Total Cost of Independent Schooling: Indexed Tuition, Limited Diversity, and Mental Health

To say that the quality of U.S. public schools varies tremendously is the understatement of our times. But most families with school age children – given that the country's median annual household income (with two wage earners and two children) is about $50,000 – are more or less locked in to sending kids to their local public school. And the pure economic argument that we can all vote with our feet and relocate to a neighborhood where the schools are above average -- as is the cost of housing and real estate taxes that largely fund the schools -- is specious and unrealistic.

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to make a gross generalization. Most large urban U.S. cities’ public schools provide a woefully inadequate educational experience for their pupils -- and yes, there are some exceptions. The 2010 US census revealed that the population living in urban areas topped 80 percent. And not surprisingly, the number of children who attend private schools is 10 percent (just under six million, according to the Council for American Private Education) -- roughly the percentage of households with sufficient income to afford private school tuition that ranges from roughly $10,000 to $30,000 per student per academic year. And here’s one more important statistic: according to the National Association of Independent Schools, 20 percent of students attending private school receive some sort of financial aid.

One might conclude from the above that many, if not most, parents would prefer to send their children to a private school if they could afford to do so. The New York Times reported this week that "a small group of independent schools, mostly in the Southeast and West, have adopted indexed tuition as both a financial aid strategy and a way to attract people who would not otherwise apply to private school." It appears that these schools believe that the presentation matters, i.e. indexing "essentially a pay-what-you-can model for a private education" at one school can be as little as $3,000, while full fare is $15,000 to $18,000.

Their goal is to equalize what they refer to as the "barbell effect, with the wealthy and the poor on the ends [having attended for some time, but with] the middle class — families that make too much for financial aid but too little to pay all the associated costs — left out." But no matter how these programs are presented to smooth the curve for socioeconomic diversity, the wealthier families end up covering the costs via of the tuition they pay and charitable contributions.

Another significant cost to families of private school students is the plethora of extracurricular activities. And while these are a significant, even essential, component of quality education – compare to how many large US city school districts have eliminated art, music, and sports programs -- these can easily cost private school families an additional $1,000 or more per year, per student.

But what about bundling poor, so called middle-class, and affluent students into a comparatively small and intimate daily social environment? Psychology Today recently published an article titled "The Problem With Rich Kids." It reports findings that turns common wisdom on its head: “In a surprising switch, the offspring of the affluent today are more distressed than other youth. They show disturbingly high rates of substance use, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cheating, and stealing. It gives a whole new meaning to having it all."

The article discusses how it has been "widely accepted in America that youth in poverty are a population at risk for being troubled... repeatedly demonstrating that low family income is a major determinant of protracted stress and social, emotional, and behavioral problems.” Yet, "increasingly, significant problems are occurring at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, among youth en route to the most prestigious universities... well-paying, high-status careers... [who] attend schools distinguished by rich academic curricula, high standardized test scores, and diverse extracurricular opportunities."

In its measured conclusion, the Psychology Today article emphasizes that "parents, however, are but one part of the equation. It is not family wealth per se but living in the cultural context of affluence that confers risk. Impossibly high expectations are transmitted not only by parents but by the entire community—teachers, schools, coaches, and peers.

So the hypothesis of making private school institutions a melting pot of economic classes will be an ongoing experiment and certainly not a panacea for dramatically improving the US system of public education. I strongly believe that the time consuming active role of parenting is paramount, with the most salient takeaway being that “positive gestures do not cancel out criticism. Psychologists have firmly established that disparaging words or attitudes have a much stronger impact than words of praise—by at least a factor of three."

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