As a Yale student, it's a nice reaffirmation of the resources available when I load the New York Times webpage and find a nice photo of the squash courts in an article about schools with massive endowments. Only in late January, when that happened, it wasn't Yale at all--it was my high school, Phillips Exeter Academy. I could even spot some of my friends in the photo (not featured here).
The article begins by profiling Curtis Thomas, a student made able to attend Exeter thanks to its generous financial aid. Curtis is really cool, I don't know him especially well but did work with him on the Martin Luther King Day committee; in any event, I can certainly say that I'm very glad Exeter has the enormous pile of money to bring him and people in similar positions to Exeter.
Despite Exeter’s expanding commitments, which include a new promise to pay the full cost for any student whose family income is less than $75,000, the school’s endowment keeps growing. Last year — fueled by gifts from wealthy alumni and its own successful investments — it crossed the $1 billion mark, up from just over $500 million in 2002.
Exeter may be a particularly successful example, but its ballooning endowment also reflects a broader trend. In the 10 years through the 2005-6 academic year, the number of students at independent schools, which does not count parochial schools, rose just 11.6 percent, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Over the same period, the average endowment per student, adjusted for inflation, increased by 93.5 percent.
So the rich are getting richer, both individuals and institutionally--independent school spending per student is up 40% between 1999 and 2004, versus 28% for public schools; at the high end of things, Exeter-style, things
Over a recent breakfast in Exeter’s cafeteria, Tyler C. Tingley, Exeter’s principal, said the school had commissioned a report showing that in 1980, 40 percent of American families could afford to pay tuition at Phillips Exeter, but by 2004 that number had declined to just 6 percent.
The ability of Exeter and other wealthy institutions to underwrite students helps explain why they may enjoy an advantage over other independent schools in competing for the best students. [...]
“If your selection pool is only 6 percent of the population,” Mr. Tingley, the principal, said, “that is a small percent to draw from. We are trying to create a level playing field. It used to be that we gave financial aid to 34 percent of the student body. Now it is 46 percent. We anticipate it will increase further as a result of the changes.”
Now, it's striking to see that Exeter is in the top 25 endowments for ALL private schools--including colleges. I knew many friends who were sad to realize how much they might end up lacking for resources after they left high school. Here at Yale, I'm better off, but it can still be mind-boggling. Looking at this story about rich old schools doling out big bucks for financial aid sounds positively heart-warming: for whatever income disparity there might be, and whatever wealth gap, at least attempts are being made to mitigate the difference... right?
Not so fast. At the high end of things, Exeter type schools have that flexibility. But for schools that don't run capital campaigns in the hundreds of millions of dollars range, they still want to compete for the dollars that students from rich families bring, as well as searching for the best students. Even Exeter does this. It says it looks for "students from every quarter" and it makes sure that it doesn't overlook the "extremely wealthy" quarter (not that that's 25%). For schools which don't have the same resources, what can this mean?
“Private school is a luxury, and rich families want the best facilities,” said Michael Gary, director of admissions at Exeter. “All too often fund-raising is about the buildings and the sports facilities. The schools need them to attract the wealthy families. They don’t have high on their priorities providing access to kids who can’t afford it.”
The schools that want to attract students have to choose to spend on aid or facilities if they can't compete on both--and in a financial bind, they often choose facilities. Something to remember about all of those bulging endowments. Exeter had lots of its endowment tied up only for athletic or other restricted purposes. The best of all RIDICULOUS endowed things? There is a prize, given out on prize day, to any student who receives the same prize that their mother or father received when they were a student. To my great delight, in recent years it has garnered some booing and hissing. Its recipients still shrug, and go and collect their money for being both talented at whatever achievement they're receiving... and being legacies... and the cycle continues.