Private school officials concerned about rising tuition

Monday, March 13, 2006

In the St. Louis area, tuition at Catholic schools has risen more than 40 percent in the last decade.

ST. LOUIS -- Tuition has risen fast in many private, independent schools, and some of their leaders are concerned that middle income families may eventually be priced out of the schools.

Ten years ago, the average senior at a private, independent schools paid less than $10,000; this year, that senior's family would pay more than $14,000.

Tuition at Catholic high schools in the St. Louis area in the last 10 years has risen more than 40 percent when adjusted for inflation, from about $4,000 to $7,000.

School leaders have seen the median 12th-grade tuition rise to $27,000 in New York, $24,000 in Washington and past $22,000 in Los Angeles.

"In all likelihood, we could continue to run elite academies, for the people who can pay for them," Dale McDonald, director of public policy for the National Catholic Education Association told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But we're called to do more than that."

School leaders also know that if enough middle-class families leave private schools, the schools lose some of their appeal.

"The middle class is extremely important to us," said Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, who said people in that class bring work ethic, ambition and an emphasis on education.

At St. Joseph Catholic School in Manchester, a parental revolt led the Rev. Thomas J. Santen to change his mind after he sent a letter to parents at the school saying he wanted to eliminate discounts for families that had multiple children at the school.

After they received the letter, more than 100 parents met with Santen. Weeks later, Santen withdrew his proposal, but 30 students will not return next year, he said.

The Diocese of Belleville serves middle-class students, said Tom Posnanski, director of education. Without them, the schools "become financially unviable. It's key to survival."

Leaders are so worried that, in some cases, they are changing decades-old tuition policies.

Bassett's group has begun to notice that parents who apply for scholarships have higher income levels -- some topping $100,000 a year. Now, his statisticians are tallying financial aid data on parent income.

Posnanski wants to eliminate discounts for multiple children in one family, which would bring in thousands of dollars for additional need-based scholarships. He has met with school leaders to discuss his proposal. It would take 10 years to gradually phase out the parish subsidy, but he has begun the process.

St. Louis Archdiocese officials are pushing schools to build endowments and urging parishioners to be more generous. They also are seeking state legislation to allow tax credits for companies that donate money for private school scholarships.

Administrators say it will be difficult to stop the rise in tuition because personnel costs continue to increase. They say they can't cut teachers, but can't attract good ones by paying them poorly. With rising health care costs and energy bills, and some schools also face the pressure of dropping enrollment.

College prep high schools such as John Burroughs School in Ladue and Christian Brothers College high school in Town and Country, where administrators say they've added counselors over the years as parents ask for better college guidance.

"Parents want more and more," said Keith Shahan, headmaster of the $17,000-a-year John Burroughs School. "And rightly so in some cases, because they're paying more."

Yet tuition is going further than it used to. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, student dollars covered as little as 73 percent of the actual cost of educating a student 15 years ago. Now tuition covers between 83 and 87 percent.

Many parents say the expense is worth it.

One recent day at John Burroughs, Peter Steuterman waited for his daughter to get out of school. Steuterman is a self-employed architect. He drives a 12-year-old SUV with 225,000 miles.

He knows Burroughs' tuition is rising next year, by $775 to $17,775.

"I do not need a new car," Steuterman said. "My children need an education."

But parents at St. Joseph's have not recovered from Santen's proposal to reduce multiple-students discounts. Thirty students told the school they will not be back next year, Santen said.

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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