Equity in Independent Schools

Equity in Independent Schools

by Kat Sullivan, Director of Admission, The Bay School of San Francisco (CA) and Ed Thompson, Director of Secondary School Counseling, Far Hills Country Day School (NJ)

Admission offices across the country have long since prioritized diversity in their strategic recruiting plans. Socioeconomic diversity, ethnic diversity, geographic diversity, diverse learning styles -- but what happens once the students are enrolled? Independent schools aim to provide an equitable school experience for all students. The incredible resources and deep pockets that many schools possess do not come without a steep price tag, and yet the extra costs associated with the overall experience are often overlooked. We are more sensitive and aware of inequities in independent schools today, but we are not perfect -- we can all do better.

Cost: Who can afford it and why would you want to pay for it if you could?

If you thought diversifying your student body was challenging before, the increasing cost of independent schools is not helping. The exorbitant price tag simply makes this option unattainable for the majority of American families, even with the assistance of financial aid. And, because of the rate at which tuition has increased over the last ten years and continues to increase, more and more “high-income” American families are having trouble affording independent school (NAIS Trendbook 2016-2017 pg. 26), while living a lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. Therefore, the profile of a financial aid recipient has certainly changed as the “full-pays” have become “mostly-pays” and “mostly-pays” have become “full need.” The irony is that tuition remains the main income for independent schools. (NAIS Trendbook 2016-2017 pg. 24)

This is our wake-up call, folks! The competition is raising its game (big time!), and families have plenty of options. Public and parochial schools already deliver rigorous modern curricula and have similar experiential learning programs and exciting global opportunities that we offer beyond the classroom -- but at half the price. To add another layer of competition, accredited online options are fast-growing and an appealing option for the nontraditional learner or the learner who needs differentiated instruction. Families are looking for stronger value propositions from independent schools, especially since the “other” option is actually becoming a more attractive. Employers today are looking for strong communicators, creative and resilient problem solvers, and employees who are community minded and globally aware--and care less and less about where you were educated. 

Time to reflect on our practice

There once was a time, at some schools, where the students who received tuition assistance (financial aid) waited on the full-paying tuition students at formal dinner. The “haves” and the “have nots” are not as obvious in 2017. Today, most teens (84%) have access to smartphones (Source: eMarketer.com) and can buy designer clothes at discount prices; the ability to blend in is easier than ever.

Beyond the walls of the admission office, individual financial circumstances are not always considered by teachers and coaches day to day. It is important that enrollment managers take the time to educate faculty and coaches about the financial realities for some students (without disclosing specific student information -- financial aid information should remain confidential while a student is enrolled). Ideally we all adhere to the general rule of thumb: “If it can’t be provided to all, it shouldn’t be provided to any.” No student should ever feel as though s/he is at a disadvantage or that their school experience is less, because an experience was not available to them due to cost.

We all need to keep in mind the hidden costs and the surprise costs that are often taken for granted:

  • Pressure on parents to give more money/to keep up, etc.
  • The $3000 community service trip to Costa Rica
  • The $125 prom ticket
  • The “bottomless” school-store account
  • Trips to the movies, etc.
  • Lunches off campus
  • Extra team SWAG outside of the required uniform
  • The post-season soccer trip to Scandinavia
  • Allowance to grab lunch/coffee off-campus
  • SSAT, SAT, and ACT prep

Another question for the conversation: what about families that do not qualify for financial aid by a small margin? The added cost of the comprehensive independent school experience (the trips, the gear, etc.) will be onerous. This is where conversations and decisions about equity get complicated. The independent school experience for working moms and dads is also often overlooked. School leaders should be mindful of working parents and equity when scheduling concerts, recitals, special student expositions, and parent education programs. Looking ahead, as tuition increases faster than the cost of living, independent schools should continue to have open and honest conversations centered around equity and the student experience. The commitment to building the inclusive community should safeguard an equitable experience for all.