A tuition math tutorial:

A tuition math tutorial:

One plus one plus one plus… Parents of private school students find help for the headache of relentlessly rising bills in a grim economy.

By Brenda Rees 09/01/2010

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Last year at my daughter’s school, St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena, parents were buzzing about the big-ticket raffle prize at the annual dinner dance and auction. Was it the kind of temptation offered in years past, like a new car? Ample vacay time in some exotic condo? One of those fancy pedigree pooches? 
 
Nope. It was a year’s free tuition — four of the most wonderful words parents of private school students can hear these days. 
Chet Crane, head of school at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, says that during the last school year, he witnessed “a big spike in requests for tuition assistance — about a 5 to 10 percent increase.” Last year, Maranatha awarded about $1.2 million in financial aid. “It’s a real challenge to meet everyone’s needs, because there is only so much money to go around.”
 
Indeed, never before has sending your child to a private school been more of a privilege. In today’s miserable economy, committing to a private school education can be akin to tying a heavy weight around your neck for the next 13 years and throwing yourself into the rushing river of the Great Financial Unknown.
 
Even in flusher times, many parents moved to more desirable school districts for their kids, but these days, some have been forced to take on a second (and perhaps third) job or hit up the grandparents to support junior’s academic aspirations. 
 
It’s daunting for parents to realize that, despite all these sacrifices, they will see tuition increase practically every year. At private schools across the board, these increases are mainly to cover rising teachers’ salaries and health care costs. Most schools try to limit these tuition hikes to the modest 3 to 5 percent range, but when you’re talking about an annual tab that can range from $5,000 to $16,000 a year, those small increases can quickly add up... and sap bank accounts.
 
So what happens if dad gets downsized or mom is laid off? What can parents do if they want to continue down the independent school route?
 
“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” advises Dr. Richard Gray, president of LaSalle High School. “Talk to the school and let them know what’s going on; we want to work with you.”
 
Gray says that private schools, mindful of the pressures on parents, are extending more financial aid than ever before; last year, his school awarded $1.1 million from an emergency fund specifically designed to deal with these kinds of economic hardships. “We hadn’t had to tap into that fund in years, until about two years ago,” he says. 
 
It’s a pressing problem across the country. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, in the 2001-02 school year, only 15.6 percent of students received financial aid; during the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of students on aid jumped to 21.6.
 
But is all this assistance available only to parents of kids who are already enrolled? At some schools — like High Point Academy in Pasadena — yes, but others also offer help for incoming families. And lest you think that ability to pay is a criterion for admission, most private schools keep their financial aid committees completely separate from admissions committees; schools say they look at personalities and academic achievements — not the size of the parents’ purse — when screening candidates.
 
At High Point Academy, Headmaster John Higgins has seen tuition assistance ebb and flow over the years. “We have had families on financial aid for perhaps a few months [because] a parent lost a job and then a few months later, they’re back at work,” he says. “But then we have other families who have been drawing aid in fifth, sixth, seventh and even eighth grades.”
 
Such arrangements are kept private, so participating families needn’t worry about any social stigma. But that didn’t make it much easier for Cynthia A., who says she had to swallow her pride to ask for aid. With two kids in a Pasadena private school, Cynthia and her husband, once prosperous in their own businesses, found themselves hitting hard times during the past school year. They changed careers and made other financial adjustments, but money was still tight.
 
“It was a teacher who knew what was going on with us who suggested we look into financial aid,” explains Cynthia. “I never even considered it [and] it was almost too embarrassing to admit we needed help. The school walked us through the process and it all worked out. I was surprised at how generous they were to us. They really came through.”
 
Despite doling more out in tuition assistance, private schools say the general socioeconomic makeup of their student bodies has remained fairly constant, perhaps indicating how vulnerable people can be even higher up the economic ladder. In addition to tapping emergency funds, some schools are asking their alumni to kick in more toward the health of their alma maters. Gray says a new LaSalle campaign, Keeping Our Promise, invites alumni to sponsor a specific student who needs financial help. For the program’s first school year, alumni have pledged more than $100,000. 
 
And extended family members — particularly grandparents — are pitching in to help with tuition as well, says Diane LaSalle, admissions coordinator at Pasadena Waldorf School. “Grandparents are usually overjoyed to be asked,” she says. “They feel like they are contributing in a very significant way to their grandchildren; I’ve seen this make families even closer.”
 
Despite the dismal economy, private schools are doing their best to maintain the status quo and holding their own overall. It’s a juggling act to pay the bills, work with struggling parents and maximize fundraising efforts to keep the wheels of education greased and humming.
 
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an uncertain future is always in the back of many educators’ minds. “You know what concerns me most?” says Principal Jennifer Ramirez of St. Philip the Apostle. “What if things get worse? We’re able to keep up now with the way things are going, but what happens if more families lose jobs, the economy gets stuck or keeps sinking? We can’t do much more than we are doing now. What then? Do we lay off teachers? Deplete programs? 
 
“Those are things I don’t even want to think about — and I hope I don’t have to.” 

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