For many families, private school seems unreachable financially. While it is not an ideal situation for everyone, there are more aid structures in place than ever before to help pay for your child’s education. The average tuition for a National Association of Independent Schools day school is $18,397 per year, but as we know, prices in the DC area tend to be higher than much of the rest of the country. In general, the cheapest options are independent religious schools (not associated with the Episcopal Church or a Roman Catholic Diocese), but by no means are these a poor education. Many of these small Christian schools make it their mission to offer tuition as low as possible.
The Cost of a Private School Education
To be even more specific, the least expensive option by far is available for members of a Catholic diocese – either the Arlington, Baltimore, or Washington archdioceses. The Catholic church will help pay for tuition with its regional funds, in some cases offering schooling as low as $2,500 a year in elementary school and $6,000 for high school after aid is factored (the Avalon School, for example). The rates are higher for those who are non-Catholic or not a member of a diocese, similar to how state universities treat out of state students. Those families are not paying taxes in-state, so they do not receive the discount.
The more expensive schools can reach upwards of $35,000 or higher, with extra fees for those with a boarding option. In 2012-2013, The Madeira School, for example, charged $38,297 for day students and $50,437 for its boarders. Most yearly tuition payments fall into the $20,000 range, from Barrie to Congressional. Even the priciest of schools will say that they do not want to preclude students based on finances alone, and they boast large financial aid budgets to help those in need.
Financial Aid at Private Schools
By the numbers, financial aid has also grown tremendously in the past decade. On average, private schools dedicate 12% of their overall budget to providing these funds. With more assistance available than ever before, it’s important to know the process and the terminology if aid is a necessary component of your school search. Not all schools are able to offer it, but those that do are very upfront about the process and what they can offer realistically in terms of assistance. Some schools offer few students a greater amount of aid, such as $10,000 per year. Others will offer smaller awards such as $2,000 per year, but divvy them up to a greater number of students. It’s appropriate to ask the school about their average aid package amount.
Most financial aid is needs-based, which usually means the tuition cost is looked at as a percentage of your total income. Certainly, families with lower means will be first priority, but more and more schools across the country are reporting a huge increase in financial aid requests from parents earning more than $150,000 per year. Overall, tuition was up 4% in 2012 from 2011 and in just five years, average tuition increased 24%. Families that could have afforded a $25,000 school a few years ago now need aid to keep their child there.
How Financial Aid Works at Private Schools
As always, it is very important to be as honest and forward with the school as possible. Be aware that most financial aid is awarded on a year to year basis, and there may be no guarantee of aid down the line. Any concerns should be worked out before enrollment, and schools will appreciate your open communication and professionalism.
The good news is that the need for financial aid is not taken into consideration during the application process. Students are accepted, waitlisted, or denied based on the strength of their application. Financial aid is a separate consideration. A student is not denied admittance because he or she needs help with the costs; however, it is common for students to decline enrollment if the aid package isn’t significant enough or within the family’s means.
Financial aid is expected and normal for many private school families. Even in the top flight of schools in the DC metro area, normally 20-25% of the student body receives aid of some kind. Nationally, the average financial award according to the NAIS is $2,772 for day school and $7,744 for boarding school. It’s important to note that there are also merit scholarships available at some schools. This kind of aid depends on grades or a particular talent. Always ask if there are additional scholarships available in addition to traditional financial aid awards. Bank loans are also available under the right circumstances, but if your finances are tight, don’t give up until you’ve exhausted your options within the financial aid system – you’ll be surprised how much a school is willing to help.
How to Get Financial Aid at a Private School
The financial aid application itself is almost always submitted at the same time as the application for enrollment. The most popular financial aid form used by schools is the School and Student Services form (SSS) provided through the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools, which has over 1,400 member schools). Some schools use other processes and other forms, such as the Private School Aid Service (PSAS), Financial Aid for School Tuition (FAST), and Tuition Aid Data Services (TADS), but all follow a similar format and will ask for the same financial information.
The core of the SSS form is a Parent Financial Statement (PFS). The PFS can be mailed to the school, but is most easily submitted electronically. The PFS is considered the “common application” for financial aid since it is used by so many private schools, similar to the Common Application for undergraduate study which covers nearly 500 universities and colleges. The PFS gathers in one place relevant financial information regarding income, expenses, family size, tax and business information, and assets. Once the PFS is completed, the form is sent only to the schools that you have listed. Schools use your PFS only as a starting point in calculating financial aid awards. Many schools will want additional forms filled out to aid in their decision.
Be aware that there is a $35 fee to fill out the PFS, and be sure to submit the application by the school’s deadline. Often aid is awarded on a first come, first serve basis, but keep in mind that many schools already have 12% of their budget dedicated to financial aid for this very purpose. If you feel overwhelmed, the school’s admissions office is almost always happy to help.
Know Financial Aid Deadlines and Apply Early
Michele Velchik, Director of Financial Aid at Flint Hill School, offers some additional insight into navigating the financial aid waters. “Unfortunately, most families are not aware of the deadline, and this is very bad.” The school tries to give away all of its available aid to those who have filled out the forms on time, so if a great student comes along after the deadline and needs aid, usually none is available. She also adds, “The best families build relationships with the aid office at the school. Honesty and open communication are essential.”
Financial aid awards are not negotiable per se. Usually schools rely heavily on third party analysis (Flint Hill uses FAST), but if there is new information to add to the situation that wasn’t calculated before, such as a death in the family or a sudden health issue, the school is able to reevaluate the situation. Ms. Velchik also points out that even though aid is reassessed on a year to year basis, any school worth its salt will never abandon a student once they’ve agreed to give aid. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the school does everything in its power to help pay for your education. The calculus is very specific, and the school will not expect you to pay what it knows you cannot afford once it has seen your PFS. Ms. Velchik adds, “Remember, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help. If a parent feels overwhelmed, we’re happy to work through the first form together.”