Last year I wrote about my Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education. As a graduate of a now-elite prep school and Alumni Board member I have been privileged to participate in many discussions lately about the future of the school. Like most non-profits, fund raising is always a top priority. While tuition has risen considerably since my time there the actual cost of educating a student far exceeds what parents are actually charged. Our endowment fund is used to make up the difference.
The dream for my alma mater, which already gives out more student aid than all of the other prep schools in the archdiocese combined, is to eventually be able to offer enough financial aid that all students attend for free. This is an admirable goal that is part of the longterm strategic planning for the school. An interesting question has arisen though which I think dovetails somewhat with the voucher debate that flairs up from time to time in the United States.
A unique aspect of the school I attended is that no students are ever turned away due to academic ability. A note from our president explains:
“Our mission from the day we opened has been to serve the broadest population possible. We are proud of the academic, geographic, racial, ethnic and economic diversity found in our school. Our doors will remain wide open for those who seek a caring community of teachers and learners, rooted in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.”
While all of the Catholic high schools in Louisville give the same ‘placement test’ for incoming freshman, our school does not use student test scores as a barrier to admission. There is a robust program in place to assist students with learning disabilities and this is considered part of our mandate as a Catholic institution. Other schools do not operate under the same philosophy which is a fact that we believe sets us apart from them as a more inclusive environment. Of course the rub is that the current cost of an education does still create a type of elitism.
I have argued in the past that elitism in schools is a good thing. Whether it be a top-flight private school with steep tuition costs or a public school with special invitation-only magnet programs in place, students benefit from a system that creates barriers to access. Overcoming those barriers demonstrates a desire to succeed. In the case of private schools, when parents are writing large checks, it is a good bet that they will be engaged in their child’s education. In a public school setting, when a student that passes the barriers to admission into a special program or into a school with a long waiting list, they themselves demonstrate a desire to be part of something special. We saw this with our oldest daughter who worked very hard to make it into the best public middle school and high school in our district. Once there the students were told often that there was a long line of kids who wanted their place in the program and under-performing was not an option. She developed a sense of elitism during those years that could be considered distasteful at some later point in life but played a vital role at that stage in her education.
So the question facing my alma mater if our endowment dream is realized is this: If tuition eventually becomes free, how do we still maintain those barriers which make the school succeed? If cost no longer represents a barrier to admission, what will prevent us from being just another free place to get an education? This has been one of the things I have never understood about vouchers. My fear is that we will be forced to ask for higher test scores as a means of filtering incoming students and this may end the practice of accepting students with less academic ability. If we want to continue their inclusion, what other barriers can we create? As of this writing I do not have the answers.
This is the challenge we will face somedat but it is a long way off. In the meantime we are looking for solutions to tap more donor money and get that into the hands of students via tuition assistance. It is a goal I believe strongly in but one that perhaps leads to more questions than answers.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.