Private School Tuition: How High Can It Go?

The cost of sending kids to private schools has been outpacing inflation. Is there a breaking point?

By: Mary Clare Glover

Véronique Lagrange has few complaints about St. Albans. She says the DC private school is preparing her two sons for college—and life. “They learn a lot more than math and science,” says Lagrange. “They learn ethics from fantastic role models, exercise in the best facilities, and will surely grow to be fine, independent, trustworthy young men.”

Still, Lagrange can’t help feeling discouraged by the school’s ballooning tuition. Like nearly all area private schools, St. Albans gets harder to afford every year.

In 2008, the all-boys school, which starts in fourth grade and continues through high school, cost $31,428, making it one of the most expensive day schools in Washington. This year, tuition climbed to a new high of $32,990.

During the last decade, area private schools have enjoyed a golden age. Riding the crest of the strong local economy, they’ve been able to expand programs, increase teacher salaries, renovate buildings, and bankroll new state-of-the-art facilities.

But as tuitions have climbed, lots of Washingtonians have struggled to keep pace. A scientist at a trade association, Lagrange describes her family as middle class. Sending her sons to St. Albans means sacrifices—she put off renovating her home, eschews nice vacations, and makes only small contributions to her retirement account.

“Each year it is a little harder,” she says. “It’s frustrating.”

In 1998, tuition at the Bullis School in Potomac was $14,000. Last year, tuition at the coed private school—which goes from third grade through high school—was $28,430. Even after accounting for inflation, that’s a 54-percent jump. At Beauvoir in DC, kindergarten this year costs about $6,000 more than in-state tuition at the University of Maryland.

Every November, The Washingtonian compiles a guide to private schools, which includes tuition data. We crunched the numbers and saw a trend that wouldn’t surprise most tuition-paying parents. From 1998 to 2008, most private schools raised tuitions by 5 to 8 percent annually. At almost every private school—whether boarding or day, single sex or coed, religious or independent—tuitions have doubled in the last decade.

Georgia Irvin, an educational consultant and author of Georgia Irvin’s Guide to Schools: Metropolitan Washington, says that private schools used the strong economy to make overdue changes: “We at long last realized that we have to compensate our teachers better—not only with salary but with benefits.”

Schools built science labs, performing-arts spaces, student lounges, and athletic centers that would make some colleges jealous. The private-school building boom produced a $34-million upper-school renovation at the Potomac School in McLean, a new $23-million athletic center at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, and a $25-million renovation at DC’s Georgetown Day School.

Heightened expectations among parents, students, and alumni also fed a frenzy for new programs and cutting-edge technology. In addition to Spanish and French, schools began adding classes in Japanese and Chinese. They installed interactive whiteboards in classrooms and built specialized computer labs for subjects such as digital photography.

But since the economy’s slowdown last fall, private schools have faced a new reality. Tuitions are out of reach for more families, endowments are down, and requests for financial aid are up.

“I think people are soberly realizing that we’re going to have to manage things down for the foreseeable future,” says Bruce Stewart, who retired as head of school at Sidwell Friends in June. “Nobody is thinking about starting major capital campaigns or building initiatives—that’s all been back-burnered.”

Last November, the Maret School mailed a letter to parents. In it, head of school Marjo Talbott was candid about the economic crisis and the impact it may have on the private school in DC’s Woodley Park neighborhood.

Talbott explained the vital role of fundraising. After tuition, the school’s annual fund and scholarship auction are Maret’s largest sources of revenue. “Maret is grateful for, and dependent upon, the generosity of our community,” Talbott wrote.

One Maret mother read the letter and felt a pang of guilt. An involved parent who strongly supports Talbott and the school, she and her husband had always donated at least $10,000 each year to the annual fund. But because of the economic downturn, they felt they needed to be more careful with their money this year.

“I said to my husband, ‘We have to give something,’ and he joked, ‘Okay, how about $100?’ ” says the parent. “So I wrote a check—not for $100 but for a lot less than $10,000.”

The mother also had volunteered to make phone calls asking for donations: “I called the school and said I didn’t want to anymore. I felt very uncomfortable asking people for money in this environment.”

When the recession hit last year, many families began watching their budgets more closely. Former Sidwell head Bruce Stewart says that several families asked if they could stretch their donation commitments over a longer period.

For families already stretching to pay for private school, the recession made tuition even more difficult to afford. Susanna Jones, head of the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, says applications for financial aid were up by 50 percent this year. Students who had never applied for aid before began asking for help. Meanwhile, the school’s endowment dipped by 20 percent.

The economy has hurt some schools more than others. Reston’s Sunset Hills Montessori School dropped fourth through eighth grades after the 2008 school year. Applications to the school—which started with children at 18 months and went through eighth grade—initially fell for 2009–10. A handful of families had to leave because of job and financial losses. Fundraising was down by half.

School administrators say that small, newer schools such as Sunset Hills Montessori—which was founded in 1994 and had 200 students last year—are likely to suffer the toughest blows. More established schools such as St. Albans and Sidwell Friends have a strong alumni base and an endowment that can serve as a financial safety net. Newer schools are still trying to carve out a niche.

“You’re in a Catch-22,” says Eileen Minarik, Sunset Hills Montessori’s founder and director of development. “If you raise the tuition too high, you’re not going to have the students. But if you don’t raise tuition enough to keep a quality staff, you’re going to end up losing your students anyway.”

When it came time to set tuition for this school year, Susanna Jones says, Holton’s staff tried to curb expenses. Tuition at the all-girls school, which was founded in 1901, had been climbing by 5 to 8 percent annually. This year the school kept the increase to about 3 percent. Jones says the economy was the “sole reason” for tapering the curve.

Lots of private schools adopted a similar strategy. After raising tuition by 7.6 percent in 2008, the Washington International School in DC increased it by 5.7 percent for this school year. McLean’s Langley School dropped its tuition increase from 5 percent in 2008 to 2 percent this year. And at Episcopal High School—a boarding school in Alexandria where tuition increased by 7 percent in 2008—the annual tuition grew by 2.7 percent for the 2009 academic year.

Schools are looking for creative ways to bring costs down. They may defer maintenance, stretch out the lives of athletic uniforms and library books, or reduce staff through natural attrition. Officials predict that the building boom will slow down.

Regardless of how schools make cuts, they say they won’t skimp on the quality of education. “You cannot charge what independent schools are charging and not offer a first-class program,” says former Sidwell head Bruce Stewart.

Even though many schools raised tuition by smaller amounts this year, cash-strapped parents felt little relief—private schools are still more expensive than ever.

One Sidwell parent who lives in DC says she and her husband reevaluate the benefits of a private-school education every year when they write their tuition check. “The tuitions are more than I was paying when I was going to college,” she says. “So far, we have decided to continue, but if we lived north of the Maryland border, we might have made different decisions.”

With private-school costs continuing to go up even this year, many are left wondering how high tuitions can go.

“People have been talking about this for years, saying we can’t keep doing this,” says Holton’s Jones. “And every year I’m amazed at how much people raise tuition. Nobody knows when we’ll reach a breaking point.”

Check out the latest on more than 300 private schools here.

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.