At Private Schools, Little Financial Impact

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This past winter, plunging financial markets combined with steady increases seemed destined to spur flight from independent schools. But according to officials at the National Association of Independent Schools and several city —where tuition ranges between $28,000 and $36,000 per year—applications remain steady, even as financial aid requests from current families have increased.

“What we’re seeing is enrollment has remained steady,” said Myra McGovern, the association’s director of public information. “NAIS has looked at the past six recessions, and historically independent schools have been able to maintain enrollments. What’s changed is the amount of financial aid; they’ve increased financial aid in order to maintain enrollments.”

What’s less clear, though, is how long parents will be able to continue forking over money. For now, many are sticking it out, which seems partly due to a lack of alternatives. Parents fear government budget cuts will unleash havoc on the already-strained public school system.

“Those budget cuts come into many people’s thought process,” said Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School, an Upper West Side pre-school that plans to expand through 8th grade. “We have some wonderful, wonderful public school options, but the neighborhood schools are already quite crowded, so what do you do?”

Columbia Prep, on West 93rd Street, plans to maintain programs like Prep for Prep, which connects students from low-income areas to independent schools. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Columbia Prep, on West 93rd Street, plans to maintain programs like Prep for Prep, which connects students from low-income areas to independent schools. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Some parents are doing everything possible to keep their kids in independent schools, including cutting back on expenses—a big change in a culture often marked by conspicuous consumption.

“I heard much less talk this year about, ‘Where are you going away for Christmas and spring break?’’” said Wendy Cebula, a mother of two private school students on the East Side, who asked that the name of her daughters’ school not be disclosed.

Eric Greenberg, who runs Greenberg Educational Group, a tutoring and school consulting service on West 86th Street, agreed.

“An increasing number of families I’ve seen are cutting back on travel, sleepaway camp, summer programs—anything but school when a budgeting decision has to be made,” he said.

Greenberg added that looking ahead to the college level, many families are exploring public universities and financial aid packages, where funds are more readily available, rather than taking their kids out of private school now.

Schools have also been renegotiating with families who are newly concerned about finances, increasing or redirecting fundraising efforts toward tuition assistance and earmarking more of their budgets for aid. At The Nightingale-Bamford School, on East 92nd Street, a portion of the annual senior gift was allotted toward scholarships for currently enrolled families.

“Schools are very sensitive to this,” said Dr. Shamir Khan, a West Side parent who runs a popular blog, http://www.nycprivateschoolsblog.com. “For many of them this is the priority because they know families are so stressed.”

East Side parent Cebula echoed that sentiment.

“Our school has been really careful about how they go about fundraising,” she said. “The school has always stressed participation over dollar amounts, and this year they really wanted to make that clear, and stress that any amount was welcome.”
For now, these measures allow schools to present a cheery face. But the future is not quite as certain.

“I never thought there would be an exodus this year, because it’s just the first year of it,” said Simone Hristidis, director of admissions at Columbia Prep. “More people will feel what the reality is next year, if bonuses are really not going to come through and jobs aren’t there.”

Indeed, if fundraising dries up and jobs don’t materialize, families in the vast middle who don’t qualify for extensive aid but who can’t afford skyrocketing tuition may leave the city or take their chances with public schools—options many are at least beginning to weigh.

“In the last two months I’ve had at least one family a week coming to learn about the public schools because they are still negotiating with private schools over aid,” said educational consultant Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC.

This trickle could turn into a more serious flow. Sources interviewed for this article emphasized that schools were stretching themselves to the limit, but that the supply of money might not be bottomless. Blogger Khan described a conversation he recently had at a screening for Nursery University, a documentary about the competitive admissions process for the city’s private pre-schools.

“One of the things we discussed is that this climate could lead to a decline in these schools’ economic, and potentially racial, diversity,” he said. “They just can’t hold the same types of fundraising auctions now. And I do think that if that trend starts to continue, there will be a bit more of an increase of this perception of the privilege and elitism of these schools.”

But schools are eager to reaffirm their commitment to diversity. Hristidis said she is fully confident that Columbia Prep has enough of a cushion to help current families and applicants. The school plans to maintain a strong commitment to programs like Prep for Prep, which connects students from low-income areas to independent schools.

“New York City stands strong,” she said. “And it has stood strong through many of these climates.”

One school that has a different approach is Manhattan Country, the only private school in New York City in which families pay proportional to income. Lois Gelernt, the school’s director of admissions, said Manhattan Country’s situation is similar to other schools’: enrollment is steady, with aid re-negotiations or requests on the rise. But, she added, the flexibility of the sliding-scale plan has meant that fewer ripples than if Manhattan Country had a specific amount of money set aside for aid.

“For us, we know what to expect even with a recession, because of the Family Financial Commitment Plan we’ve always had in place,” Gelernt said. “Our budget includes that understanding that we’re always going to maintain economic diversity.”

Manhattan Country hopes the current economy might push other schools to consider a tuition plan like theirs; at least one outer-borough school has already approached them about implementing such an arrangement, Gelernt said.

The Grace Church School, on Fourth Avenue, made a commitment to expanding financial aid even before the crisis hit. Families making less than $75,000 dollars per year now only pay $1,000 in tuition.

“Grace Church has a commitment to reaching a broad socio-economic swath and keeping our admissions need blind,” said Marjorie Stone, the admissions director. “We did have some families request financial aid for the first time this year, but our enrollment is up, our applications were up this year and we’re in good shape.”
For now, the biggest consequence of the changing economic climate seems to be more stress and uncertainty, from admissions onward.

“The single greatest issue that we have had to contend with is stress: not stress based on what has happened, but this free-floating anxiety about what might come to pass,” said Rowe, of Mandell. “Parents are asking for financial aid meetings not because they need money now, but just to have started up a conversation in case they lose their job. I say, ‘If you lose your job, come back and see me.’”

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