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carpe-diem.jpgIn a piece for SmartMoney (The Private School Pinch), Neil Parmer makes the case for the current private school admission cycle as a buyers opportunity. He doesn't sugar coat the costs but he makes the case for- and provides ideas and examples- of the negotiating and buying opportunities available to parents.

Boarding and private schools need to fill their seats and beds and are open to all sorts of considerations, strategies and questions from parents regarding tuition- ideas and discussions that schools wouldn't have entertained just a year ago.

Schools are doing their parts trimming and containing costs and tuition and they are willing to work with parents under the same pressures.

"...But look around the country these days and you'll see that admissions math is in flux...

Recession specials have also been cropping up at schools around the country, with tuition discounts reported as high as 20 percent...

And while you won't see "bartering" listed in any of its official financial-aid literature, the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn., has allowed a couple of folks to do just that. According to the school's head, Ann Pollina, several parents at the all-girls college prep have traded their professional services -- as technology and business-efficiency consultants -- for a little tuition relief...

In the past, of course, it's been the parents who have had to go to great lengths to get their children into the more elite schools. But since the economy went south, the game has changed; now it's the schools that are having to hustle -- and maybe even lower their standards. Instead of waiting for the applications to roll in, more are forced to actively beat the bushes, consultants say, to fill spots that have opened midyear. Even in the most competitive markets, there's talk of more "brokering" going on..." (SmartMoney)

If you're considering boarding or private school for student, an opportunity may be at hand.

Photo credit: Randy OHC

I read a couple of articles over the past few days that, combined, provide a good pictures of the thinking, priorities and sacrifices that families are grappling with in their 'public or private' school decisions. With a generally more conservative outlook about future earnings and home equity gone as a banking option families are struggling mightily to reach the best decisions about schools.

Two articles provide insight into the two sides of the education coin:

The New York Times article, "The Sudden Charm of Public School," looks at family thinking and finances that underlie a migration into the public school system by families who previously assumed that private school would be their choice. The exact numbers are unspecific and anecdotal, but the number of families thinking through this process is clear.

In the current climate can we, and, should we send our kids to private school?

From the NYT article:

"There is no way of knowing just how many would-be or current private school parents are turning to the public schools. But there is no question that the city's public kindergartens are experiencing a groundswell of interest...

The growing undertow from private to public emphasizes just how desperate some families have become.

Moving your kid out of private school is usually one of the last things to go," said Kathy M. Braddock, a partner at Charles Rutenberg Realty. "You give up vacations and cars and take away summer camp first.

But I hear people evaluating everything now. I know lawyers who have been laid off, Wall Street people, the Madoff victims. These are people who never thought they would be in a financial situation where they would have to start making certain choices.

...saying you're interested in sending your kids to public schools used to be a taboo among a certain group of people....Now it's actually kind of cool and in vogue."
The NYC Private Schools Blog paints the opposing view. In a post titled, "Private School Not a Luxury to Most," the author paints a picture of the willingness of parents to prioritize and sacrifice for private education.

Much of the article comes from a Wisconsin Rapids Tribune article looking at one mom's desire and willingness to sacrifice so that she can afford private school tuition and efforts of the area catholic schools to create aid and financing options. 

As Beckie Rogers told the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune:

"It's pretty much a given tuition rates go up every year...But as a parent, I prioritize and give up other things. This is a necessity for my family."
The reality of the public versus private equation in the current admission cycle lies somewhere in the middle. With no sound data, we don't know how many families will choose their public or private education options. We know for sure that economic stress has increased the value and importance of the public side of the equation. We know, with certainty, that uncertainty has private school admission officers working to demonstrate the value of the product and looking harder at their cost structures and aid and financing options than they have in quite some time.

Boarding School Podcast Sustainablity Series

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In light of the economic downturn, school sustainability and adaptive strategies have been hot topics for a number of months. No one is spared from the realities of a shrinking economy- schools, families, students- we're all impacted.

To encourage a conversation about the options available to families and schools, AQ's Boarding School Podcast hosted a four part sustainability series featuring leaders in the private school world. Each interview provides history, current thinking and insights regarding adapting for the future. I encourage you to listen and share.

Boarding School Podcast: Sustainability Series

Boarding Schools Adapting To A Changing Environment
Pete Upham, Executive Director, The Association of Boarding Schools

The Value of Working with an Educational Consultant in a Tight Economic Climate
Mark Sklarow, Executive Director, Independent Educational Consultants Association

Exploring School Sustainability Directions & Ideas with Patrick Bassett, President, National Association of Independent Schools
Patrick Bassett, President of the National Association of Independent Schools

Approaching Financial Aid in an Economic Downturn
Martin Peyer, CEO, TADS & Jamie Miller, Director of Financial Aid, Blue Ridge School

Blue Ridge School recently added its Affordability Plan to the school's web site laying out their commitment to affordability.

It includes both philosophical and concrete examples of the school's approaches and commitment. Among other items in the Affordability Plan, Blue Ridge has increased its financial aid budget by 30% over the past two years and, one item that I really like, the school makes clear that the tuition, room and board are inclusive of all school activities- including textbooks. This is more important than it sounds; for years, many schools have used extracurriculars and books as profit centers- charging and billing for activities and bus rides.

I like Blue Ridge's willing to publish their positions and thinking. They use one of my favorite terms transparency. Transparency allows parents and families to make the best possible decisions.

A Podcast Conversation About Affording Private School in an Economic Downturn

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Addressing the admissions notification and financial aid season, we produced a podcast today discussing financial aid in tight times.

Peter spoke with Martin Peyer, CEO of Tuition Data Services and Jamie Miller, Director of Financial Aid at the Blue Ridge School. They explored financial aid and tuition payment strategies for families as they make their private school commitment for 2009-2010.

Suggestions to families include:

Opening a dialog with admission and financial aid officers at the start of the application process

Prepare to document your financial condition

Explore tuition payment plans and lending options

Ask the financial aid officers about resources. They know the foundations and sources interested in supporting their students.

Please share their commentary and suggestions as we work through then enrollment and financial aid process in this difficult environment. The episode is available below, through our Boarding School Podcast directory or AQ's iTunes channel.

Approaching Financial Aid in a Recession Download the .mp3 (Audio) (16.9 MB)

Get it on iTunes Get it on iTunes!

From today's Washington Post (Aid Is Increased to Help Keep Struggling Families From Removing Students)- with experience working through difficult situations over the past decade- declining enrollment, increasing costs and families electing non-catholic education options, the Catholic schools of the DC area are moving quickly and decisively to help families seeking financial aid.

As Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association told the Post "Any kind of issues that we had before have just been intensified by the concern over the economy."

To their credit, the administrators of DC are Catholic schools are committed to finding and making increased financial aid available to families who might need tuition assistance for the first time.

"To retain students whose parents have hit rocky financial times, dioceses are increasing financial aid for next year, extending financial aid deadlines and offering emergency aid for this year for families facing sudden setbacks who are unable to pay tuition, which runs between $4,000 and $18,000 a year.

The Arlington Diocese, which has about 18,000 students, has increased its financial aid from $1.7 million to $2 million for next year. It is also offering $250,000 this year for people in immediate need, said Sister Bernadette McManigal, interim schools superintendent.

She expects the money to run out quickly. "I probably could use a half-million just for immediate need," she said." (Washington Post)
While doing great work, I find the-story-behind-the-story the most interesting aspect of this piece. Increasing financial aid is something that every tuition driven school would love today.  Most can't. But some schools- like the DC area Catholic schools- find more aid. And, I think the reasons are simple. Start with Lower overhead.  But, beyond that, I see commitment and communal bonds.

Most everyone, clergy, teachers, parents, students, charities and families share a common bond of service and shared sacrifice. "Working together, we can find a way to make this work." And, unlike stand-alone independent schools, catholic schools seem to be able to draw on revenues from other parts of their diocese.

"Barbara McGraw Edmondson, principal of the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills, said her school's leadership has decided that it will waive tuition, if need be, to keep children in school. Several families have come to the school seeking assistance because of unemployment or decreased income.

"If a family is in that situation, we certainly would have the child remain in school even if they can't pay the tuition," Edmondson said. "That is the reality now." (Washington Post)
One can't help but be impressed by the commitment and levels of shared sacrifice and wonder, "are there ways for independent schools to build, practice, and benefit from these intense levels of commitment and sacrifice?"
With the break from school and the slower routine, the end of year holidays provide a great time to make sure your ducks are in a row with respect to the private school application process. This is an overview of where you might expect to be if you're on an ideal application calendar. If you're in a different spot in the process- don't worry. It's a process; all the pieces can be compressed and sped-up if you need to.

By the end of the year, you should have worked through the following steps for Fall 2009 school admission:

  1. Committed to exploring a school change.

  2. Developed an understanding of your child as a student. How does he/she learn best?  In what type of environment does he/she thrive? Does he/she structure/support?  Does your student have a strong talent or ability that needs an especially strong program- art, music, athletics?

  3. Researched and explored schools- understanding the difference between different schools.

  4. Settled on a list of schools with environments and programs that will best nurture your student.

  5. Ordered application packages and started the application process at these schools. This includes completing the applications and working with your current teachers and school to have recommendations and assessments written.

  6. Scheduled interviews at these schools.

  7. Financial Aid. You should be gathering financial data and be completing the SSS financial disclosure from.
The process requires a good deal of gathering & information management; planning and is paramount. As I mentioned earlier, all of the parts can be compressed if you arrived late.

Financial Aid  
If you plan on applying for financial aid, start early. The financial aid process requires lots of disclosure and it can take some time to gather the information.

Also, schools may accept admission applications on a rolling admission basis. Be aware, however, that financial aid is not awarded nor is it usually available on a rolling basis. Financial aid applications have a fixed, early application date and you must submit your applications on time.
Let's be blunt; the crazy year in the financial markets is crushing and causing a wholesale resetting of budgets in priorities for everyone in tuition based education. Collegiate losses of endowment value and income are affecting college budget priorities and decisions. Wealthy, heavily endowed colleges and universities are paring back- beginning with (most obviously) building programs.

All parts of college and school budgets are under pressure. Three recent articles provide good insight into the shortfalls and compromises that everyone in tuition driven education faces.

Colleges Struggle to Preserve Financial Aid (New York Times)

Citing tough economy, Northeastern shelves dorm plan (Boston Globe)

MIT looks to slice $50m from budget (Boston Globe)

From an admission and financial aid standpoint, budget constraints bring the student's ability to pay back into the admission equation.

From the above New York Times article:

"Morton Schapiro, president of Williams College in Massachusetts, which has long had a commitment to accepting students without considering their financial situation, said he doubted that all colleges with such full need-blind policies would be able to hold to them.

"The major dial you turn for most financial crises is that you admit more students who can pay, as a way of increasing revenues," Mr. Schapiro said. "With the tremendous decline in wealth, I think fewer people will hold on to needs blind."

Less money means similar cuts on the boarding school world

Tight budgets, declining endowment values and family's ability to pay now sit squarely in the middle of every boarding school head's, business manager's and admission director's office. Suddenly, with a smaller endowment, less endowment income and fewer families willing and able to pay full price, the strain on boarding school budgets is enormous. Schools have less income while facing current budgeting and increased demand on financial aid.

Frustrating we don't see or hear a vigorous public conversation about the problem- along with thoughts on how to address it. Deep into this fall, word on street from schools was that all was fine- that the numbers look good. We kept squinting, shaking our heads and wondering how?

Beneath the veneer, we heard some quiet rumblings.

On November 11 a headmaster, put the truth on the table and in the light for all to see. Arch Smith, Trinity-Pawling School head, authored and sent a letter to the greater T-P community. He acknowledged the reality of the situation and publicly spoke of the ways that T-P will adjust and pursue its mission while insuring its future. The school will tighten its belt and behave prudently.

We commend and appreciate Mr. Smith's willingness to confront and talk about this issues. With concerns in the open, everyone- schools, families, faculty, boards, and donors- can see, understand, think about and adjust to current realities and constraints. Only after illuminating and and elucidating everything can we all make the best decisions about the best ways to sacrifice, persevere and arrive at a resolution wiser and more prudent.

Mr. Smith's letter is the best piece of open, forthright management that I've seen from a school in recent memory. You can read his full letter at the T-P web site.
Because of the current financial crisis in our country, people are hesitant to consider applying to independent schools thinking they can't afford the tuitions. I am writing to tell the readers not to despair... all boarding schools offer generous financial aid to families who can demonstrate financial need.

Yes, the application process can be daunting, but the end result may be admission to a terrific boarding school program where your son or daughter can shine. And the great thing about financial aid is that your request for aid does not have any impact on admission to the school. Admissions decisions are separate from financial aid decisions. This does not mean that every family who applies for aid will get it. Schools usually get many more requests than they can meet. Sometimes your son or daughter may be accepted to the school but get put an a waitlist for financial assistance. In addition, aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis and failure to meet the firm deadlines of the Financial Aid Committee may eliminate you from consideration. So be very cognizant of the deadlines. Priority for aid is oftentimes given to returning students.

All schools use the School and Student Service for Financial Aid (SSS) to collect basic information on income, assets, family size and the number of siblings in private schools charging tuition. SSS prepares a needs analysis which the school uses as a basis for its award. You can contact SSS for a copy of the Parent Financial Statement (PFS) at 866 387 2601 or online at Admissions Directors at the various schools and private Educational Consultants can help you navigate through the application process.

As stated earlier, don't give up on your dream of enrolling your child in an independent school because of finance. Take advantage of the generosity of schools through need based financial aid programs.

Good luck!!

529 Plans on the Brain

This is a bit of side-step from our normal conversation about boarding schools, but as a parent of a toddler I've got 529 plans on the brain.

My wife & I started one a year or so back knowing full well that we needed each second between then and the start of our child's (gulp!) college career for the plan to mature. It's stunning to start the process 18 years PRIOR, but that's a conversation for another day. In any event, we have lots of friends in the same boat and many (if not all) find the process of finding the right plan a bit confusing.

So, why talk about it here? Well, I stumbled on U Sphere a few weeks back-- a site that focuses on college admission. Lots of good info, but their directory of 529 plans immediately grabbed my attention. It's not intended to advise you on which plan to choose, but it does provide a great pivot point for your search. I found it handy to have all the plans in one place.

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