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Independent Schools in the World: John Chubb Responds to Questions

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In June of 2013, shortly before John Chubb began his term as president of the National Association of Independent Schools, I called upon Dr. Chubb in these pages to help build "a clear narrative to express independent schools' collective commitment to playing a vital, contributing role in American education."

Shortly after taking office, Dr. Chubb graciously responded to some questions I put to him regarding the future of independent schools in the context of a sometimes contentious national conversation about education. The two posts containing these responses can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

Now, a year into his mission, Dr. Chubb responds to a further set of questions based on his on-the-ground experience in the diverse world of independent schools. NAIS, readers might be reminded, is a membership organization of over a thousand schools whose shared characteristics include self-governance, financial independence, non-profit status, and freedom from most taxation and much educational regulation. Most recent NAIS statistics (2012-13) show average member school size as 502 students and average median tuitions as $20,612 (day) and $46,800 (boarding).

QUESTION: As nearly everyone has noted, the current independent school price model seems insupportable in the long term; already tuition increases have run substantially ahead of the cost of living. You've visited many NAIS member schools, and you must be beginning to get a pretty good picture of the current situation. What do you see as driving these higher costs, and do you believe they are always, or even generally, fully justified in the context of the educational services schools are providing? Are there controllable factors that drive up costs without adding equivalent value?

JOHN CHUBB: The rising cost of an independent school education is undeniable. Tuitions and net tuitions (after financial aid) have risen much faster than median family income and faster even than the incomes of higher earning families. Enrollment in independent schools is therefore softening--parent inquiries down substantially, applications down somewhat and enrollment off slightly, supported by higher rates of admission. As I traveled the country last year, school leaders and other members of the independent school community expressed deep and widespread concern with these developments--that have not abated five years after the great recession.

These concerns are not easily addressed, however. The causes of increased costs are less clear than their occurrence. Indeed, much like private higher education, which similarly escalated in cost, the best explanation may not be expenses but the marketplace. Tuitions rose because they could. Student populations increased rapidly from 1990 to 2010, making it possible for more families to afford private schools and colleges, even though median and top decile incomes were not increasing rapidly.

NAIS is conducting and sponsoring research to understand the expenditures behind rising tuitions. We have nothing definitive as yet. It could be misleading to share preliminary findings. However, one thing is clear. The market forces that allowed tuitions to outpace inflation and family income are no longer favorable. The prospective student population is growing much more slowly, and competition from improved public schools and new charter schools is more intense. Whatever the causes of escalating costs, we should see schools innovating with business models better matched to the marketplace--and soon.

QUESTION: There can be a significant difference between educational services and educational value. Are independent schools effectively measuring and then making the case for the value of the services they provide?

JOHN CHUBB: Independent schools have traditionally been quite clear about the academic accomplishments of their students. However reluctantly the data may be produced, independent schools inform families about their "college lists," SAT scores, or placement records of graduates into high-caliber secondary schools.

Independent schools are less good at communicating other values that our schools have traditionally served. Our schools are all mission-based. Missions are almost universally concerned with the student's social and emotional development--the building of character, confidence and a commitment to service. Our schools may tell parents about these virtues. Our schools may be missing an opportunity to make the case more explicitly to parents.

For example, many independent schools have been administering the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE). Results indicate that students in independent schools are far more physically and emotionally engaged in their schooling than are public school students. Other schools have administered the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA), showing that independent school students have pretty high levels of "21st-century Skills," so coveted by colleges and employers. Additional surveys, by Gallup for example, gauge well-being. Persistence or "grit" can now be measured. Many of the things that parents and society values, and that independent schools have traditionally provided, might be better assessed by our schools and communicated outwardly.

The second half of this Q&A will be published here on Wednesday, September 24.

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