Tuition hikes ease up at isle private schools


POSTED: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Private schools across Hawaii and the nation are expected to keep tuition increases to a minimum next academic year as officials worry about parents' ability to pay during a recession.

Several local independent schools have announced significantly lower tuition hikes, which they say are unavoidable to retain top educators and operate facilities.

At 'Iolani School, K-12 tuition will leap 4.7 percent in the fall to $15,600, Headmaster Val Iwashita told parents in a letter this month. That is below the 6.4 percent tuition increase this year, and Iwashita said it could lead to a budget deficit for the school.

“;We are willing to take that short-term risk, knowing how important it is to support our students and you, our parents,”; he wrote Feb. 1.

Of the schools that have announced tuition so far, Punahou School once again tops the list of most expensive on Oahu, lifting its K-12 tuition to $17,300, a 3.75 percent spike for next year. At Punahou - where the current tuition is 6 percent higher than it was a year ago - officials are telling parents the upcoming increase is “;one of the smallest ... in recent memory.”;

Mid-Pacific Institute has not yet released its figures, but tuition at the Manoa Valley school usually lands between rates at Punahou and 'Iolani.

Tuition generally does not include other required fees for field trips and other programs, which can add $1,000 or more.

Educators say the gloomy economy is hurting private schools nationwide as enrollment has tapered and more parents seek tuition assistance, which is largely funded by endowments declining in value.

“;This is doubly challenging because the endowments have gone down and they are trying to have more moderate tuition increases,”; said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. “;You want to do more with less, which is always a challenge.”;

Private school enrollment dipped in Hawaii for the first time in a decade this year, likely due to the poor economy and fewer school-age children, observers say. There are 39,344 isle students attending preschool to grade 12 in independent campuses this year, a 2.3 percent drop from a year ago for a loss of nearly 1,000 children.

The cost of private education has gone up about 30 percent in the past decade, rising about 3 percent over inflation annually, according to the NAIS, which forecasts the pace will slow.

Ballooning medical insurance premiums are one of the biggest expenses for private schools. Unlike public institutions, which get better deals on health care because they can spread the cost among more employees, private schools, where the average student-to-teacher ratio is a low 8.5, often get stuck with costly packages.

“;We want to maintain the value of education here, but we have added costs,”; said Maryknoll School spokesman Stephen Florino.

The Catholic school, scheduled to open a $21 million gymnasium in May, will charge $750 more next year - high-schoolers will pay nearly $13,000 - while boosting its financial aid budget by 20 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, private schools are unlikely to get much support from the federal stimulus package, education groups are warning. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Barack Obama this week sets aside $53.6 billion to help states offset cuts in aid to education and other services, but it does not require the funds to be distributed to private schools in an equitable way, according to the Council for American Private Education.

The group is encouraging private schools to lobby state and county governments for a share of stimulus money.

Schools are attempting to shave costs without watering down the quality of instruction, McGovern said. They have been replacing inefficient light bulbs, organizing energy-saving contests and renting campus space for events. One school even set up a thrift shop to raise money, she said.

“;During the current year, our schools will serve their families well by going back to budgets to look for savings, primarily to fund additional requests for financial aid,”; Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Bulletin. The association is recommending small tuition raises and modest pay hikes when needed.

Local schools are listening.

Tuition at St. Francis School will stay flat to give parents some relief.

Honolulu Waldorf School, meanwhile, has imposed a hiring and wage freeze, said Administrative Director Connie Starzynski.

“;We are going to work with who we have,”; she said. “;We don't want anybody to lose their jobs, but we might ask people to do things that they haven't done before that they are qualified to do.”;

Waldorf will hoist its early-childhood tuition 10.2 percent, to $10,800, the biggest increase among its grade levels.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island should remain the priciest mainstream private school in the state. The academy is waiting for all parents to receive tuition notices before disclosing its numbers. Spokeswoman Phyllis Kanekuni said tuition at the school, which now ranges from $14,200 to $18,250, will go up but not as much as last year, when it jumped about 6 percent.

“;We tried to keep it at the very minimum that we could,”; she said.