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What Does Your Independent School Tuition Buy?

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Independent schools--self-governing, self-funding schools outside the control of other bodies--tend to charge tuitions that make people shake their heads. In New York City, Boston, and L.A., the head-shake number is now at $40,000 and more--for day schools, mind you--while in other areas the round numbers range from the low 20s to mid 30s. Schools for younger students tend to run somewhat less.

The Census Bureau reports the average public school per-pupil expenditure nationally in 2010 as $10,615. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, average day school tuition and fees in 2012-13 at member schools run to $19,536.

What are students getting for that extra 84% over the price of a year in public school? Are teachers paid princely sums, or are the desk seats finished in fine Corinthian leather? Not quite. The median mean independent school teacher salary this year is $53,916; in 2010-11 the public school average was $56,069 (source: NCES). I've never seen a classroom with leather chairs.

To clarify our comparison, let's look at a Boston school, one with tuition just south of the $40K line.

First, classes: the average and usual class size is 15-16. This is true for the youngest students (grade 6) as well as for seniors. There are multiple levels of most high school classes--honors and standard--as well as advanced classes. There is a two-year arts requirement at the high school level with faculty to staff it--from music to theater to oil painting. Three times a year teachers, who are also students' advisors, write extensive narrative reports sent home with report cards.

Extracurriculars: All students excepting juniors and seniors participate in extracurricular programs three seasons per year; grades 11 and 12 have only two required seasons. Most do interscholastic sports: at least five choices per season, with eleven varsity programs for boys and twelve for girls. This all requires facilities:two full-sized gyms and a couple of fields for roughly 450 students, along with more rented fields, courts, and rink space for sports that don't fit on campus. There are fifteen middle school interscholastic teams and eleven JV and third teams. Teachers coach many but not all sub-varsity teams; coaches receive a stipend.

After-school dramatic productions are offered each season at both middle and high school levels, as are a variety of music, community service, robotics, and visual arts programs.

The student day, then, runs from 8 until 5:30 for most high school students and 8 to 3:40 for middle schoolers; teachers are on campus from 7:45 until 4 (assuming they have no afternoon obligations.)

Food: Lunch is included in tuition and free for faculty and staff: hot buffet, with salad bar and always a vegetarian option; continental breakfast, too. There's free coffee all day.

Student services include a learning specialist at each division, a school counselor, and three college counselors splitting a class of around 80. An endowed "center" oversees civic engagement and equity-related programs. The library also houses tech services supporting a 1:1 (BYO Laptop) environment and a wireless campus. Financial aid supports high-need students in acquiring laptops.

Demographics: A quarter of the students (and faculty, for that matter) are of color, predominantly Hispanic and African American. Kids come from something like 70 different ZIP codes; 53% enroll from public schools.

So-called "advancement" functions include admission, fundraising, and communications. You could also call these "self-perpetuation" functions, ensuring that the school has students and resources to continue operations. The numbers say these pay for themselves; an extensive summer program also helps underwrite academics.

Small classes and extracurriculars probably account for much of the cost differential. Add student services and meals, and the tuition begins at least to compute. Twenty-six percent of students receive financial aid, with most awards pretty substantial.

Industry-wide, 21.6 is the median percentage of NAIS member-(day)school students receiving financial aid. This doesn't even things out with the public sector, but it does reduce net (overall, median, day) tuition to $16,566--just over one and a half times the public figure.

That's what you get for a big tuition. Worth it? About 400 families at this school think so. And as long as we as an industry don't forget that we're educating students for a society and not just servicing customers, I am okay with it.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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