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Punahou plans to phase out free tuition for new employees’ kids

A major perk of working at Punahou School — free tuition for one child — will end for new employees in the fall of 2022, a move that could affect staff recruitment.

New hires at Punahou instead will receive a $5,000 tuition discount for one child starting in the 2022-23 academic year, according to a recent message to staff. Current employees will be grandfathered in and receive a $28,000 discount in future years, which is slightly above the $27,716 tuition for the 2021-22 school year.

“It is a major decision as it’s something that almost every private school has — that they give free tuition to at least the first child,” said Philip Bossert, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. “It is a substantial amount of value.”

The 100% tuition waiver policy for one child of full-time staff members remains intact at other big private schools such as ‘Iolani School, Mid-Pacific Institute and Maryknoll School. Bossert predicted that independent schools will keep a close eye on how things pan out for Punahou when the new policy goes into effect and whether “people decide to walk away.”

Asked about its rationale for the change, Punahou issued the following written statement:

“While Punahou’s financial position remains strong, we believe it is our responsibility to look toward the future and lay the groundwork for long term sustainability and growth,” it said. “The changes to our tuition remission policy will be phased in gradually for current employees.”

“We believe that the changes will enable us to continue to invest in our faculty and staff while also preserving need-blind admissions policies and increasing financial aid for all Punahou families, part of our essential commitment to social responsibility,” it said.

Any decision about tuition waivers plays into a range of issues, including salaries, financial aid and the rate of tuition increases.

Targeting financial aid at the broader student population based on need could be considered more equitable than focusing on the children of staff members. And even among employees, a tuition waiver can have uneven effects, since “faculty without kids are basically paid less money for the same services,” Bossert said.

But the long-standing tradition of tuition waivers is prized by private school faculty and staff, and can benefit schools in various ways, administrators say.

“‘Iolani School has no plans to alter its tuition remission policy for faculty and staff,” Timothy Cottrell, head of school, said Thursday. “The board and the administration feel that this is an essential benefit necessary to attract, retain and reward the highest quality staff.”

Dan Nagami, director of external relations for Mary­knoll School, said the policy has proved valuable and that his school is sticking with it although “everyone has been impacted financially by the pandemic, from the smallest school to the largest.”

“We are staying with our first student is free, tuition remission covers 100%,” Nagami said. “It’s a good draw for new faculty and staff, and I think it’s part of what keeps a lot of our faculty and staff.”

“It’s a great marketing tool for your school,” he added. “You’re teaching at a school where you believe in the education and curriculum that you’d bring your child to the school. … Especially for families nowadays, you want to be able to have your child on campus, safely, possibly with you.”

Tuition increases for the coming school year range from 2% to 3% at the biggest private schools.

Tuition at Maryknoll, the state’s largest Catholic school, will go to $19,600 in the fall, a 2% increase from the current $19,200. ‘Iolani’s tuition will rise to $26,150 in the coming school year, up 3% from this year’s $25,325 bill. Mid-Pacific’s tuition will be $27,511, a 2.5% rise from $26,840 this year.

Punahou’s $27,716 tuition this fall represents a 2.75% rise from this year’s $26,975, the smallest percentage increase since 1999.

A Punahou spokesman said the institution intends to remain competitive in salaries for faculty and staff.

“We are proud of our industry-leading portfolio of salary and benefits, recognizing that these are just a few of the factors that make working at Punahou an attractive choice for many applicants,” the school said in its statement.

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