What were once America's WASPiest private schools are now actively seeking Asian students.

by Robin Berger


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private school education ain't what it used to be. Yes, private schools are still generally safer, more academically rigorous and claim with some justification to provide better preparation for life in the Ivy League. The difference is that, at least in boarding schools, life has gotten, well, more colorful.

Foxcroft is a small all-girl's boarding school in Middleburg, Virgnia.

     "Boarding schools are perceived to be attended by blue-blooded New England types," says Anthony J. DeFazio, publicist for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). "The reality is, since the mid-1980s, international students and students of other ethnic backgrounds have made big gains in boarding schools."
     NAIS statistics for 1996, the latest available year, put non-White enrollment at about 21% of the total boarding school populations. The trend is clear, according to Heather Loerle, Associate Director for the Association of Boarding Schools, a NAIS affiliate. In the current economic situation, "If anything grows a few percentage points, you start taking notice," says Hoerle.
     Over the last ten years demographics at the 240-250 schools affilated with Hoerle's group have shifted away from the progeny of "legacy families -- families who had been sending their children for years, generation after generation." She attributes the trend to three prevailing factors: money, birth rates and new blood.


     Tuition has gone up significantly and even legacy families have been hit by the economic slowdown, forcing them to think twice about enrolling a child in boarding school. NAIS pegs average annual tuition for its 241 associated boarding schools at $21,000 for the 1998-99 schoolyear.
     Total enrollment is listed at around 43,500 boarders. This compares with an average of only $8,000 paid by 43,598 students boarding at 250 affiliated institutions 15 years ago.
     In addition many of the legacy families who can afford the tuition prefer a day school or are simply not having as many children as they used to. "Those very families are not producing at the rate we need to replenish schools," says Hoerle, "so we're attracting a new market of families to our schools."
     Between 1981 and 1991 the number of foreign enrollees at these schools rose from 9.6% of the student population to 11.5%. "International students traditionally have not been given large amounts of financial aid," says Hoerle. Only 5%, an all-time high, of foreign students got financial assistance this year versus 29% for the student population as a whole. Financial aid generally comes from school endowments, though sources like the governments of Saudi Arabia and the People's Republic of China also pitch in.
     To accommodate the new demographics, many boarding schools and boarding school associations have modified their marketing programs and curricula. Hoerle's program has enlisted focus group research to identify boarding school stereotypes, and last summer began a media campaign to counter these images. Her publicist DeFazio has addressed black readership in Essence and Black Enterprise, and targeted other non-legacy families through CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
     The Association of Boarding Schools has contracted pros to produce videos and other marketing tools and has installed an 800-line for inquiries. Within the next three months, Hoerle plans to hire an international expert to help custom design marketplace pieces and its first international directory specifically for prospective overseas students.
     Although individual entities vary their approach, Hoerle estimates the average marketing budget for boarding schools at 6% of total expenditures versus the 12% spent on marketing by most corporations. Special efforts have been made by some to appeal to specific international markets. For instance, a few years ago Oregon Episcopal School translated all of its applications, school catalogs and other material into Japanese.
     English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) courses and orientation programs were added four years ago at Foxcroft, a secondary all-girls boarding school established in Middleburg, Virginia in 1914. According to Director Mary Lou Leipheimer, 14 of the school's 137 students currently attend the program, and foreign students now make up 20% of the student body versus 12% only six years ago. Foxcroft's Asian population has grown 13% over the past six years, and includes eight students from Japan, eight from Corea, two from Taiwan and a Corean American. PAGE 2

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"Those very families are not producing at the rate we need to replenish schools, so we're attracting a new market of families to our schools."