Soaring Tuition Costs… at Preschool?

by Elizabeth on April 23, 2012 · 3 comments

Last week, my daughter came home from school with a note in her bag. The flyer was an urgent reminder to sign her up for fall classes, before space ran out. The school’s director reiterated that she was seeing increasing competition for the limited classroom spaces, and that the only way to ensure my daughter would have a seat was to pre-register for the fall semester.

Did I mention that my daughter is three-and-a-half?

Nope, we’re not talking about college tuition here, an elite boarding school, or even a parochial elementary school. This is your average, run-of-the-mill preschool program.

The Theory of Supply and Demand

We all know the average tuition costs at four-year colleges and universities are on the rise. In 2011, the cost of tuition alone for in-state residents at our nation’s public schools was over $8,200; factor in room and board, and you’ll be paying more than $21,000 annually for a public university – that’s an increase of nearly five and a half percent just last year alone.

But preschool tuition is on its way up as well. Immediately after the recession hit, many states started scaling back on certain preschool options – like Head Start programs – that gave parents a cost-effective way to send their four-year-olds to school for little or no money. At the same time, many local school districts – like my own in central North Carolina – moved the cut-off date for kindergarten enrollment ahead by more than a month to late summer instead of early fall.

The result?

With fewer low-cost programs and the earlier kindergarten cut-off date, many parents had to look for other ways to educate their preschoolers. There are plenty of preschool themes around – everything from a Christian-based school, like the one my daughter attends, to Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools – and many saw a boost in enrollment.

If you know anything about economics, you know the theory of supply and demand. When the demand is high, the available supply is often low – and that leads to higher prices.

Preschool Costs

Last year, I paid $150/month for my daughter’s three-day a week, three-hour-a-day preschool program. Not bad – after all, I had been paying nearly $1,000 a month for childcare when I was working out of the home full-time. Next year, she’ll be enrolled in a five-day program – still three hours a day – at a cost of $305: more than double what we paid last year for less than double the amount of instructional time.

I asked our preschool director exactly why tuition costs had gone up so much; by comparison, that same five-day-a-week program cost just $265 last school year. She cited supply and demand; the number of inquiries about enrollment were up, meaning the school had the virtual currency to up its prices.

Not that I can complain – I know even at $305 a month, my daughter’s preschool is a bargain. We initially wanted to send her to a Montessori, with a price tag of $485/month for 15 hours of weekly instruction. My friends who live in more metropolitan areas pay even more. A friend who sends her daughter to a Waldorf school in the Midwest pays more than $600 a month for a program of similar length. Another friend who lives near Portland, Oregon, paid more than $500 a month to send her two-year-old to a three-day-a-week “Mother’s morning out” program.

The national preschool tuition averages are foggy; according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies – the NACCRRA – Mississippi had the lowest average child care center costs for 2010, while the District of Columbia had the highest. However, that factors in not just preschool settings, but day cares and learning centers as well, which can inflate the estimated tuition costs.

Is Preschool Worth It?

In response to soaring preschool costs, I have several friends who have taken a more traditional route: they’re keeping their preschool aged children at home until they’re eligible for free public education. A 2007 federal study found more than 1.5 million American students are homeschooled between preschool and high school. With the proliferation of home school programs for children of all ages, is preschool even necessary these days?

That’s a cultural divide if you ask me. Personally, I believe that preschool has done my daughter a world of good. It’s taught her self-discipline and how to respect her teachers, something I fear we would have struggled with had I taken on the moniker of teacher as well as mommy. That said, one friend who home schools her four-year-old daughter says she’d been able to leverage the “socialization” debate by spending time at museums, recreation centers, and parks with other preschoolers and their parents.

Reader, what are your thoughts on preschool costs? Are they worth it to educate young minds – or is the money better used elsewhere?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jai Catalano April 24, 2012 at 6:20 am

If you only knew what I spend in daycare. It’s nuts. But then again it’s NYC.

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2 Van Beek @ Stock Trend Investing April 28, 2012 at 12:41 am

This is so difficult. You want the best for your child. And the truth is that you never know what is the best. Fact is that education and learning how to learn and socialize will be more and more important. At this moment the school costs for our 6-year old is by far our biggest expense (it was the same when she was 3). And I am happy to pay it when I see her being happy and developing. I wouldn’t know what better I could spend it on.

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3 John @ Married (with Debt) May 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I’ll probably not pay for their college, but I have one kid in private school (1st grade). Like you, the tuition is cheaper than the childcare, but when you factor in my property taxes, I’m paying a great deal of money for education.

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