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Many parents place their children in private schools for the sole purpose of exclusivity — a reason that can be both good and bad in a democratic country. Whether that reason is to pursue a religious education, escape the diversity of the public school system, to pursue a special curriculum or to learn within the confines of a particular socioeconomic, gender or racial identity, some parents are comfortable paying twice — through taxation and tuition — to enroll their child in private school. However, these parents know too well that increases in tuition are outpacing any increase in their incomes, creating an economic exclusivity that’s pushing all but the truly wealthy out.
Many private school principals are forced to find ways to make their schools more affordable, some by reining in soaring pricing. Whatever their reasons for bringing down costs, school leaders may uncover a silver lining to their efforts in increased inclusion, a democratic aim all educational institutions should pursue. If they do, one day private schools may even look more like public ones.
Tuition is getting out of control. The average tuition for a K-12 private day school for the 2008-09 school year was approximately $17,000, according to data collected by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), a membership organization that consistently puts out enrollment reports on the sector. In 2019, the average yearly tuition for a private day school with all grades is $26,000, an increase of about 53 percent over the last decade. After averaging estimates for 5-day and 7-day boarding schools, average annual tuition during the same period jumped from $37,000 to 51,000, almost 38 percent. Meanwhile, median household incomes have increased about 8 percent in the past 10 years.
Sadly, school administrators don’t see an end in sight to the soaring cost of private school. According to another NAIS study, 81 percent of principals and 89 percent of chief financial officers said they planned to continue raising tuition above the rate of inflation.
The result is that middle-income families are leaving private schools, according to a 2017 Stanford University study, while enrollment among high-income families remains unchanged. Schools have done quite a bit of tuition discounting — reducing the price through subsidies — to address the threat of declining enrollments. NAIS found that net tuition revenue is growing more slowly than tuition price, meaning schools are finding ways to provide scholarships and financial aid programs to help families deal with ever-increasing costs. This has led to wide variation in what parents at individual private schools actually pay, with some schools trying to address financial need on a case-by-case basis while also covering their costs. Some parents pay full freight; others pay at a variety of levels. Many parents are unaware of the financial aid they may be able to receive and immediately turn away from the sticker price. Private schools can feel like used car lots with their confusing matrices of discount options.
One private boarding school outside of Pittsburgh is trying to make its tuition more affordable, transparent and consistent. The Kiski School, an all-boys boarding school serving ninth through 12th grades, recently announced that it will create a new tuition structure that increases affordability and offers full transparency in pricing, effective in 2020.
“I’m very pleased to announce that beginning next year, Kiski will ‘reset’ its tuition to $48,500, significantly lower than our current level and competitively priced at 20 percent less than the national average,” wrote headmaster Christopher Brueningsen in a public letter addressed to parents of current families and donors of the school.
This year, Kiski’s annual tuition is $61,300, which is about average for a 7-day boarding school. The school hopes to finance its plan through its recently completed capital campaign, which raised 35 million, and will fund endowed scholarships.
Brueningsen told the Hechinger Report that he and his board have been concerned about unrestrained tuition increases for years. “The amount of families that can afford a $60,000 education is shrinking,” Brueningsen told me.
One of Kiski’s board members had sent around an article about St. John’s College’s efforts to reset tuition and asked, “Why can’t we do that?” said Brueningsen. Indeed, several private colleges, which have also seen tuition and fees skyrocket over the last few decades, have started resetting their tuition prices in recent years to address concerns about affordability. Primary and secondary institutions can learn a thing or two from these efforts.
Economist Lucie Lapovsky, a former college president, conducted her own analysis of 24 private colleges that lowered their published tuition price between fall 2010 and fall 2016. Lapovsky found that these colleges lowered tuition by 5 to 43 percent, but most increased their prices the following year.
Still, in terms of opening access and increasing enrollment at the institutions, the resets proved somewhat successful. “Half of the colleges and universities had freshman enrollment increases in the year that that the reset was done as compared with the year before the reset,” Lapovsky wrote in her report. Less than half (43 percent) of the colleges saw their freshman classes grow the year after the reset; but “67 percent had an increase in their freshman class two years after the reset as compared with the year before the reset,” the report states.
I believe private institutions share in the responsibility to create inclusive learning spaces and communities; the fight for integration should not stop with public institutions. However, let’s not forget that many families choose private schools because they are exclusive. Many expensive private schools aren’t resetting their price because there’s a demand from well-heeled families who value exclusivity. The colleges in Lapovsky’s study may have needed to recruit more middle- to low-income students just to keep their doors open. Being backed into a corner to promote inclusion may not be ideal—but I’ll take it.
Kiski is an outlier. It’s a well-respected private school that prides itself on its socioeconomic diversity. Brueningsen told me that his predecessors referred to Kiski as a blue-collar boarding school — three-quarters of its students are on financial aid. Resetting tuition at $48,500 is by no means an expansive new pathway for low-income families to enroll; the school will still have to subsidize many students heavily to authentically promote diversity. However, Kiski is acknowledging that many schools in the private sector are simply too far out of reach for most people.
Schools that are open to a diverse public are a democratic society’s ideal. It’s an ideal that too many parents wrongly disregard. I’m hoping Kiski’s tuition reset can help retune the thinking of parents and school leaders alike. A school doesn’t have to be elite to be great.
This story about private school tuition was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.