By Eric Frazier
Spring marks re-enrollment season at local private schools, and the poor economy has some parents worried about whether they can afford annualtuitions ranging as high as $20,000.
Most private schools require parents to commit in the spring for the fall term. But tuition-payment deadlines stretch into the summer. Schools say more parents are seeking financial aid, but enrollment is holding steady so far. Others say families are re-committing, then hoping they'll have jobs when tuition comes due.
Kate Stewart, a parent of two Providence Day students, said parents feel strong loyalty to the school, and view private education as an investment, not a frill.
Still, she said there's talk among parents about possible layoffs; some fear they'll be unable to pay when tuition deadlines arrive.
“Everybody is pinched,” she said. “But people are doing whatever they can to keep their kids where they are.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman said his principals report heightened interest in campus tours from private-school families.
Caroline Horne, principal of Beverly Woods Elementary in south Charlotte, said parents at her school have heard the concerns of their private-school neighbors.
“They're in women's groups and have heard people say, ‘We might have to send our kids to Beverly Woods because we can't afford to send our kids to Providence Day or Country Day,'” she said.
Michael Glass already has opted for public schools.
His two sons, an eighth-grader and a second-grader, have done all their schooling at Bible Baptist Christian School in Matthews. But he lost his job last year, then landed a new one. Now, rising costs for gas, groceries and other necessities have squeezed his budget so hard that he tapped his retirement savings to pay the nearly $7,000 tuition bill for his boys.
“We've realized that next year we won't be able to do that,” he said. Private school “is a sacrifice even in good times. It's beyond that now.”
Next year, his oldest son will head to Independence High, a CMS school that has made strong academic gains in recent years. But Glass is concerned over a recent incident in which four students were caught leaving the campus with a sawed-off shotgun.
Allison, who didn't want her last name used, says she has one son at Palisades Episcopal School in southwest Charlotte, and will get a job or sell the family's $400,000 home to make sure his brother joins him there next year.
“We don't have cable, we have one car,” she said. “We make our choices based on what's important to us.”
Jack Creeden, headmaster at Providence Day School, said re-enrollment is strong so far, but more families are asking for financial aid – some for the first time.
The school's tuition averages $19,000. Providence Day increased next year's tuition by 2 percent – lower than usual, Creeden said – in deference to families' financial challenges. It also may delay maintenance and equipment purchases.
Tuition at Charlotte Country Day runs as high as $19,500. School spokeswoman Natalie Pruett said re-enrollment has been steady but that the big test will come in July, when tuition payments are due.
In Mecklenburg, private school enrollment was about 17,000 last year, compared with about 135,000 in public schools. The National Association of Independent Schools says enrollments typically hold steady during recessions. But the group, which represents 1,400 private schools, has seen financial aid applications jump by 4.3 percent for this school year.
Country Day awarded more than $3 million in financial aid for 2008–09. The school budgets 11 percent of its tuition money for financial aid, and taps anendowment reserved for that purpose.
But offering financial aid could become increasingly difficult as the stock market slumps. Private school endowments, like all endowments tied to the stock market, are down, Providence Day's Creeden said.
Charlotte Latin this year did not raise tuition, which already ranges as high as $18,000, but requests for help are up.
“Everybody's affected by the economic downturn,” spokeswoman Judy Mayer said. “Relationships matter. Families matter. We're going to do some belt tightening in other areas to try to keep as many of these on board as possible.”
Expensive private colleges are hurting, too
Private schools aren't the only educational institutions feeling the pinch. Colleges are struggling to predict how many of the students who applied in December won't show up in August for financial reasons. Applications have dropped at seven of the country's top eight liberal arts colleges, many of them expensive private schools such as Swarthmore and Amherst colleges.