Parents scrape to pay private school tab Recession pinches area's middle class

October 14, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Throughout the Baltimore area, middle-class families squeezed by the recession are cutting back on expenses and calling on others for help to continue paying for one of the things that matters to them most: their children's private school educations.

"It's very difficult," says Paul Webb of Govans, whose two sons attend the McDonogh School.

Mr. Webb and his wife, Theresa, work for Baltimore City, where workers have not had a pay increase in more than two years.

"We're struggling, but it's worth it," Mr. Webb says. "There's no comparison with the level of education they're getting."

The difficulties are even more dramatic in households where the continuing recession has resulted in lost jobs.

One Lutherville man lost his $50,000-a-year bank job and managed to keep his two children in private school by borrowing money from his mother-in-law.

And a Towson man paid his two daughters' tuitions -- despite a $25,000 drop in income from his consulting company -- in part by asking his wife to increase her hours at work.

The painful struggles are felt in the admissions and financial aid offices of parochial and private schools.

Although only a few families have been forced by the economy to pull their children out of school, there is a sharp increase in demand for aid, much of it coming from recession-wracked families seeking help for the first time, according to school officials.

At Boys' Latin, for example, where upper-school tuition is around $9,000 a year, requests for financial aid from students at the school are up about 33 percent over last year.

"A lot of these are families who, if you were to look at the parents' occupations, you would normally never suspect any need," says admissions director Jeff Driscoll.

"They range from restaurant owners to real estate developers."

At Bryn Mawr, the children of 14 returning families are receiving aid for the first time, despite a decision by the school's board of directors to limit this year's tuition increase to 4 percent, the lowest annual rise in 20 years.

At the same time, the school put 52 potential new students to whom it could not offer money on a waiting list -- despite having increased its financial aid budget from $650,000 to $719,000.

"That surely is a sign of the recession," says Elizabeth Cromwell, the school's director of admissions and financial aid.

At Friends School, where three of every $100 in tuition is earmarked for the scholarship fund, only half of the $115,000 in aid now given to 25 seniors will be allocated next year to students new to the school; the rest will go to aid current Friends School families who have suffered economic reverses or whose wages simply haven't kept pace with rising tuitions.

In the past, as much as 90 percent of the aid given to the school's seniors was rolled over to new families.

"Our first obligation is to help existing families," says Tad Jacks, admissions director.

"Unfortunately, it's at the expense of incoming families."

The Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, a private foundation set up to help needy students attend private schools, is experiencing just that situation.

Last year, BEST gave an average of $5,400 to 58 students; this year, it raised its average award to $6,100 to help already-enrolled students. Consequently, it was able to help just 51 students -- the first time in its five-year history it was able to aid fewer students than the year before, according to executive director Gregory Roberts.

With an increasing portion of resources devoted to helping existing families, some officials worry about private schools' ability to maintain a diverse student population, contending that they could be limited by necessity in the number of low- and moderate-income families they can accept.

"There's an age-old belief independent schools are elitist, which I don't think is the case," says Mr. Driscoll, admissions director at Boys' Latin. "But you have to be careful not to fall into that trap."

Despite the increasing number of families struggling to meet tuition payments, private school enrollments are up virtually across the board. That fact does not surprise most school officials, who see parents as willing to sacrifice to provide their children with the best education they can.

"My assessment is that public schools are cutting funding as a result of the recession and that public school families are turning to us," says Sarah Donnelly, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools, where the average tuition at 81 member institutions has risen from $5,423 five years ago to $8,109 today.

Enrollment increases are also being fueled by two-income families who put their young children in small, private preschools, liked what they saw and decided to stick with independent schools at the elementary level, says Louise Mehta, assistant head of school at Park School, which recently added a section to each grade through fifth to accommodate the influx.

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