June 8, 2016; Philadelphia Enquirer
What does the average prep school do with when its endowment grows by $300 million in three years? For most private K-12s, it’s a decision they’ll never face. But Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania has amassed over $300 million—the fourth-largest amount ever collected through a prep-school fundraising campaign—and will allocate $80 million of those dollars to financial aid for lower-income students.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Mercersburg, a private boarding school located on a 300-acre property near Washington, D.C., will use some of the proceeds from its “Dare to Lead” campaign to increase financial aid by nearly $3 million annually in an aim to “dispel the snobby prep-school stereotype.” A press release on the school’s website uses similar language, stating that the financial aid budget will double due to the large-scale campaign. Mercersburg currently holds 441 students, and about one-third receive need-based financial aid to cover Mercersburg’s tuition: $54,500 for boarders.
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While the lion’s share of the “Dare to Lead” funds will go toward operating costs and growing the school—new faculty positions, new buildings, a new aquatic center, and renovations of facilities—an additional $80 million in financial aid could certainly add economic diversity to Mercersburg’s student population by providing full-tuition scholarships for low-income students. Other boarding schools with a high level of fundraising have promised generous scholarships in similar efforts: Phillips Exeter Academy provides full scholarships to qualified students with family incomes under $75,000, and Phillips Academy Andover is “need-blind,” thus providing grants for all accepted students who meet certain income qualifications.
These efforts to recruit students who cannot pay full tuition mark a departure from other boarding schools’ tighter budgets, which reflect the need to cover competitive programming without massive endowments. In 2014, the New York Times ran an article discussing the tough decisions made by school administrators regarding financial aid. For many elite boarding schools, financial aid awards are a balance of merit and need—and few families are able to cover the $200,000 or more needed to get to high school graduation.—Lauren Karch