The Marlborough School, where two of Jody Fay's daughters are enrolled, is the kind of educational establishment she always dreamed of for her children: The private, all-girls school in Hancock Park offers small classes, specialized courses, individualized attention from top instructors. Sending her girls there is a gift, Fay believes, that will last a lifetime.
And it is a gift that does not come cheap.
The tuition at Marlborough next fall will top $25,000 -- $25,250, to be exact -- a 6% increase from this school year. And Marlborough is not an anomaly. For the first time, tuition at several of the most elite private schools in Los Angeles County will either reach $25,000 or hover very near that mark -- and that does not include the standard fees that most schools charge, as well as other fundraising for which parents are expected to open their wallets.
Private schools have been steadily inching toward this once unheard-of benchmark. The new price tag is enough to cause any parent, however well-off, to blanch and has provoked discussion among educators about whether there is a tuition tipping point above which parents will balk.
And it underscores the lengths to which many parents will go to send their children to private school if they believe the outcome will be getting into a better college, a more promising career, a brighter future.
"I'm not going to tell you it isn't hard because it is," said Fay, who is president of Marlborough's parent association. "The sacrifices for us have been many and continue to be, but we believe our children's education is our top priority."
Anne Carlin, whose 13-year-old daughter, Seanie, attends Marlborough, joked that her initial thought was to hide the letter announcing the new tuition rates from her attorney husband. She works part time but is considering full-time work to help offset tuition expenses.
"I feel very lucky," said Carlin, who also has a 16-year-old son in a private Jesuit school and two other children in public school.
Still, she added: "I feel kind of selfish because we know there are many people who make many more sacrifices than we do. But we have quit the country club, we drive older cars and don't take the vacation unless it has something to do with the children's education. We don't have a nanny; we gave that up. It's daunting."
To put the figure of $25,000 for a secondary education into context, consider: Undergraduate tuition at Harvard this year is $28,752; at USC it's $30,703.
"We all worry about the tipping point; it's a dominant subject of discussion when school leaders get together," said Thomas C. Hudnut, headmaster at Harvard-Westlake, one of L.A.'s largest private schools, where tuition next year will reach $23,850. "Twenty years ago when tuition was $4,000, we thought the tipping point would be far below what it is today. I can remember sitting with the chairman of the school finance committee in 1983 or '84 with his head in his hands, saying he couldn't believe we were going to break $5,000. It wasn't that long ago, and now we're blithely charging five times that much."
The Brentwood School next year will be just shy of the new $25,000 benchmark: Tuition will be $24,800. Some schools in the area have not released next year's tuition rates but they are expected to be competitive with Brentwood and Marlborough. The Archer School for Girls this year, for example, charges $23,970 for the upper school; next year's costs have not yet been announced.
Below the top tier of elite schools, tuitions are not as steep, particularly in many parochial schools.
But if the competition to get into private schools such as Marlborough is any indication, $25,000 must seem like a good deal. The school admits 80 to 85 new students each fall and receives about four applications for each available spot, said Urmi Kar, associate director of communications.
"Every school takes tuition increases very seriously, and it is probably the biggest thing our board grapples with annually," said Kar. "The goal is to raise tuition as minimally as possible and only as much as needed. This is the kind of education that is very labor-intensive, very one-on-one, and there is no economy of scale."
Kar said part of the tuition money is used to bolster financial aid for students who otherwise could not afford Marlborough. About 14% of students at the school receive financial aid, with grants averaging $16,000. The school has a mandate to ensure that the student body is economically and socially diverse, said Kar. Most other private schools also offer financial support for families who qualify.