The cost of educating a child at some L.A. campuses will soon reach Ivy League levels.
The Marlborough School, where two of Jody Fay's daughters are enrolled, is the kind of educational establishment she always dreamed of for her children: The private, all-girls school in Hancock Park offers small classes, specialized courses, individualized attention from top instructors. Sending her girls there is a gift, Fay believes, that will last a lifetime.
And it is a gift that does not come cheap.
The tuition at Marlborough next fall will top $25,000 — $25,250, to be exact — a 6% increase from this school year. And Marlborough is not an anomaly. For the first time, tuition at several of the most elite private schools in Los Angeles County will either reach $25,000 or hover very near that mark — and that does not include the standard fees that most schools charge, as well as other fundraising for which parents are expected to open their wallets.
Private schools have been steadily inching toward this once unheard-of benchmark. The new price tag is enough to cause any parent, however well-off, to blanch and has provoked discussion among educators about whether there is a tuition tipping point above which parents will balk.
And it underscores the lengths to which many parents will go to send their children to private school if they believe the outcome will be getting into a better college, a more promising career, a brighter future.
"I'm not going to tell you it isn't hard because it is," said Fay, who is president of Marlborough's parent association. "The sacrifices for us have been many and continue to be, but we believe our children's education is our top priority."
Anne Carlin, whose 13-year-old daughter, Seanie, attends Marlborough, joked that her initial thought was to hide the letter announcing the new tuition rates from her attorney husband. She works part time but is considering full-time work to help offset tuition expenses.
"I feel very lucky," said Carlin, who also has a 16-year-old son in a private Jesuit school and two other children in public school.
Still, she added: "I feel kind of selfish because we know there are many people who make many more sacrifices than we do. But we have quit the country club, we drive older cars and don't take the vacation unless it has something to do with the children's education. We don't have a nanny; we gave that up. It's daunting."
To put the figure of $25,000 for a secondary education into context, consider: Undergraduate tuition at Harvard this year is $28,752; at USC it's $30,703.
"We all worry about the tipping point; it's a dominant subject of discussion when school leaders get together," said Thomas C. Hudnut, headmaster at Harvard-Westlake, one of L.A.'s largest private schools, where tuition next year will reach $23,850. "Twenty years ago when tuition was $4,000, we thought the tipping point would be far below what it is today. I can remember sitting with the chairman of the school finance committee in 1983 or '84 with his head in his hands, saying he couldn't believe we were going to break $5,000. It wasn't that long ago, and now we're blithely charging five times that much."
The Brentwood School next year will be just shy of the new $25,000 benchmark: Tuition will be $24,800. Some schools in the area have not released next year's tuition rates but they are expected to be competitive with Brentwood and Marlborough. The Archer School for Girls this year, for example, charges $23,970 for the upper school; next year's costs have not yet been announced.
Below the top tier of elite schools, tuitions are not as steep, particularly in many parochial schools.
But if the competition to get into private schools such as Marlborough is any indication, $25,000 must seem like a good deal. The school admits 80 to 85 new students each fall and receives about four applications for each available spot, said Urmi Kar, associate director of communications.
"Every school takes tuition increases very seriously, and it is probably the biggest thing our board grapples with annually," said Kar. "The goal is to raise tuition as minimally as possible and only as much as needed. This is the kind of education that is very labor-intensive, very one-on-one, and there is no economy of scale."
Kar said part of the tuition money is used to bolster financial aid for students who otherwise could not afford Marlborough. About 14% of students at the school receive financial aid, with grants averaging $16,000. The school has a mandate to ensure that the student body is economically and socially diverse, said Kar. Most other private schools also offer financial support for families who qualify.
As high as the prices may seem, Los Angeles is following a national trend of private school tuition spikes of 6% or more. The national median 12th-grade tuition this year is $16,970. But the figure grows significantly in areas with higher-than-average cost-of-living expenses, reaching $24,167 in Washington, D.C, $24,940 in San Francisco and $27,200 in New York City, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools. And many schools in those cities exceed those figures.
By comparison, tuition this year at the private Fairmont Schools in Orange County is $13,978 and will rise to $14,950 next fall.
Officials said tuition at most private schools is actually less than the cost to educate each student. Most of the budget — 70% at Marlborough, for example — goes to teacher salaries and benefits. At private schools in Los Angeles, the median teacher salary is $54,000, and for the highest-paid teachers it is $79,298, according to the national association.
The smaller size of private schools boosts the cost of some services such as staff health plans, books and sophisticated technology. Lab equipment at some schools would be the envy of many colleges.
"Public school districts, because they are so huge, have a lot of bargaining power and can afford to buy 100,000 pencils, versus the mom-and-pop scale of most private schools," said Myra A. McGovern, spokeswoman for the national independent schools group.
And although private schools sell their ability to offer specialized programs such as foreign languages, arts and cultural exchange, such programs also drive up costs. At the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, for example, tuition — $24,775 next year, with fees bringing the total to $26,625 — supports such things as extensive courses in visual and performing arts, robotics classes and international cultural exchange, as well as the more mundane expenditures of laboratory supplies and sports uniforms, said the school's financial analyst, Peggy Bender.
About 750 students in grades K-12 attend the school, and some parents said their decision to send their children there reflects a profound disappointment in the quality of public education.
"It's not like we had a choice," said Grace Nahai, whose two sons and two daughters attend Buckley. "We checked out the public school system and were not really happy with it. We like the fact that Buckley is a small school, very open, with parent volunteerism. I have four children with four different personalities, and they all get the attention they need. It can be very demanding and I sometimes wonder about the stress level, but it's a great environment."
Bender said families will do almost anything to keep their youngsters in the school, drawing on assistance from grandparents, aunts and uncles if they do not qualify for the school's financial aid program. With two of her own children attending private schools, Bender has experienced the tribulations of high tuition from both sides.
She and her husband expect to spend more than $50,000 next year for their 14-year-old son at Oakwood School in North Hollywood and 8-year-old daughter at the Mirman School in L.A. But like many parents, Bender said she believed her children would benefit later in life.
"My husband and I have a running joke: We own two weekend homes, one on Mulholland and one on Magnolia, which is the location of the two schools," said Bender. "Sometimes I feel like they're all going to get into college no matter if I pay $25,000 or if they're in public school. I think the hope is they'll get into a really good college. I guess my hope is they will get into an Ivy League school and not go to Valley College."
Studies seem to back Bender's hopes. A national review conducted 10 years ago found that students who attended a private school, whether religious or nonsectarian, were more likely to attend an elite college or university and stay in that institution for at least two years.
But the study found little difference in test scores between publicly and privately educated students. And researchers have found no definitive proof that a fancy college education results in better job prospects.
"I personally believe that going to a private school does make a difference," said the study's coauthor David Figlio, a professor of economics at the University of Florida. "But if a Catholic school has a tuition that's half that or less of a nonreligious private school and seems to produce the same tangible outcome, perhaps families need not think about sending their kids only to the most elite or expensive schools."
The heads of those elite schools, meanwhile, said they are not sure when — if ever — the trend in tuition will crest. Just 10 years ago, tuition at Harvard-Westlake was $12,000 and at Buckley $13,975.
"I'm afraid the answer is, the marketplace rules," said Hudnut of Harvard-Westlake. "Until there are competitors among charter or public schools, people are going to feel obliged to find the best education for their children no matter the cost."
Tuition at several elite private schools in Los Angeles County will reach $25,000 or close to it next school year.
Tuition at selected Los Angeles private schools
|The Buckley School||23,250||24,775|
Tuition at selected Los Angeles universities
|UCLA* (state resident)||7,062|
|Cal State L.A.* (state resident)||3,035|
|Cal State L.A. (nonresident)||3,035 plus $225 per unit|
Median private school tuition, selected cities
|New York City||$27,200|
All tuition figures are for one year. At the private schools, tuition shown is for 12th grade; at the universities, it is for undergraduates.
Sources: The schools, National Assn. of Independent Schools