journal banner journal mainsubscribecontact medium articles about institutes
service learning summer institute

learn more l premium early bird + team rates l register online


Small Schools: The Real Story on the Economy of Getting Small


“The ‘cost savings’ of larger schools are only apparent if the results are ignored.”
The New Rules Project

Small design schools have historically been presumed to be uneconomical. We now understand that small schools, defined by the Small Schools Coalition as schools with 399 students or fewer, are no more expensive than today’s large consolidated schools. In fact, research has shown that formulas for determining funding disguise tremendous non-cash costs associated closely with large schools; some of those costs are difficult to affix a price tag to, and some of them include terrible social costs. As schools struggle to save money, and as the public continues to invest in consolidated schools with false hopes of savings, our nation may be wasting billions of dollars for reasons that are unfounded or facts that are ignored.

Part of the problem of measuring school costs is that the most essential element, namely safety, has been disregarded and considered almost impossible to assign a dollar amount to. Greater safety in small versus large schools has been illustrated in various types of incidents including robbery, verbal abuse of teachers, and disorder in classrooms, according to a report out of the Center for School Change in Washington, DC.  Further supporting this claim, the research from “Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools,” which compared small schools (less than 300) with big schools (1,000 or more), revealed that big schools have:

270 percent more vandalism
378 percent more theft and larceny
394 percent more physical fights
825 percent more violent crime
1,000 percent more weapons incidents
3,200 percent more robberies

Unsafe schools not only harm the students they serve, but also necessitate funding for large-school security measures; these are all costs that small schools avoid.


Graduation Rates
Graduation rates are similar to school safety because their costs have been considered difficult to affix.  However, if the high school students who dropped out of the class of 2011 had graduated, the nation’s economy would likely have benefitted from nearly $154 billion in additional income over the course of their lifetimes, according to a 2011 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Researchers at New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy examined 128 high schools using school-by-school budget information for 1995-96. They found that schools with fewer than 600 students spent $7,628 per student annually, $1,410 more than schools with more than 2,000 students spent. The cost per graduate, however, at the small schools was $49,553, slightly lower than the per-graduate cost of $49,578 at larger schools. This is because dropout rates at the small schools were much lower—64 percent of small-school students graduated in four years compared with 51-56 percent of the students in large schools. Small schools are a sound investment for the greater community, in addition to the students they directly serve.

Building Costs
Our team found only one peer-reviewed research study of school construction costs in professional educational literature, “State Prevailing Wage Laws and School Construction Costs” spearheaded by Professor of Economics Hamid Azari-Rad at SUNY New Paltz.  Size of school in this study was measured by total square feet vs. planned enrollment and came up with the following findings:

  • Doubling square feet of the project increases costs by 91 percent
  • “Very large school” projects increase costs from 8 to 12 percent

Another relevant source that weighs in on building costs is the study by Craig B. Howley of Ohio University, which found that smaller schools are less expensive than larger schools per square foot (96 dollars vs. 110 dollars), and allocate 26 percent more space to each student, but they cost the same per pupil as larger schools. In conclusion: do not expect operating-cost savings from consolidation.


A Call for More Data

While it is possible to dispute beliefs on school size, the fact is, despite over 100 years of school consolidations nationwide, there is no significant body of research on the relationship between cost and size of schools. The unknown human and economic costs of the dearth of research could be staggering. The Small Schools Coalition has called upon districts, states and federal educational agencies to create and contribute to a consolidated database on costs and benefits of school sizes.

Read more about small schools here. A full academic article showcasing this research will be featured in a scholarly journal by the end of spring, entitled “Costs of Small Schools.” For more information, contact the Small Schools Coalition,

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuartr.

© copyright 1995-2019, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI is a non-profit educational organization dedicated
to engaging students and teachers with their local communities through integrated learning projects.

CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement. contact us

cwj bottombanner
contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main
donate now subscribe contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main