Last updated on May 5, 2020
One of the most challenging aspects of attending a private school is the cost of tuition. Every object in a school—from smart boards and chalk to paper towels and textbooks—requires money to exist. If that money doesn’t come from donations, then it must come out of the pockets of students’ families.
The question of whose family can afford this tuition price is an uncomfortable one that lingers throughout our school, especially for those receiving financial aid, and those new to private school. It is likewise troublesome to consider the inherent exclusion that comes with attending a private school. How much is one’s socioeconomic background factored into their acceptance?
Full-tuition-paying domestic families are charged $39,590 for upper school and $37,385 for middle school. International students living in the dorm pay $62,460. International students living off-campus pay $41,665; a price higher than domestic tuition due to costs related to immigration and the overseas shipping of paperwork. Even given the varying price points, the cost of attending Northwest seems very high. So how are these amounts set, and how is it used to run the school?
To find out, I first sat down with our Head of School, Mike McGill. Right away I learned that the process of determining the tuition amount starts with enrollment. Each year, when the financial committee, a subset of the board, sits down to outline the school budget for the following year, they must first determine the number of students they want for the next year. (The enrollment number for the 2020-21 school year is set at 509 students.) From this number, all other aspects of the school budget flow, as the number of students will determine the “operating budget,” or the money that the school will receive from paid tuition. Other money comes from fundraising and donations, but those are supplementary. Once the operating budget is set, members of the financial committee determine how to allocate the collected tuition to pay for the expenses that keep Northwest running. The largest expense Northwest must cover is employing its faculty. This includes their salaries, health benefits and retirement funds, all of which combine to make up 70% of total school expenses.
However, not all faculty salaries are the same; teachers with more years of experience or higher levels of education receive higher paychecks. For non-teaching positions—such as custodian staff, cooks, and counselors—salaries are determined by the market rate for such positions (i.e. what other private schools in the Seattle area pay for similar jobs).
Some students may have noticed that tuition has been steadily increasing in the past few years. This is due to a few factors; first, with Seattle’s increase in cost of living, the school has had to support faculty living costs by raising their salaries. Second, Northwest has expanded its student support services over the past five years, including adding a second Dean of Students, a full-time DEI Director, a second college counselor and two Learning Support Coordinators. The athletic department has also been expanded, and a new bus program added, among other things. As vital as these relatively new structures of support have become to the student experience at Northwest, they have come at a pricey cost.
It’s important to understand that when a new faculty member is added to the school, they will become more expensive each year they choose to stay at Northwest. Every year, returning faculty’s health benefits go up as well as their salaries. This is in contrast to adding a new student, who will pay a consistent and steady price throughout their years at the school. In order to cover the costs that come with faculty—as more student services are added, the cost of living in Seattle becomes more expensive, and the school attempts to keep our faculty salaries competitive—tuition has to go up as well.
Another important note is that for many years Northwest has been working to pay our faculty more honorable salaries. As Jonathan Hochberg, the Director of Financial Aid, tells me, “teachers everywhere are undervalued and under-paid.” In the Strategic Framework, which outlines our values and identity as an institution, Northwest says “exceptional faculty” is our “greatest resource.” This in part means paying them well.
Even so, Northwest tuition is the highest of all private schools in the Seattle area (though that is by a small margin). Part of this is because of our relatively small endowment, which is where the majority of financial aid funds come from. Jonathan says that endowment is something that grows as a school ages. Northwest, at around forty years old, is a relatively young school, which means our endowment is not yet very impressive. The school works hard to build our endowment through special fundraisers.
While our tuition is high, Northwest has worked to build a robust financial aid program. A few notable characteristics: Northwest affords aid based on a spectrum of need. This means that financial aid awards are determined by how much a family is able to pay. Each prospective family goes through a multi-step process where their financial information is assessed to figure out what that amount is. This need-based system is uncommon among private schools. Many schools engage in a practice known as “short-funding,” where families are asked to pay more than the school knows they are able to. A second characteristic of our financial aid program is the Experience Fund, or X-Fund, which is a rare program among private schools (no other Seattle-area private schools have such a program). The X-Fund is a pool of money set aside for students on financial aid, covering all school costs outside of tuition, such as athletic fees, trip costs, and books. The X-Fund covers in full all of these additional fees for every student on financial aid, no matter your award size. The rationale is that financial aid awards already ask families to pay as much as they are able to, so it doesn’t make sense to assume they can pay more for additional costs. Few schools have this type of funding for their students because it is very expensive. The last thing to note is that Northwest affords very few (around three) international students any financial aid; around 0.5 percent of students on financial aid are international students. This makes Northwest far less accessible for international families than it is for domestic families, especially considering that international tuition, even for those students not living in the dorm, is considerably more expensive than domestic tuition.
Every year, Northwest’s tuition goes up by around four to five percent. This means that tuition will go up by around 1,760 dollars from this school year to the next, and from next year to the following, around 1,860 dollars (for domestic high schoolers). The four to five percent price hike is in reaction to the rate that inflation rises in the Seattle area, which is around three to four percent each year. The rise of tuition has to stay ahead of inflation in order for schools to keep paying faculty competitive prices as the cost of living increases. After researching this, I wanted to know whether Northwest matched increasing tuition with increased financial aid awards. The answer is that while the number of students on financial aid has remained steadily at 16 percent of the student body, the school has increased the size of the awards that those 80 financial-aid-receiving students are granted.
While it’s crucial that Northwest remains an affordable place, where families who are perhaps new to the private school world, or who come from low-income backgrounds—and especially from communities of color—can view Northwest as a place within the realm of possibility for their children. Navigating the question of affordability presents a huge challenge on the school’s end. On one hand, when it comes to recruiting faculty, a competitive school has attractive salary packages, but when it comes to potential students, a competitive school has low tuition. This essential discrepancy presents a major challenge when it comes to creating an excellent school that provides a nourishing environment for each student, through various structures of (costly) care and support, while maintaining a price point that doesn’t scare so many families away. It’s clear that Northwest is doing many things right in regards to tuition, and that the question of how to make our school more diverse and thriving in more beautiful ways is a complex one.
Special thanks to Jonathan Hochberg, Mike McGill, Ruth Donohue, and Dmitry Sherbakov.