Private-school bills can swamp parents Sacrifices: Some parents work two or even three jobs to give their children the advantage of private school.

November 24, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

They drive old cars and live in small houses, sit on worn couches and shop the sales.

They bypass vacations and curtail holiday gift-giving. They even sponsor fund-raisers for themselves.

And, often, that's still not enough to make ends meet for parents of children in private schools who may pay more than $1,000 a month to give their children small classes, good teachers and what they think is a leg-up on life.

Facing tuitions that top out at around $12,000 a year -- less at parochial schools, more at boarding schools -- even families with incomes of $60,000 to $80,000 or more can find themselves in over their heads.

As a result, many middle-and upper middle-class families scramble for ways to pay those tuitions, taking second jobs, seeking private financial aid and even soliciting the help of generous grandparents.

They insist that such sacrifices are worth it.

"We fell in love with the school," said Sharon Kugler, who has two daughters at Bryn Mawr and whose family economizes in virtually every area.

"I knew I would move heaven or earth to make it happen. We just could not put a price on what our daughters would get there."

Kugler and her husband, Dwane Isabella, are like many families with children in private and parochial schools: middle-class professionals with two incomes, not rich enough to write the checks painlessly or poor enough to warrant large scholarship grants.

"We have a car that's 11 years old and needing resuscitation," said Kugler, a chaplain at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The huge sacrifice for us is my family is in California and we only get out there every other year or so.

"There are days that it's a struggle but there are moments of wonder. We put a high value on education. We take it a month at a time," said Kugler, whose husband is an assistant state's attorney in the city.

They get enough aid to cover about half of their daughters' tuitions.

Michael A. Braun, a financial planner for PSA Financial in Lutherville, has seen many families struggle with private-school tuition bills.

"Most of them can't afford it," he said. "In many cases, they are trading their own well-being for their children's.

"But, for certain issues, people won't hear that," Braun said. "They won't hear it for their kids, they won't hear it for their church."

Many of Braun's clients use equity in their homes or money that could be saved for retirement or college to pay elementary and secondary tuition.

He said their disenchantment with public schools, the strong tradition of private schools and the connections they create usually lead families to stretch and borrow beyond their means.

"It was always a hardship that became the norm," said Karen Bowens, who worked two and sometimes three jobs to pay her son's tuition through middle school and high school at Boys' Latin School on Lake Avenue.

"My top priority has always been education; when Todd started at Boys' Latin, I felt that was a perfect match for him," said the long-time city school teacher.

It is, in fact, what the world considers middle-class and even upper middle-class families who dipped into the more than $27 million in financial aid given by private schools in Maryland last year.

More than 5,300 students, of the 34,400 in these schools, received financial assistance last year, said Sarah Donnelly, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools. The average grant is $4,400 per family, though tuitions and financial assistance vary enormously among the 87 AIMS schools.

A few principles guide how this money is disbursed at most independent schools: All grants are based on financial need. No family gets full tuition because school officials say it is important that families contribute to their children's education -- and even stretch to do so. And it isn't just low-income families that get aid.

At Friends, for instance, families sharing the $1.47 million in assistance this year have incomes ranging from $9,000 -- less than the school's tuition -- to $124,000, said assistant headmaster Tad Jacks.

Those at the upper end usually are paying tuition for more than one child.

"I personally think [paying] $15,000 on an $80,000 income is tough," said Jacks. Tuition at Friends this year ranges from $9,685 for kindergarten to $11,595 for high school. About 23 percent of the school's 1,010 students are receiving aid.

Most private schools are guided in aid decisions by the School and Student Service for Financial Aid, the group that produces the SATs in Princeton, N.J. Through detailed forms and formulae, the service decides how much disposable income a family has -- or should have -- for education.

The schools, however, consider the service's recommendations "a benchmark," rather than the last word, said Bessie Spears, Bryn Mawr's admissions and financial aid director.

"It's a tough formula," said Jacks, himself a hard-liner on how families should prepare for private schools.

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