 to ,000 range, which tends to be the norm.

Balancing that, however, private school commitment to socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in this area is “very strong and very deep,” according to Mitchell. “D.C.-area schools do give a lot of financial aid to families and give it to a slightly higher percentage of students,” he said.

Nationally, independent schools gave financial aid to an average of 17.8 percent of their students during the 2007-08 school year, but the local figure is 19.6 percent, a significant difference.

The figure at Georgetown Prep is 23 percent. “As a [Roman Catholic] Jesuit school, we do feel we have a need to help. Charity and service are a big part of our mission, and our goal is to have people of every economic background,” spokesman Gantt said.

The figure at Lowell is even higher, at 27 percent. “Schools all have their cocktail party reputations. Lowell has always had one for diversity. It’s written all over our front door,” Ailes said of the school, which houses some 300 students from age 3 to the sixth grade.

Ailes added that Lowell is trying to boost the financial aid numbers up to 30 percent, but the key question becomes: “How do you pay for it?”

For other schools facing different economic outlooks, he said the question can become one of survival. “Some schools cannot keep their enrollments without offering financial aid,” Ailes said, explaining that they must then also ask themselves: “How do we stop tuition increases and how do we keep ourselves available to a diverse range of families?”

In contrast, diversity becomes the core issue for high-demand private schools that are the equivalent of prestigious universities like Princeton or Harvard, such as Sidwell Friends or St. Albans, where there will always be parents willing to pay out of pocket. “It’s not about enrollment but vision,” Ailes said.

But with skyrocketing tuition costs and financial pressure on parents and schools alike, diversity may be paying the ultimate price. Mitchell said school administrators are especially “worried about a shrinking pool of students … from middle-income families. They don’t want to create a culture of haves and have-nots at their schools.”

And the middle class still doesn’t represent the entire economic spectrum, reminded Michelle Ratcliff, director of development for the Black Student Fund (BSF), a local organization that gives scholarships and support to low-income black children at participating area schools. She believes it would be a mistake for private schools to focus exclusively on middle-income students in their financial aid packages to the detriment of families at the lower end, especially families of color.

Ratcliff, who taught at the private Holton-Arms school for girls for 15 years, was herself a BSF beneficiary, first attending Holton-Arms and then an Ivy League college, earning an anthropology degree from Brown University.

Historically, she said, private schools served the “wealthy and were predominantly white.” But today, most private schools in the D.C. area are now diverse when it comes to economic equity and ethnic makeup, although Ratcliff added that not everyone has caught up.

According to BSF statistics, black enrollment in area private schools rose from a dismal 1 percent in 1964 to 17 percent in 2007. Since the mid-1960s, BSF has been offering tuition support, mentoring and a “crisis fund” to black students in area private schools. The work has clearly paid off. According to Ratcliff, since 1984, 95 percent of fund-supported students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students have graduated high school, and “every single senior has gone on to college.”

“Support is what we do,” Radcliff said, noting that BSF provides college-credit classes to teachers and administrators on multicultural matters as well as annual school fairs. This year’s fair, on Sept. 14, drew more than 40 member schools, including an alphabet-soup mix of private academies — Alexandria Country Day School, Beauvoir National Cathedral Elementary, Bullis, Georgetown Prep, Georgetown Visitation, Green Acres, Langley, Lowell, Maret, Sandy Spring Friends, Sidwell Friends, Stone Ridge and Washington International School, among others.

Although the black middle class has grown, there is still a need to support lower income parents and students who may have difficulty paying for and navigating the independent school environment, Radcliff said. Even friendly and inclusive private schools “can be overwhelming” to such students at first, she emphasized.

Added Mitchell of NAIS: “Independent schools in the D.C. area are more invested in financial aid” than elsewhere in the country. In cooperation with the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington (AISGW), Mitchell offers workshops to schools on running strong aid programs, and for families, NAIS provides both advice and a standardized financial aid form that can be sent to any independent school.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.