Private School Enrollment Contracts-the Devil is in the Details

It’s hard for me to believe that this time next year my eldest daughter will be getting ready to start high school. She might be ready, but I’m certainly not. I’m sure my parents said the same thing about me, but it is so different for teenagers today. Between the pressures of social media and doing a million and one activities to pad college applications, it’s really hard to be a teenager today.

Step one of the rest of my daughter’s life is picking the right high school for her. You want a school that is competitive enough to challenge her, but not so competitive that she ends up having a nervous breakdown before her 16th birthday. Or worse, can’t get into the University of Texas at Austin.

Side note, my husband and I are both UT alums and die hard Longhorns. I won’t go into the long legal history behind this rule, but Texas students who graduate in the top 6 percent of their high school class earn automatic admission to UT (roughly 75% of the freshman class). Everyone else gets to compete for the remaining 25% of the admission slots.

In addition to good academics, we also want her to continue to grow in her Catholic faith. We are looking at three Catholic high schools in the Dallas area. All three are great schools. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones who think so and the competition to get in will be fierce.

One of my good friends recently went through the Catholic high school application process with her daughter. After her daughter was waitlisted at her first choice school, my friend accepted a placement offer from her second choice school and paid the deposit. Judging by her choice of t-shirts, my friend’s daughter still has her heart set on attending her first choice school and will want to attend that school if a spot opens up. How do you break up with your back up date when your crush asks you to prom? The answer is not easily.

Parents typically sign a contract when they accept a placement offer for a child at a private school. One of the most important pieces of information in that contract is the deadline at which a family is on the hook for a year’s tuition. That’s right—before your child even picks up a pencil on the first day of school you could be on the hook for an entire year’s tuition. Schools argue that they making planning decisions (financial aid, staffing, and operations) based on the assumption they will receive a year’s worth of tuition for each child who has accepted a placement offer. Parents should read these contracts carefully and assume that the school will enforce the terms, for example with a lawsuit or debt collection.

What should a parent do if they decide they want to withdraw their child’s enrollment after the deadline? The first step would be to talk to the school about voiding the contract (or agreeing to pay an amount less than a full year’s tuition). Be sure to create a detailed paper or electronic record documenting any discussions with the school. The school may decide to release you from the contract or seek to enforce it, but it never hurts to ask.

So what did my friend do? After the deadline passed, she removed her daughter from the waitlist for the first choice school and committed fully to the second choice school (including purchasing several new t-shirts for her daughter).

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Copyright © 2018 by Siobhán Fitzpatrick Kratovil. All Rights Reserved.

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