Applications are dropping and costs are up as independent schools wage a facilities arms race and try to deal with escalating technology and staffing costs. At Catholic schools, the number of nuns is down 72 percent since the mid-1960s, and they have gone from comprising most of the teachers to fewer than 2 percent of them—which requires hiring higher-paid lay teachers.
The cost of offering financial aid to fill seats has also skyrocketed as enrollment has declined; nearly a quarter of private-school students get financial aid, compared to 17 percent 10 years ago, and the average grant has grown by nearly 25 percent, the National Association of Independent Schools reports.
“All of these things add to their expenses, which funnels into the tuition equation,” said Walter Dillingham Jr., the managing director in the endowments and foundations practice at Wilmington Trust in New York, who has studied independent schools. “Tuition has been rising for private schools, and families just don’t have the capacity to pay it.”
Median tuition is up by nearly 52 percent in the past 10 years, to $22,301, at private day and $50,811 at private boarding schools, the independent-schools association says. Average tuition at Catholic schools is $3,880 in primary and $9,622 in secondary grades, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Charter schools, which are free to families, are also proving to be formidable rivals. Charters serving primary students in urban areas, which are supposed to provide an alternative to public schools, get almost a third of their students from private schools, a study by the Cato Institute found. That’s been a particular challenge in New Orleans, where the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that 91 percent of public-school students now go to charter schools. Even in the suburbs, the institute found, more than one in 10 charter school students previously went to private schools.
“Charter schools initially, because of where they were primarily located, weren’t as great a threat as they’re becoming now,” McGovern said. “Now, as the charter-school movement has expanded into suburbs or wealthier parts of cities, they have become competition.”
So is a boom in homeschooling, driven in part by resistance to standardized tests and the Common Core. Higher-income parents who work in fields such as technology, with flexible schedules—who might previously have chosen private schools—are increasingly turning to homeschooling, McGovern said.
Even harder to manage is a kaleidoscope of demographic changes. Roughly half of all kindergarteners through high-school seniors in America are now nonwhite, the U.S. Department of Education says, and a quarter are Hispanic, without a private or Catholic school-going tradition. White Catholics, meanwhile, have moved from cities to suburbs with good public schools, forgoing Catholic education for their children, an analysis by the census bureau found.