Tuition and affordability survey results

Send by email
by Lark P. Palma, head of school

The response rate to our online survey about tuition affordability, which we conducted in November and early December, was overwhelming, with 481 people replying. Catlin Gabel has approximately 540 families enrolled, so this census-level return is a significant sampling. Clearly, rising tuition rates and school expenses are topics that matter deeply to parents. Thank you to all of you who completed the survey.

We will study the results, compare with our benchmark schools, and review PNAIS recommendations before taking action. In the meantime, I want to share our findings, which are quite interesting.

Responses were equally divided between families who have been at Catlin Gabel for five or more years and fewer than five years. Slightly more than one-third of respondents have more than one child at Catlin Gabel.

Public perception that Catlin Gabel is a school of the super-rich is off the mark. The data reveals that more than one-quarter of our families earn less than $100,000 per year, and nearly two-thirds earn less than $200,000, with only 19 percent of our families earning more than $300,000. Within our community, there is wider income distribution than we expected. Relative to the Portland metropolitan area, however, where 84 percent of households earn under $100,000 per year, our school community is affluent. While the definition of Catlin Gabel’s middle class may be in the $100,000 to $250,000 range, Portland’s 2007 median household income for a family of four was $42,800 (PDC website).

For those who prefer statistics in visual form, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The survey results disclose the financial challenges of paying tuition, even for people many would consider high-income earners. The upshot is that the majority of Catlin Gabel families – all the way up to the $300,000 income level – say they make financial trade-offs to afford our tuition. While we expect pressure to afford tuition in lower-income families, the level of pressure felt by families in the $200,000 to $300,000 range is a bit surprising.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents indicate that they have considered leaving Catlin Gabel due to the cost. The financial pressures that people feel cannot be minimized. Each respondent’s perception of sacrifice must be heard and considered. Given Portland metropolitan area income demographics, housing prices, the cost of living, our tuition rate, and our current limited ability to award financial aid, we must ask: Who will be able to attend Catlin Gabel in the future?

Even though a considerable majority says paying tuition is a challenge, 86 percent feel Catlin Gabel is worth the expense.

Most – 84 percent – Catlin Gabel families pay tuition out of their annual income. One-quarter of respondents say grandparents or trust funds provide a portion of their tuition payments. In families with income less than $200,000, nearly one-fourth receive assistance from grandparents. Families in the $200,000 to $300,000 range rely most heavily on annual income, with the least amount of support from grandparents and trusts. About 7 percent of respondents rely on debt, such as home equity loans, to pay for tuition.

As a community we value economic diversity: 80 percent of respondents indicated that attending a school with an economically diverse community is important to their family.

Comments about how to cut expenses were interesting and inconclusive. We did not expect conclusive results from the open-ended questions, and there was no consensus about specific ways to decrease tuition. Suggestions ranged from increasing class sizes to decreasing programs and reducing maintenance costs. Our community knows that excellent education is an expensive proposition. But the passion parents showed in their comments indicate a need for us to get serious about cost control.

We constantly seek ways to provide the best teachers and programs for our children, and to ensure that our teachers are paid appropriately. The financial sustainability committee is analyzing data, raising questions, and developing principles of good practice for making financially sustainable decisions. The results of this survey will most certainly inform their work as they assess trends and make recommendations to improve the school’s financial position and to attract and retain students.

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. We will be equally thoughtful in our deliberations about Catlin Gabel’s tuition and affordability.