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Private School Tuition: How High Can It Go?
Comments () | Published November 1, 2009

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. 

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 11/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles