NYC Prep School Raises Fees to $58,820 After Parent Pushback

The Manhattan private school that educated Gwyneth Paltrow and Kerry Washington is hiking tuition next year by 2.5%, which it says is the skimpiest in more than a quarter century. For some Spence School families, that’s still too much.

A group of parents appealed to the all-girls school to freeze annual tuition at or below $57,400, the current price tag for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. They cited the “financial pressure” increases have placed on families, according to a January letter seen by Bloomberg News.

NYC Prep School Raises Fees to $58,820 After Parent Pushback

“The alarming rate of increase that has outpaced other schools of equal standing has serious implications for Spence families,” the parents said in the letter, which was signed by about 140 people. “The rapidly growing cost of tuition undermines the school’s core values including limiting the economic diversity.”

Instead, William Jacob, Spence’s board chairman, notified parents this week that it planned to raise tuition to $58,820. It’s the lowest rate of increase in more than 25 years and was necessary to fulfill Spence’s “steadfast commitment to faculty and staff compensation,” said Taraneh Rohani, a spokesperson for the Upper East Side school.

Active Role

The tussle at one of the city’s most elite private schools provides a glimpse into the pressures facing some New York City families who aren’t super-wealthy and don’t qualify for financial aid or receive just partial aid. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis has led to reduced bonuses on Wall Street and some families have gone from two incomes to one.

Meanwhile, parents have become more active in their school communities as they debate hot-button issues like Covid-19, in-school instruction and the social unrest that has gripped the city in recent months.

“It’s clear that we have a voice and we can use our voice to help direct the future of the school,” said Sonia Ossorio, whose daughter has attended Spence for several years.

Like many New York schools, Spence moved to remote instruction last spring but has gradually reopened its classrooms for in-school instruction. The Covid-related costs of adapting the school to deal with the pandemic amounted to $3.5 million, according to the letter from Jacob, the Spence board chair.

‘Troubling Times’

“We remain responsive to those families in need of financial assistance, especially in these troubling times,” Jacob wrote in his email to parents this week. “We encourage all families with changed financial circumstances to reach out.”

Other private schools in the city have told parents they’re making an effort to be mindful of costs. The Dalton School said Friday it will raise tuition next year by 1.9% to $55,210, the smallest increase in its history. The Browning School is raising theirs by 2.5% to $55,505, while Collegiate School said in a letter to families that costs would climb 3.4% to $57,800, the smallest increase in 20 years. Ethical Culture Fieldston School advised parents of a 4.5% increase that puts the price next year at about $58,000.

The campaign by Spence parents is unusual because families who send their kids to private school don’t tend to bargain on tuition rates, said Myra McGovern, a spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools, which includes more than 1,600 schools in the U.S.

Generally, the debates over school affordability tend to focus on increasing funds for financial aid, McGovern said. Some schools have recently begun to question whether the high tuition-high aid model still makes sense, or if they should instead lower tuition for everyone and get rid of financial aid, she said.

Unique Case

New York City is in many ways a unique case, with the cost of tuition at elite schools about twice the median rate at independent schools across the country, according to McGovern’s group. As for financial aid: the average grant for need-based aid is $36,288 in New York City, compared with $19,240 nationally. About 26% of New York students receive aid, on par with the nationwide average.

At Spence, about 20% of the school’s students receive financial aid, with grants ranging from $7,635 to $56,435 a year, according to its website. It also has a monthly tuition payment plan. In August, the school had about 750 students.

While some parents can easily afford the school’s costs, others must scrimp and sacrifice, forgoing retirement or other savings. Spence has increased tuition by an average of about 5% over the past several years, said Ossorio, the Spence parent. A spokesperson for the school declined to comment on average tuition increases.

“Pulling the trigger on this type of commitment is huge,” Ossorio said. “We do it because we value education above just about all else.”

She said the desire to keep increases at the rate of inflation or below is a matter of sustainability, not just for parents but for the school.

“If these schools don’t improve their models, what are they going to look like in another decade?” she said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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