For some private schools, lowering tuition aims for bigger gains

Photo of Luther Turmelle
Students make their way across the campus at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire Oct. 6, 2021.

Students make their way across the campus at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire Oct. 6, 2021.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

Cheshire Academy is taking a road last traveled in an era when tuition rates for private schools continue to rise.

Starting with the 2022-23 academic year, Cheshire Academy will join a small but growing number of prep schools that are reducing tuition rather than increasing it. Cheshire officials believe they will become the first private school in the state to undertake what is known in the academic community as a tuition reset.

Starting next year, tuition rates at Cheshire Academy will be reduced across the board, some by as much as 30 percent. Those reductions include:

 Tuition for day students will drop from the current level of $42,320 to $29,850, a decrease of 29.4 percent.

 Families of full-time boarding students will see tuition reduced by 10 percent, from $63,600 to $57,250.

 Part-time boarding students, who live at the school during week and leave campus on the weekend, will see a slight discount, from the current level $55,375 to $55,250.

School officials said tuition in the past typically increased at a rate of 3 percent to 4 percent per year across the board. Cheshire Academy, however, froze all of its tuition levels last academic year and this one.

Prior to the tuition freeze. Head of School Julie Anderson said the average annual increase in tuition rates at Cheshire Academy was between 2 percent and 3 percent.

And while school officials are reducing tuition rates, the fee charged to international students who are boarders is going up.

That fee currently is $4,000 and is in addition to tuition, according to Michael Torelli, a school spokesman. It will increase to $10,000, for the next academic year.

International students currently make up about 27 percent of enrollment at Cheshire Academy, according to Torelli, who said that number may increase going forward.

“We are hoping to enroll more international students as post-COVID travel opens up again,” he said. “We plan to get back to a greater number of countries (and cultures) represented.”

The revenue from increased fees for international students likely will help the school bridge the revenue gap created by the tuition decreases. Another potential source of increased revenue could come from increased enrollment as a result of the tuition decrease.

Anderson said the current average enrollment at the school is 340 students.

“We have space where we can grow on the day side; we could add about 30 more students,” Anderson said. “On the boarding side we’re more limited but we could probably add another 20.”

But even if enrollment at Cheshire Academy were to increase that during the next academic year, Anderson said she doesn’t expect individual class sizes to grow.

“We want to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the student experience,” she said.

The cost of operating Cheshire Academy remains higher than the tuition families pay, according to Anderson. But decades of generosity from donors has enabled the school to cover the gap and offer financial assistance to applicants with demonstrated need.

Over the past four years, Cheshire Academy has raised more than $10 million toward scholarships, financial aid academic programs, among other things.

Private school tuition hikes outstrip household income growth

These reductions in tuition are being done against backdrop of significant increases in the price tag of a private school education. Over the past decade, the average tuition at boarding schools has increased by more than 50 percent, while median household income, adjusted for inflation, has risen by just 4 percent.

The average annual tuition for full-time boarding student at U.S. private schools is $37,590, according to information from the educationdata.org. For students boarding five days per week at private schools around the country, the average tuition is $33,140.

Connecticut private schools are the most expensive in the nation, according to the website: Secondary private schools in the state cost more than twice the national average.

The amount of tuition charged by private schools across the country has become a more prominent topic at education conference in recent years, said Stephanie Luebbers, head of school at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a Greenfield, Mass.-based girls’ school.

“What was already unaffordable was becoming astronomically unaffordable,” Luebbers said. “We were seeing families who had a huge sticker shock when they looked at our tuition. And for the families who had daughters coming to our school, very few were paying the full tuition.”

Tuition resets at other private schools

In addition to Stoneleigh-Burnham, Hearst Connecticut Media found two other prep schools — Providence Country Day in Rhode Island and an all-boys private school in Saltsburg, Pa., that already have done tuition resets.

Kevin Folan, head of school at Providence Country Day, said when the tuition reset was announced in October 2020, “the hope was that it would produce more mission-appropriate enrollment.”

“Families would automatically cross us off their list because of the exorbitant price tag,” Folan said. “We also felt we were talking out of both sides of our mouth talking abut creating inclusive communities within our student body, but our tuition made us pretty exclusive.”

Demographic research showed, he said, that by reducing PCD’s tuition by 36 percent, “it would open up approximately 5,000 additional families in our area to access our school and bring in a more mission-appropriate enrollment.”

“This has been a transformative decision for the school,” Folan said. “Our donor base has been very excited about this. There have been a lot of donors who have written checks to fill in that tuition that was lost as a result of the reset.”

Without the tuition reset, Folan said “we felt there was going to be reckoning” in regard to enrollment. With the tuition reset, he said PCD’s enrollment grew by 25 percent.

The Kiski School, which is located about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, claims to be one of the first private schools in the county to undertake a tuition reset.

School officials first announced the plans in October 2019 and implemented them for the start of the following school year. The school reduced its annual tuition rate for the 2020-21 academic year from $61,300 to $48,500, which Head of School Chris Brueningsen was 20 percent lower than the national average for boarding schools.

Brueningsen said the pandemic and parental concerns by about how Kiski would handle social distancing muted the initial enrollment influx. Enrollment this fall at the school rose by 10.4 percent to 190 students over the previous academic year, according to Brueningsen.

“We had our highest opening enrollment since 2016 and the largest number of new students in the past decade, so overall our tuition reset has been a huge success,” he said. “The number of new students enrolled is the best indicator of whether or not a reset is working.”

Applications to Kiski School were up 64 percent this year compared to the average of the five previous years, Brueningsen said.

“In fact, it was our highest number of applications since 2001,” he said.

By reducing the school’s tuition, Kiski School officials expect to reduce the number of students who are either receiving financial aid or reduce the amount of aid they need, according to Brueningsen.

“We have a high number of families on financial aid, about 70 percent, and the percentage was increasing dramatically,” he said. The expectation, according to Brueningsen, is that over time, more families will become what he calls “tuition capable,” able to cover a larger amount of their child’s tuition or not need the aid at all.

Brueningsen said in terms of making the tuition resent break even financially, Kiski School only needed to add 12 students. This year, enrollment was up by 18 students, he said.

“The criteria for making this work is that you have to have the physical capacity to make enrollments grow and have a high level of financial aid,” Brueningsen said. “We used this as a springboard for funding and just finished a $35 million capital campaign.”

Closer to Connecticut, Stoneleigh-Burnham instituted its tuition reset using a phased-in approach..

The first phase saw school officials reduce tuition for day students in the middle and upper schools by as much as 40 percent during the last school year. Day students in grades nine through twelve saw their tuition decrease from $36,150 per year to $22,500.

At the start of the current school year, tuition for borders at Stoneleigh-Burnham dropped from $61,750 to $51,750.

“When I arrived here in 2018, our admissions level weren’t where we wanted them to be,” Luebbers said. “Now our day student population growth has gone from 43 to 77.”

Luebbers said she is “immensely proud that the school’s new tuition rates will make an SBS education possible for more students.”

Other approaches to keeping tuition affordable

While some private schools are using tuition resets, Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford focuses on keeping its tuition increases “minimal and sustainable,” said Allison Cady, a spokeswoman for the school.

“Our strategy has been to have tuition be fairly predictable for our families, Cady said. The strategy was adopted seven years ago, she said, and since then, Choate officials have increased tuition by between zero and 2.95 percent each year.

“The last seven years reflect lower increases than the 30 years prior,” Cady said.

The tuition for boarding students at Choate this year is $62,960 while day students pay $48,480. Both students groups pay a $1,000 technology fee.

Choate has increased its financial aid budget by more than 10 percent to $14.1 million this year, Cady said. And the school also has what it calls a “Beyond The Classroom” fund to help families of modest means defray the cost of things such as travel and team apparel, she said.

luther.turmelle@hearstmediact.com