NEW YORK — Tuition at some of New York's top private kindergartens in September will exceed $26,000 for the first time, almost as much as the cost of attending Princeton University and twice the price of state universities.
"It's supply and demand," said Nina Bauer, a counselor at Ivy Wise Kids, a service that for $5,000 will coach parents on how to prepare 4- and 5-year-olds for tests and interviews. "Wall Street got big bonuses this year. Everyone is just dying to get in. No one has ever once asked me about tuition."
Parents of the 30,000 students at the city's private schools received contracts last week showing next year's tuitions will increase to record levels after five years of annual growth of as much as 7 percent. Demand for about 2,300 kindergarten spots at such schools as Dalton and Horace Mann is stronger than ever, with some receiving 15 applications for every seat.
Behind the surge in demand is a growing belief among some parents that the schools put their children on track to make it to Harvard, Yale or other top universities, Bauer said. Parents also are seeking the specialized instruction and facilities lacking in New York's 1.1 million-student public-school system, which is the biggest in the United States and where fewer than half the students meet state reading requirements.
"People who don't live in New York City don't understand it, but if you look at what the private schools offer here, it is an unbelievable education," said Mark Kopelman, a marketing executive who hopes to send his 4-year-old son to Ethical Culture Fieldston School or the Bank Street School for Children. "To us, this is a great investment."
Rising costs of health insurance, maintenance and faculty salaries are driving up prices, said George Davison, headmaster at Grace Church School, where even some families earning $200,000 a year can receive financial aid so their children can attend.
Horace Mann, a preparatory school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx whose 150 to 175 seniors all go on to college, will increase tuition in September to $26,100 for kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Catherine Hausman and Victoria Goldman, authors of "The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools." The school declined to confirm that figure.
That's more than twice the $12,140 U.S. average for private kindergarten, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. It's also at least 70 percent more than Horace Mann's 1996-1997 tuition, when fees ranged from $10,105 to $15,425, according to the book by Hausman and Goldman. The Consumer Price Index has increased 14 percent since 1997.
Goldman said the figures don't include expenses such as tutors; bus transportation, which may cost as much as $2,000 a child; or the annual fund drive that's held to raise money for the school.
"This market isn't going to blink at tuition over $25,000," said Sandra Bass, editor of the Private School Newsletter, which chronicles the city's independent schools. "If Wall Street continues to come back and deals continue to happen, you won't see any exodus."
Even the three-year stock-market decline did little to diminish demand, Bass said.
"New York City is a social-class echo chamber, and all that noise drives people to madness," said Alfred Lubrano, author of "Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams," a book published last year about class and social mobility.
The demand in New York arises partly from parents' mistrust of the public system, said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a city official whose job is to help citizens cut through government red tape.
"A lot of parents read and hear about how terrible all the public schools are and immediately write off all of them," said Gotbaum, who attended the Brearley School. "There's a little bit of social cachet in the whole thing, a myth that if your kids get into private school, they will get into the best colleges."
Brearley, whose alumnae include Caroline Kennedy, charges $26,200 a year, including books, lunch and trips, from kindergarten to fourth grade.
Meanwhile, the average spending per public elementary-school student in New York was $10,793 in 2001-2002, according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit aiming to change state funding formulas.
Amanda Uhry, founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, says schools raise prices "because they can find people to pay it."
"If you have a Nissan Pathfinder, do you really need a Hummer?" she said. "No, but the guy down the block did."