Stories like this always interest me: an article in the Washington Post about how private school tuition in the area is going through the roof — $26,500 for St. Alban’s School, which if I remember correctly is where Al Gore’s kids went. Boarding rates are of course even higher: $35,000. Now apparently the same parents who used to provide these schools with donations are looking for financial aid for their kids to go there. As a reality check, the cost of going to Stanford (or so the article reports) is $33,000 — which means that it actually costs less to go to Stanford than to be a boarder at St. Alban’s.
These stories interest me partly because, as most of you know, I went to a private boarding school myself: The Webb School of California, whose tuition is even higher than St. Alban’s: $37,000 for boarders (although “only” $26,285 for day students). Although it’s sick of me to do so, some weird part of me takes amusement at the fact that my high school is so damned expensive. It just seems deliriously perverse to pay more for high school than for college.
On the other hand, as I’ve also noted before, Webb (and, no doubt, other high-end high schools) in many ways probably has better programs and facilities than some colleges: its own accredited and world-renowned paleontological museum on campus, for example, is the most obvious example of that. Also, it’s the sort of place where you really do get a kick-ass education that is also not painfully irrelevant. All students have to do reading over the summer, for example, but the reading selections are actually contemporary books worth reading. This year’s seniors, for example, all had to read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, plus one or two other books from a list which includes Michael Chabon, Neal Stephenson, Vikram Seth, Susannah Clarke, Jared Diamond, David Sedaris and even ol’ Bob Heinlein for their summer reading (note to self: Get on the summer reading list somehow).
The question is, of course, whether any of this is worth $35k at the high school level. It’s all very nice to have a museum on campus and tell your kids to read Neal Stephenson, but then I can give my kid Cryptonomicon, and a take a weekend trip to Chicago and spend some time at the Field Museum with her, and that’s going to cost nothing like the same amount. In the end, I think there are three reasons that parents are willing to pay stupid amounts of money for private school: Status, college placement, and the actual education at the school.
Status, of course, is an absolutely idiotic reason to pay through the nose for a school, but I haven’t the slightest doubt that certain parents do just that. We live in a world where there are certain parents who are worried how it will look if their children don’t get into the right preschool, after all; I don’t doubt these same parents would rip out the spines of all who oppose them to get their kid into St. Alban’s or Exeter. I feel sorry for the children of those parents, because those kids are merely another vehicle for their parents’ status consciousness. The “good” news is that a lot of these kids eventually freak out and then embarrass their parents in various ways: Used to be they’d join a commune or the Peace Corps. Nowadays I suspect they just continue to live in the guest house, “strategizing” a Web 2.0 startup, which is aught-speak for “smoking a lot of pot.” Shine on, you crazy diamonds!
College placement is a slightly more legitimate, and rather more practical, reason to pay a lot of money. Simply put, if you want to assure your kid gets into a respectable college or university, an expensive college prep high school is the best way to do it. Webb’s “top 20” colleges where its students attend features Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford and (yes) The University of Chicago as well as other top-tier colleges and universities. Chalk that up to good academics (which we’ll get to in a moment) and also top-rate college counseling; when I was there the college counselor was ranked in the top ten in the country, and I suspect whoever’s doing the gig now is equally clued in (this is not to say that the college counselors were universally admired by the students; to this day I have friends who believe our college counselor tubed their applications to various places). Whether the desire to get your kid into a good college is for their own sake or just a slightly delayed issue of status is, of course, another conversation entirely. But if it’s really important for you to get your kid into a top 20 college or university, for whatever reason, a $35k high school might not be too much to pay.
For my money, however, the only truly legitimate reason to a ridiculous amont of money for a high school would be for the quality of the education itself. Status be damned and let the colleges take care of themselves; for $35k I’d want an education that is its own reward. I’m happy to say that when my own mother made it her mission for me to attend Webb, that was her primary concern; we were too poor to worry about status (she made less than what Webb cost back then in 1983 — which was something like $10,000) and my mother accurately assessed that getting into college was a problem for another time. What mattered was getting her kid the best education now. And she was right, because the education I got at Webb was manifestly superior not only to the education my friends at public schools got, but also superior to the educations that friends at other private schools got. Now, some of that was just me being the little informational vacuum that I was at the time; it was entirely possible to get a bad education at Webb, and I can think of at least a couple of people who managed it. But the school was equipped to let you take advantage of it, and I and many others did.
Back in 1983, a Webb education was definitely worth ten grand, but 23 years on is it worth 37 grand? That amount outstrips inflation by a rather handy amount; 1983’s $10k is worth $19k today, which means that Webb effectively costs twice today what it did when I was there, and I suspect you’d find the same amount of price increase at other top-tier high schools. Personally speaking, paying $20k for a Webb education (or its equivalent) would not be out of the question for us. Paying close to $40,000 a year for high school, however, is not a thing I’d be keen to do. Quite frankly, I’d have to be either a lot richer or a lot poorer than I am to make that work. I’d be fine with the former, not so much with the latter.
(Another option, mind you, would be to join the faculty at Webb: their kids get free tuition. Not to mention free faculty housing! Hmmmmm…)
Personally speaking, I don’t suspect Webb has to worry about it too much. Like St. Alban’s or Exeter, it’s the sort of place where people will pay to have their kids go, period, end of sentence; really excellent schools are a perk of privilege. Even “middle class” families (which would be upper class in any formulation but this) will shuffle their finances and apply for financial aid to make it work to have their kids go to these schools. Lesser-tier high schools may find themselves scrambling for students (as the article suggests), but that’s someone else’s problem. What I personally worry about is that Webb, and I suspect other schools like it, which have made an effort to make sure that at least a few “underprivileged” kids got the benefit of their educations, will be in a position where their costs are so high that they’ll spend their financial aid helping the “middle class” parents (which in this inflated formulation includes people like us) and leaving the genuinely underprivileged to fend for themselves.
I couldn’t give a damn about status, and I’m reasonably confident that when it comes to it Athena will be able to go to a college that will be right for her. As for quality of education, well, I love my kid, but I’m not worried that her education will be lacking, even without a snooty high school. This is in part because I have a good education and am busy applying it to her; as parents we’ll be happy to supplement wherever we feel her schools are a little light on things. That being the case I’d be loathe to try to send my kid to a school like Webb if doing so meant some kid who is like me back in 1983 is going to get shut out because I’m pilfering the school’s financial aid. I don’t suspect other parents will have the same qualms — nor, to be sure, should they be faulted for not having them; they don’t have the same sensitivities about the topic as I do.
But for my part, unless I can pay for Athena’s full ride, no rich and snooty private school for her. Some other child — one who is poor but smart, and ready to be a sponge in an environment like my high school — needs that educational opportunity more than she does. Let’s hope that in the era of the $35,000 high school, that opportunity still exists.