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Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students

Juliet Squire
Melissa Steel King
Justin Trinidad

Title image for Bellwether publication "Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability," July 2019In recent decades, tuition increases in independent schools have outpaced inflation and wage growth, while thousands of Catholic parochial schools — which historically have provided private education at a much lower cost — have closed, leaving middle- and low-income families with fewer affordable options. 

Meanwhile, families across socioeconomic groups express interest in private schooling. While private schools consistently serve about 10% of U.S. students, 40% of parents say they would prefer private schools. These trends suggest a need to look more closely at efforts to increase affordability in private schools and ensure that all families have equitable access to the schools of their choice.

In “Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students,” we sought to understand the landscape of private schools working to provide an affordable education by looking at the approaches they are taking and how they are revisiting traditional operating models. We profile a variety of strategies used by schools to improve access for middle- and low-income families. Some schools rely on reducing the costs to families (i.e., tuition) by providing significant financial aid or partnering with scholarship programs, some have found inventive new revenue streams, and some have streamlined operations and leveraged technology to reduce their per-pupil expenditures.

One category of private schools, the microschool, merited a closer look due to its profoundly different operational and financial profile. Through surveys and interviews with microschool leaders and experts around the country, this report seeks to further define this emerging sector of intentionally small, educationally innovative schools and to explore their potential as an affordable independent school option.

Ultimately, this overview of low-cost private schools and microschools surfaced questions about improving equity in private education. The profiles of schools aiming to serve middle- and low-income families highlight unsolved puzzles about how to balance that mission with financial sustainability. The analysis also raises questions about the role of private schools in serving families with more limited means, and about the potential of low-cost models to scale and innovate. Further exploration of these questions is essential to ensuring that in the private sector as well as the public sector, all families have equal access to high-quality options.

Download the full report here or read it in the viewer below.