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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The decision on whether to send children to a private school may depend as much on a family's commitment as on its finances, Ms. Mehta says. She points to a recent survey of Park parents that found that more than one-third of the families had incomes below $100,000, with most of those falling between $50,000 and $75,000.

A separate survey of parents who declined offers of enrollment, most of whom cited cost as the reason, found that a similar percentage also had incomes below $100,000.

Her conclusion? "Faced with the same circumstances, people are making different choices."

Even for middle-class families unaffected by the recession so far, meeting private or parochial school tuition bills can take a good deal of sacrifice.

Richard Hilgartner, who works in provider services for Blue Cross, and his wife, Mary Lee, a part-time hospice nurse, have a combined income of about $45,000; their youngest daughter, Maura, is a sophomore at Mercy High School, where tuition is $3,500 a year.

"We live from paycheck to paycheck," says Mrs. Hilgartner, who says she's concerned about her husband's future in light of the recent questions about the finances of Maryland Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

"We've had to say no to the kids a lot. There are things we just can't do, like weekends away. But it's not martyrdom; education's a priority to us. I don't have any regrets."

Mrs. Hilgartner says Mercy's relatively low tuition played a role in her decision of where to enroll her daughter.

Mount St. Joseph High School, where tuition is a slightly higher but still modest $3,950, is beginning to attract transfers from more pricey independent schools as well as the public schools, says admissions director George Andrews.

One such transfer is senior Chris Van Bavel, who transferred to Mount St. Joe last year after spending five years at McDonogh, where his sister Kim is a sophomore and where upper-school tuition tops out at over $9,500.

Their mother, Virginia Paskoff, a teacher, says paying two nearly $10,000 tuitions simply became "untenable" for her and her ex-husband, a lawyer. They decided to transfer their son because they felt he would "make the easier adjustment" of the two children.

For families in which the recession's effect has been more direct, the challenges are more daunting.

Take Paul and Theresa Webb. The two mid-level Baltimore City workers have not received a raise in more than two years. Meanwhile, tuition for their sons -- Marcus, who is in eighth grade, and Paul Jr., who is in ninth grade -- has risen about 10 percent a year.

Though the boys are on partial scholarship at McDonogh, the family still must pay the bulk of the combined $18,000 annual tuition bill.

As a result, the Webbs have put off repairs on their three-bedroom house in Govans, limited vacations to day trips and bought only what they had to.

"In my house, Christmas does not mean a lot of presents around the tree," Mr. Webb says.

"The kids get things they need for school, like pants and a winter jacket, not things like Nintendo cartridges."

Like many middle-class families struggling to pay private school tuitions, the Webbs are not able to put away money for their children's college education.

"It's kind of scary," Mr. Webb says.

"But you have to do what's most immediate. . . . I think it's important to catch students in the early years and give them a strong foundation."

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