New Study Examines Private School Affordability

Last week, Bellwether Education Partners released a study on recent trends in private school access and affordability.  Recent years, the report notes, have seen widespread closures of Catholic schools, which have long provided quality private education to many less-affluent communities.  Combined with increases in non-religious private school tuitions that have outpaced inflation and wage growth, this trend has served to create a growing gap in affordable education options that has rendered these largely inaccessible to growing numbers of low- and middle-income Americans.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics the average private school tuition increased by about 60%—from just over $7,000 to around $11,500—between 1999 and 2012 (the NCES did not collect data in this field since 2012; per, the current average tuition for a private school in Colorado is actually on par with the 2012 national figure).  Catholic school closures have exacerbated the impact of this national increase markedly, as Catholic- and to a lesser extent all other religious schools account for a significantly lower number of schools in the highest tuition range and the higher number in the lowest range when compared to non-religious private schools. Moreover, the rate at which non-religious private school tuitions have risen has outpaced the increase in national median incomes more than two-and-a-half-fold.

In part in an effort to address this growing gap, sixty-six private school choice programs have been established in twenty-nine states and now serve over half a million students across the county.  While many of these programs exist to serve specific student demographics, thirty-eight provide funding to the general student population but the overwhelming majority of the latter category of programs do not provide enough funding to equal national average tuition costs.  For this reason—and because many private schools have grown wary of the potential strings attached to public dollars—private schools have to devote considerable time and energy to fundraising.

The Bellwether study profiles several schools or school networks that approach the challenge of raising funds in various innovative ways; among these, for example, is the Cristo Rey Network which is comprised of 37 schools that serve roughly 12,000 students, two thirds of whom are considered low-income.  While the Network’s average per-pupil expenditure totals around $14,500, yearly tuition payments range from $1,000 to $2,500.  Cristo Rey Schools manages to accomplish this by partnering with a range of local businesses where its students will work five days per month, meaning that four students are equal to one full time employee whose earnings go directly to the school to help cover tuition costs.  Another fundraising strategy detailed in the study was developed by Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy which generates close to 80% of its funds by holding paid teacher training workshops that over the past decade have attracted over 60 thousand educators.  In a parallel trend, a number of private schools have attempted to reduce their costs by, for instance, relying heavily on blended learning.  At the extreme of this development are what are known as microschools, which the study addresses extensively.

There is no consistent standard to establish the point where a school is no longer just a smallschool and becomes a microschool, so the report opens with the results of a series of surveys examining the opinions of school leaders and other education figures on this very matter.  Aside from the point that microschools are “intentionally small” there is no real consensus that emerges from the survey results; the autonomy and personalized nature of microschool education are among other characteristics cited with some frequency.  While most microschools currently in operation enroll no more than 70 students, the researchers at Bellwether adopt a threshold of 150 students as this is a figure that sociologists often claim is the biggest community in which everyone can maintain a personal relationship with everyone else.

When it comes to affordability, private microschools are able to lower the financial burden education might put on students and their families by reducing costs, sometimes dramatically.  Most notably, these reductions come in the areas of facility, staff, and administrative costs; additionally, nearly half of the microschools examined in the study relied on the use of blended learning techniques to further reduce some aspects of instructional costs.  The potential benefits of microschools extend beyond their financial advantages: as the study notes, because of their intentionally small size, many microschools often include students of different grade levels and ages in the same classroom, thus “allowing students with diverse abilities and skills to share their strengths and learn from one another.”