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Private tuition rises ‘the bare minimum’

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Private schools are making modest tuition increases for the coming academic year — and boosting financial aid offerings — as many parents continue to struggle in the tough economy.

It is the second year in a row that private schools, sensitive to strained family budgets, have opted for smaller increases.

Most larger private schools are increasing tuition by $300 to $500. In better times, annual tuition increases ranged from $1,000 to $1,500.

Private schools say enrollments appear to be holding steady, after a dip at some schools last year. But they are also getting more requests for tuition assistance. And some families say they are having to cut other household expenses to cover tuition.

Lee Lagman, whose granddaughter attends Saint Francis School in Manoa, said the family considered public school this year to save money. Instead, the family trimmed spending elsewhere to afford the school’s $9,000 annual tuition. "It’s hard," Lagman said. "We economize wherever we can."

Hawaii private schools, especially smaller ones, have struggled in the economic downturn to keep enrollment up and donations coming in. A few that entered the recession on shaky footing have been forced to close their doors, including Word of Life Academy in Kakaako and Holy Trinity School in Kuliouou.

About 35,700 children — or 17 percent of all Hawaii students — attend private schools. That compares with about 11 percent nationally.

The annual tuition rates calculus is high stakes: Schools must set tuition high enough to cover costs while not pricing families out of the market.

The state’s most expensive private school, Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island, set its high school tuition at $19,900 for the coming school year, up from $19,200 last year.

At Punahou School, high school tuition is $17,800, up 2.9 percent (a $500 increase) from the 2009-10 year. Last year the school increased tuition by 3.8 percent.

Punahou, with an enrollment of 3,760, has also expanded its financial aid budget 15 percent, to about $4.4 million. Some 495 students will get need-based financial aid in the coming school year.

"This year, the trustees both moderated tuition and increased our need-based financial aid program by 15 percent, expanding our capacity to serve a diverse group of students," Punahou President James K. Scott said in a statement. "We’re very proud of that."

Mid-Pacific Institute increased its tuition to $17,000 for the coming school year, an increase of $500.

Joe Rice, president of Mid-Pacific, said the tuition increase barely covers the school’s rising costs, from employee health insurance to supplies to electricity.

The increase was "the bare minimum that we needed in order to carry on our business," Rice said. "If we didn’t raise it, I would have to cut services to our kids."

He added that he is comfortable with the modest increase this year, but said larger increases will be needed in the long run for professional development, new supplies and other expenditures. "We wouldn’t be able to maintain real low increases every year and improve our product," Rice said.

At ‘Iolani School, high school tuition will increase 3.5 percent to $16,150 this academic year. Last year ‘Iolani increased tuition by 4.7 percent. The school has also increased it financial aid budget by 12 percent, to $2.9 million.

Cathy Lee Chong, spokeswoman, said ‘Iolani is seeing more families seeking financial aid. "We know people are cutting back and giving up luxuries," she added.

High school tuition at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua nudged up 2 percent (or by $300) to $14,800.

"We probably should have increased it more," said Headmaster Adrian Allan, adding that the tuition increase probably will not cover all the school’s escalating costs.

Pacific Buddhist Academy, which has 64 students in grades 9-12, increased its tuition by about $800 this year, to $10,000, after watching donations decline.

The school relies on tuition for about half of its operational costs and holds fundraisers for the rest.

But "that kind of fundraising is very challenging in these economic times," said Pieper Toyama, the academy’s head of school.

He added it was a tough — but necessary — call to "increase the burden on families so rapidly."

Damien Memorial School increased its high school tuition by $300 for the upcoming school year, to $9,875.

Bernard Ho, Damien president, said many of his students’ families are grappling with layoffs or pay cuts.

"During these tough economic times, everyone has to tighten up a bit," he said.

Ho added that the school has also increased its financial aid. About 43 percent of the school’s 400 students receive financial aid or scholarships — a considerably higher percentage than other private schools.

Saint Francis School in Manoa, which froze its tuition last year at $8,600, increased tuition by $400 for the coming school year.

Sister Joan of Arc Souza, head of school, said the decision on what to ask for tuition requires best guesses, a "crystal ball and a lot of prayer."

She said health insurance costs are often the biggest unknown. This year, she said, health insurance costs increased by 15 percent.


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