Affording an independent school education

11/19/2010  |  JOANNA EVANS
independent school

When our twin sons were born, my husband and I lived in a dormitory at Northfield Mount Hermon School. We loved living among the 82 teenage boys in our dorm and thrived on the community aspect of boarding school life. When our sons were a year old, however, we moved to a large university so that my husband could pursue a doctorate and become a professor. Years later, as our sons approached high school, we wanted them to have the benefits of a boarding school education. We also thought that as educators we could not afford boarding school tuitions, and we assumed that as a dual career household we earned too much to qualify for financial aid.

According to John McGarry, Director of Financial Aid at Concord Academy in Concord, MA, “One of the historic misconceptions about financial aid is that it is primarily designed for poor people. Independent school tuitions have outpaced inflation and family income at such a significant rate that now financial aid is something that most of the population can qualify for.”

It is true that only the wealthiest members of our society can easily pay full tuition at most of our independent schools — especially boarding schools. Tuitions for most boarding schools hover in the $40,000 range — and day schools are usually about half the price. However, at most independent schools, a significant portion of the families do not pay the full tuition. McGarry states, “A school like Concord Academy has the opportunity to distribute over $3 million in financial aid grants each year to 25 percent of the student population, so please apply for financial aid!” Parents should understand, “We don’t expect a family to sell their house, stop buying fresh vegetables, and cancel their cable subscription in order to afford our school. Financial aid is more strongly impacted by income than it is by assets, and we expect our families to make the cost of an independent school education one of their financial priorities, but not the only one.”

While the cost of public school education in the United States is covered primarily by community property taxes, the responsibility for the cost of private education falls on the student’s family. Independent school financial aid is funded by the schools; it does not come from government funding. For most schools, this funding is the income from an endowment or fundraising that the school does. The actual cost of the education provided is generally higher than the tuition, and schools usually raise funds to cover this gap, as well. Need-based financial aid, merit or community-based scholarships, loans, and payment plans are tools that families can use to make private education a possibility for their children.

Schools that have large endowments may be able to provide need-based financial aid grants to cover the full difference between what a family can afford and the stated tuition. There are many variables that go into calculating need-based financial aid and each school its their financial aid program slightly differently. The school may set priorities, such as serving historically underserved populations, for their financial aid program. Families in the middle income range of $85,000 to $300,000 per year may qualify for need-based aid, depending on factors such as the number of children they have in private schools. At most schools, the admissions decision is made independently of the financial aid decisions, so there is no harm in applying for aid.

Most schools use a service such as the School and Student Services (SSS) developed by the National Association of Independent Schools or Financial Aid for School Tuition (FAST) offered by Independent School Management to develop an independent and impartial assessment of each family’s ability to pay tuition. The family submits financial information on a form that is usually internet-based. They also submit supporting documentation such as copies of completed federal income tax forms, W-2 forms, and statements about nontaxable income.

In addition to need-based aid, some schools offer merit scholarships. These scholarships, which usually cover only a portion of the tuition, are used by the schools to attract students with particular interests, talents, or other contributions to the school community. At The Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, for example, students can audition for a M.A.D. (Music, Art, Drama or Dance) about the Arts scholarship, which is offered to promote the school’s outstanding programs in the fine and performing arts.

In some communities, it is possible to find support in the form of scholarships from large employers, service organizations, religious groups, and other outlets. It is worth asking financial aid officers, human resources officers at work, and other leaders in the community if they are aware of any local support offered to students in private schools. In addition, parents can learn about loan and payment plans that may make it possible to spread out the payments from the school’s financial aid officer.

When applying for financial aid, it is essential that families apply early and communicate clearly and often with the school about their circumstances and plans. Full disclosure of the financial situation is required. Some schools will not provide aid to a family that requests it after paying full tuition for the first year; other schools will consider adding a full paying student to their financial aid program only if there has been a well-documented, unavoidable change in the family’s financial situation. Most schools will rescind or adjust a financial aid offer if they discover that it was not based on an accurate picture of the family’s finances. Professionalism demands that financial aid officers maintain the confidentiality of sensitive documents, so families should be confident that their private information will be held in strict confidence.

In addition to these fairly standard approaches, some families find more creative solutions. McGarry says, “Many of our families have planned ahead for many years to put aside some savings to better afford this opportunity. Others increase their working hours where possible. Some families have the benefit of a grandparent or other family support to help defray the cost of tuition, and others come to work at our school!”

During an economic downturn, it may be especially difficult to find jobs at independent schools, but for parents who have the skills that are in demand, becoming a school employee can be a part of affording an independent school education. Schools vary in their tuition remission policies for the children of faculty and staff; no one should assume that full tuition remission will be offered by the school, but for a few families school employment has been an effective strategy.

In fact, as our sons approached high school, I was hired by a small boarding school where a large financial aid grant was a part of my compensation. Later, I moved to The Storm King School and one of our sons transferred to yet another boarding school. We are grateful for the amazing opportunities that we have enjoyed during our independent school adventures. Our journey has involved considerable sacrifice because as a tenured professor, my husband was not able to move as easily as the boys and I have, so we have lived thousands miles apart with cherished weekends and vacations together as time allows, but it has all been well worth the investment we have made as a family.

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Joanna Evans is the Associate Director of Admission at The Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. She has worked in public and private schools and universities for almost 30 years and is a former Director of Admission and Financial Aid at a boarding school.

Comments & Ratings

  1/21/2011 9:04:16 AM
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You offer some really creative ideas in this article for affording boarding school. For families that are looking for opportunities for their children that offer flexibility and individualized education, homeschool is an option that may be overlooked due to stereotyped views. Actually home education offers parents and their children the most liberty in curriculum design and allows parents to hand pick teachers or tutors for each grade level or learn together as a family which is most desirable for certain age levels and subjects, particularly elementary grades.