Prep schools open their doors wider

Last year, the Brentwood School in Sandersville, Ga., won three state championships in sports, a debating title, and prizes in the arts. With a reputation enhanced by so much public acclaim, the time seemed ripe to boost enrollment at the K-12 Christian school.

Instead, a merciless economy took its toll on those paying $4,500 per year in tuition. Mounting financial pressures led 22 families to withdraw their children. "I thought that all of these accolades would help us to increase enrollment," says Gordon Rode, Head of School. "But with the economy so sluggish, both nationally and locally, I find that I am happy to be at the same enrollment [375] this year."

Across the country, tuition-dependent private schools are feeling the pinch of a two-year economic slowdown. Families with children already enrolled in private schools are now pleading for financial help. Financial-aid applications are up 28 percent, according to a survey of 18 Eastern schools done by Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield, Mass.

So far, most schools have kept enrollments stable, but the prospect of tough times ahead suddenly has private schools working much more aggressively to find and recruit new families.

The end result may be more diverse student bodies on some private campuses. Some schools long viewed as "elite" are now reaching out to families, neighborhoods, and even countries that would never previously have been viewed as fertile ground for recruiting.

In the past private schools have generally relied on image and a soft sell to recruit, but this year the Brentwood School took the unusual step of placing an ad on a local billboard.

"We all just have to get a little more creative," says Marylou Marcus, president of the 350-member Small Boarding Schools Association and director of admissions and financial aid at Dublin School in Dublin, N.H.

However, say some familiar with the private school world, a sluggish economy may simply be accelerating a change already under way. Once upon a time, private schools were viewed as the preserve of wealthy families. But in recent years, middle-income families have been digging deeper into their pockets to make tuition payments, even as some old-money families have faded from the scene.

"We no longer have legacy families to fill our schools," says Ms. Marcus. "[But] public schools are failing in so many areas, we have more middle-class families wanting to access private education. That's a newer market for all of us."

Hopes for reaching that "newer market" - especially in budget-cutting times - have made marketing a priority at schools. And this year, a decade-long trend toward more marketing reveals new signs of urgency.

More subtly, for instance, the Association of Boarding Schools in Washington, DC, will bring representatives from 57 schools - up from 37 in 1998 - on a recruiting mission to Asia this fall. Most have recruited in Asia before, but this year represents a widening of the net to encompass six major cities. The potential catch: bright students from families with deep pockets.

"They are full-pay families," says Diane Rapp, a New York-based consultant to families in Asia interested in American private schooling. "In 20 years of doing this, I rarely, if ever, have heard of an Asian family needing financial aid. This definitely is a source of revenue."

Day schools are at once casting for new families and stretching to keep old ones. Shore Country Day School in Beverly, Mass., purchased radio air time this year to promote an open house for prospective families. Brentwood sent letters to 1,200 area families with children. Quest Academy in Palatine, Ill., raised tuition by 6 percent, to $11,700, to offer Chicago-area families with gifted children an additional $70,000 in financial aid.

"We want to be able to say to any family, 'Don't let finances be the reason your children leave here,' " says Marilyn Wallace, head of school at Quest.

Despite their image of affluence, some boarding schools are striving for frugality as they recruit. Many have banded together to share rental cars and host joint receptions in distant cities, Marcus says. They're also determined to court consultants as never before: About 300 are sending representatives to lobby these advisers to families at a national meeting in Arizona in November. Only 90 schools had been represented when consultants last met there in 1994.

Campuses, meanwhile, are becoming market-research centers where admissions officers are now sometimes known as professional "enrollment management experts."

These adjustments could lead to more diverse campuses, Marcus says, if they succeed in giving more middle-class families a share of a growing financial-aid pie. She suggests private schools could also diversify by attracting some of the million-plus students being schooled at home in America when they reach higher grades.

But with price tags ranging from a few thousand dollars annually to more than $30,000 for boarding school, not everyone is convinced that a business slowdown will help to diversify private schools. On the contrary, says Mr. Rode. A tough economy could mean instead a return to more homogeneous student bodies at private schools.

Adding minorities "gets more difficult in tough economic times," he says. "I think you do better diversifying a school in good times, when there's more money available for scholarships."

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