The Times West Virginian

August 4, 2013

Back-to-school expenses have grown by 7.3 percent on average this year

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Huntington Bank continues to use its annual Backpack Index as a way to assist families in making smart financial choices.

Maureen Brown, director of public relations for the company, said she loves this project, which Huntington Bank launched eight years ago to help parents plan for their children to return to the classroom and also to provide financial education for young people.

The Backpack Index gives parents an overview of all the costs they could incur during the back-to-school season — the second most active shopping time of year, after Christmas.

“Huntington has done this because we really are committed to helping families prepare for expenses and save,” she said. “Everyone wants to help their children get a good education, and so we want to help parents make some wise financial decisions while they are shopping for their children to go back to school.”

The company selects 30 schools from across the states it serves, which include West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and obtains the supply list from each school’s website.

The Backpack Index studies supplies from all grade levels — kindergarten through 12th grade — and has three separate lists, for elementary, middle and high school, Brown said.

Huntington Bank goes to online retailers, such as Staples and Big Lots, to look at the prices of the supplies. She said the company always picks the items that are priced in the middle range, and are not the cheapest or the most expensive.

The lists feature backpacks, paper, pencils, pens, markers, highlighters, erasers, glue, scissors, binders, notebooks, folders, index cards, assignment books, calculators, rulers and more. Supplies for the classroom are also incorporated, such as tissues, paper towels, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, Brown said.

The Backpack Index takes special activities and extracurricular activities into account as well, she said. A student may want to play a musical instrument, which would require instrument rental, band fees and music stands, or a sport, which leads to participation fees or pay-to-play fees and equipment needs. Then school fees, field trip fees and college-prep materials create additional costs.

The 2013 Huntington Backpack Index was released July 22. Brown said it wasn’t just one particular item that rose significantly in price this year, but prices for all supplies have gone up a little bit.

This overall increase in costs is much higher than consumer price index inflation, she said.  Back-to-school expenses have grown by 7.3 percent on average this year, compared to the 1.39 percent inflation.

For 2013, the average annual costs for school supplies per elementary school student went up 5.3 percent to $577, middle school expenses rose 5.3 percent to $763, and high school costs increased 9.5 percent to $1,223.

The costs have continually gone up every year since the index was started. The highest jump was in 2011 when a lot of school districts either imposed or increased pay-to-play fees, Brown said.

In the past eight years, expenses have gone up 22 percent for elementary school children, 43 percent for middle school, and 23 percent for high school.

Over the years, the schools have added some technology-related items, such as flash drives, to their lists, she said. Cell phones, which many middle school and high school students have nowadays, are included in the Backpack Index, too.

While schools are not requiring tablet computers, many parents are buying these devices for their middle and high school students so they can do their homework and remain competitive, Brown said.

According to a March 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of high school students have a tablet, and that number is expected to increase, she said. The current percentage is equal to the people in the general adult population who have a tablet computer.

When a reasonably priced tablet was added to the supply list for high school students, their overall back-to-school costs jumped 36 percent, Brown said. Before buying a tablet computer for a child, the parent should find out the school’s rules for students who bring their own devices into the building, she said.

“Check that policy first and make sure that you and your child are going to follow it,” Brown said.

As students get older, their teachers become more specific about the supplies, like binders or notebooks, they want them to have. So the best plan is to wait, Brown said.

“What we recommend to parents is — particularly when (students) get into middle and high school — maybe you don’t buy everything until they actually get to the classroom,” she said.

Brown encouraged parents to get the Sunday newspaper advertisements, develop a school supply list, and make a budget. They can use the school supply shopping experience to teach their kids about saving and budgeting.

In terms of musical instruments, Brown urged parents and students to talk to their church, neighbors and family. Many people have instruments they played for a year or two that are now just sitting in their basement or attic gathering dust.

As part of its Backpack Index effort, Huntington Bank is distributing 15,000 backpacks, stuffed with supplies, to school children in need in its six-state area. Big Lots sold the backpacks to Huntington Bank at a significantly reduced rate and also donated supplies.

The local markets also usually give donations of supplies for the backpacks. Huntington Bank works with community partners who are involved with families in need in order to direct where the backpacks end up.

Some of the backpacks have already been distributed, while others will be given away as the beginning of the school year gets closer. It just depends on when classes start in the particular market, Brown said.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.