An old monastery in the Black Forest with high stucco ceilings, creaking wooden floors, antique furnishings, and a tight-knit clique of elite youngsters. St. Blasien in southwestern Germany radiates much of the charm that boarding schools have in bestsellers like Harry Potter or The Twins at St. Clare’s: Living among like-minded teenagers, far away from it all, with ordinary day-to-day life curtained off by impressive, historic walls.
But one look at the students’ domiciles and romantic notions wither away. What St. Blasien offers for €2,000 per month in lodging costs is not exactly luxurious. The rooms are more reminiscent of frugal youth hostels than high-society living. The single-occupancy lodgings of the seniors sport a simple bed, desk, drawer chest and cupboard. Middle school students have to share: two bunk beds per room don’t promise much privacy.
And yet there’s more and more privacy recently – involuntarily, as Father Klaus Mertes, headmaster of St. Blasien, admits. There are more beds than boarding students, and that could turn into a real problem for the renowned institution. While the high school admits both boarders and day students, the boarding school is the main source of income for the institution.
It seems hardly surprising that Catholic boarding schools are seeing their enrollment numbers dwindle in the wake of child abuse scandals since 2010. And yet the bad publicity is not enough to explain the drop, according Mr. Mertes.
“For ten years we’ve been seeing a continuous decline in boarding student numbers. We’ll have to make it through this tough spell,” the headmaster said.
“If we wanted to, we could open a boarding school with only Chinese students.”
St. Blasien is not alone in witnessing this downward trend. Many of the other 230 boarding schools in Germany just about fill their capacity, rarely any of them are growing.
“The market is very fragmented,” said Detlef Kulessa, a consultant specializing in boarding schools. What they need, he said, is a unique selling point: a focus on students who are highly gifted or suffer from learning disabilities, or emphasis on languages or athletics. Some institutions also concentrate on the STEM fields science, technology, engineering and math.
“All schools that have absolutely no unique selling point have real difficulties,” Mr. Kulessa said.
Most of Germany’s boarding schools don’t have one though, and many feel the consequences. While most schools are highly secretive about their enrollment numbers, unofficially some headmasters are already talking of a market shakeout. “Each year, two to three institutions give up,” said Heidi Kong, who heads an association of more than 30 Protestant boarding schools.
There’s no such thing as the typical German boarding school, but one thing they all have in common: they’re in the middle of nowhere and not easy to reach by public transport. Very few of them are public, the majority are run by the Catholic or Protestant church. Some, such as Salem, Louisenlund or Marienau, say they offer progressive education while others, such as Torgelow Castle, are more independent.
Students pay between €6,000 and €36,000 per year – sometimes the cost of lodging is a promise to wealthy parents about the company their children will keep.
St. Blasien’s Mr. Mertes admits that the high cost is a problem which he tries to counter with scholarships. Despite this, the student body is shrinking.
Until recently, students in Germany graduated from high school after 13 years, but then school life was shortened by a year to be internationally competitive. That eliminated an entire grade, meaning vacant beds and deteriorating results at boarding schools.
Many headmasters also report that parents today are less willing to let their offspring move out in grade five. That’s why St. Blasien isn’t boarding the youngest anymore. “More and more boarding students come to us in grade nine or ten or even later today. Our senior classes are growing,” Mr. Mertes said.
Demographic change means fewer students in general, and at the same time public schools in Germany are increasingly full-time day schools, rather than ending after lunch. “The biggest threat to boarding schools are all-day schools that today exist in every other town,” consultant Mr. Kulessa said.
For full-time working parents who can’t look after their kids in the afternoon, many German public schools are now an alternative to boarding schools.
And then there’s the competition from abroad, especially the United Kingdom. Now that parents only send their kids to boarding schools later in their school life and only for a couple of years, they prefer an international environment.
Ironically, some supposedly top-notch institutions in Britain now host so many foreigners that Germans, Russians or Chinese mostly mingle among themselves.
At the same time, German boarding schools are turning more international. St. Blasien is heavily betting on students from abroad to fill the beds that would otherwise stay empty. Twenty of their students come from China, another 30 from Russia, Mexico and other foreign countries.
In some German institutions, nearly one in five kids comes from abroad. Made in Germany is attractive in education as in engineering.
“If we wanted to, we could open a boarding school with only Chinese students,” said Peter Rösner, the headmaster of Louisenlund in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. His institution hosts 290 students, 40 of them from abroad, and offers the option to graduate with the international IB degree instead of the German Abitur.
Other boarding schools take in children the child welfare department pays for, for example because they are orphans or because they come from troubled homes. “Everyone has spots for welfare kids,” said Heiner Barz, who researches education in Germany. Insiders say that some schools recruit half of their boarders from among these children.
“That’s something that parents look into,” said Peter Rösner, who is planning to expand Louisenlund greatly over the coming years. Last year, a primary school was added, most recently Mr. Rösner introduced scholarships for STEM talents.
Louisenlund is a progressive education school, as is Salem, Germany’s most famous boarding school. But unlike Louisenlund, Salem is shrinking: the institution lost around 50 students over the past five years. Quarrels over a new headmaster and the restructuring of the school made negative headlines, but above all, Salem doesn’t have a strong home market nor a unique selling point.
St. Blasien’s Mr. Mertes is currently working on fixing that problem for his school. “We have to strengthen our religious profile,” he said. Students who don’t attend Sunday church, for example, get a one-way ticket back home.
Yet that profile could indeed use some sharpening: There’s not even a cross on the wall of Mr. Mertes’ office.