Friday, December 3, 2010

Private schools: Marin Country Day, and questions on $$$$$

I just posted tour notes for Marin Country Day, and have to say that I loved the school. I can even handle the idea of the bridge/bus commute, although I can understand why, for many people, that’s a non-starter. But in thinking through whether to apply, I also have to say that I keep getting that “Mind on my money and my money on my mind” feeling.

The main thing that gives me pause about MCDS is the price tag – up to almost $27,000 by the time a student reaches upper middle school. Ouch. No can do, especially with two kids in school within the next two years. That means applying for financial aid. Everywhere I turn, schools and school experts keep saying that it’s OK to apply for financial assistance. But I’m not so sure.

My first hesitation has been with the intention of financial aid – shouldn’t it be reserved for families who are truly in need? Schools say that they don’t want the “barbell” effect, with some students at the bottom of the income spectrum, lots at the top, and no one in the middle. But I’m not sure how much room financial aid systems have for middle-class families like mine?

And then there’s the issue of how applying affects one’s chances of getting in. Schools say that the two processes are separate. But it’s hard to see how. Most schools probably can’t afford to admit an entire class of students who need financial aid. To me, it seems that there have to be two groups of applicants – those requesting aid and those not – and the two groups compete amongst themselves for spots. Or do I have it wrong?

I’m not singling out MCDS’s financial aid policies here. They seem very generous, and have a unique “indexed tuition” framework that puts assigns accepted financial aid applicants an individual tuition based on ability to pay. But as I contemplate private school applications, I keep circling back to financial aid, and wondering whether signaling that we need financial assistance will reduce our chances of getting in so greatly that it's not worth applying to private schools at all.

Those of you more in the know, what do you say? And those of you applying for private schools for next year, what are you thinking on financial aid?

22 comments:

  1. Seattle, we're just applying for financial aid. Because if you say you don't need it and you do, you're really screwing with the balance between full tuition and aid kids. If they don't want to give us aid, we can't come, and we really can't pretend otherwise.

    Here's my guess: they do need-blind acceptance without telling the families, and then look at the financial situation of those they've accepted. If it doesn't balance out somehow, they start to horse-trade until they get a good balance. But I really don't know!

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  2. We applied to MCDS two years ago, and very much need financial aid. One in nonprofit, one out of a job. We were turned down for financial aid, even though there's no way we could go without it. Yes, it was a very competitive year (and similar admissions scenarios were playing out on the college level re financial aid -- see NYT). This year is supposed to be lower in numbers of applicants, so maybe people like us (and like we were) won't be turned down for aid and admission. I hope so! Good luck.

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  3. My understanding is that some private ESs (have no idea if MCDS is one of these but our former one certainly was) use financial aid to lure families they'd like to attract to the school (typically because of diversity factors, but sometimes because on of the parent has useful skills) rather than strictly awarding it on the basis of need.

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  4. Of course that's true -- if you don't get that, you are not ready to play in this league.

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  5. Yep, we can't afford privates at all without significant aid, so we're applying for it. Will see where that gets us. Hoping to fill the "struggling financially and way overeducated but add artistic cred" slot, though I know that's a hotly contested role...

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  6. 10:24, what qualifies as "useful skills"? I assume more than fundraising, since we're talking families that need aid.

    Design, writing, video, Web stuff, translation, PR, advertising, public relations, architecture, interior design, craft skills? Leading tours, chaperoning field trips, stuffing envelopes, parent outreach?

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  7. You all are behaving as though there's some hard-and-fast rule. It's whatever the private school needs and however it wants to handle its financial aid and admissions processes. That's the nature of being a private school.

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  8. You have to remember that schools take into account all of your resources when you apply - including anything you have saved up in retirement accounts, etc. etc. Crunching the numbers, we thought we could not afford to pay the entire amount for tuition, especially once our second kid would start school (especially when we added in summer program/after-care costs, etc). So we applied for financial aid. After getting accepted, we talked to the financial aid people at the school, and they acknowledged that our income would make it difficult to afford tuition. However, we were still ineligible for financial aid because because we had the potential of liquidating retirement, etc. That was not a viable option for us. I don't think it hurts to apply (it certainly didn't hurt our chances). However, in the end, for many middle and even upper middle income families, the price tag may still be quite steep.

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  9. I still don't get how/why anyone would be willing to have their child commute so much every day. What if there was an emergency and you needed to be at the school to pick up your child right away?

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  10. Can't speak to MCDS but I know at our school (SF Friends) admission is not linked to your finances. If your a family that gets in your need is then determined.

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  11. There are at least a couple of different ways the schools handle financial aid.

    One is to select whomever they like*, run that against aid requests, and do the best they can at distributing it before making offers. This might mean they like* you, but there's not enough to go around, therefore you get an offer with no aid.

    The other is if you ask for aid and they don't have enough for you, they will not extend an offer -- they don't want you to suddenly figure out after the fact that you hadn't already tapped out grandma, or that you might attempt the impossible. In that sense, you should not apply for aid with a what-the-heck attitude.

    The upshot is: apply for it if you need it; the worst you can do is protect yourself from yourself.

    *Even in a "needs-blind" process, where admission and aid are separated, the admission director is not blind!

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  12. The commute is not as bad as you might think. In fact, it is shorter then going to Friends from the marina and the kids use the 10-15 minutes to wind down from the day. Regarding emergencies, the school has full plans for emergencies and unless the bridge is shut down for say an earthquake, you can still get there very quickly. If there's an earthquake, the school has full plans for that as well.

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  13. Obviously it makes a big difference where you live in SF. The vast majority of Friends families live south of Pacific Heights.

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  14. Tuition has reached $27,000 at MCD?

    It was around $12,000 when we applied 10 years ago.

    Why do the privates keep raising their prices?

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  15. What does you carton of milk cost compared to 10 years ago?

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  16. Not more than double what it cost then, that's for sure.

    The average price of milk nationally ranged from $2.75-$3.00/gallon in 2000. Now it's $3.50.

    Bad example.

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  17. What does your carton of Strauss Family Creamery milk cost?

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  18. I can't afford Strauss Family Creamery milk, which comes in bottles not cartons, or private school.

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  19. Hi Seattle -
    I was reading some of the past postings and one of the postings mentioned MCDS is using Reggio Approach. Is this still true for Kindergarten class? It doesn't seem to be mentioned in the school website. Thanks!

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  20. If a school has integrity in its admissions process (and most Bay Area independents do), then when it says "need blind," it really does accept families on the basis of their fit with the school, not on their ability to pay. So, if you love a school and want a shot, you absolutely should apply. That said, think ahead to how you might feel if that acceptance letter comes without an offer of assistance...

    Part of the trouble has come with the huge jump in need from enrolled families due to the massive cost of tuition; schools that need to focus on retention (many, if not most) can end up using a lot of their aid money for current students, leaving very little to newly accepted families.

    Addressing why the tuitions keep rising... the milk comparison is just not apt. Families sacrificing (at any income level) for their child's education have a right to expect the best faculty (who in turn have a right to earn a living wage). That costs money. They have a right to expect comprehensive art, music, and language programs. Those cost money. They have a right to expect great facilities. Those cost money.

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  21. If admissions were really need blind, we would hear lots of stories of people getting acceptance letters, but not getting financial aid. I've heard of this, but not often. Therefore, it seems to me that most schools, start need blind with a pile of students that they would like to accept and then only offer acceptances w/financial aid up to the point they have ability. After that they pull only from the full fee pile.

    I don't think need blind admissions necessarily means that ability to pay never factors in, I think it means that it is only factored in in the final phase. Also it probably means you would only be wait listed, never rejected, based on inability to pay.

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    Replies
    1. This exact thing happened to my daughter (although these were high schools) a couple of years ago: she was accepted into 5 independents, but offered aid at only one. And we are a family that clearly needed financial aid; I'm a single parent, and one year of HS tuition was equivalent to fully half my salary. I was really surprised to have gotten the acceptances, since it was abundantly clear that we would be unable to enroll. The one school that offered aid offered a LOT, and that's where she ended up.

      It's possible that high schools do it differently than elementary schools. I do know similar scenarios happened to several of my daughter's classmates, in many cases minus any FA offers at all.

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