The Cost of Private School


For many families, independent schools seem financially unreachable. However, there are more aid structures in place than ever before to help pay for a student’s education. In fact, the 82 schools that are a part of the Independent Education Association awarded over $116 million in aid during the 2012-2013 school year. That’s not a small number. The bottom line is that aid is available for financially deserving families and the cost of private school may be within your family’s budget.

Tuition at Schools in DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland

The national median twelfth-grade tuition at independent schools is $16,970 per year, but locally, the average independent school runs $24,167. It’s typically lower for church-based schools ($13,316). But unless the school can offer full tuition assistance (and a few can), public school can’t be beat for cost.

In general, the least expensive options are religious schools, but by no means are these a poor education. Many small Christian schools make it their mission to offer tuition as low as possible so that no one is deprived of the religious education they desire. Some schools offer tuition as low as $10,100 (Trinity Christian School) before financial aid is factored in.
private school girl
By far the least expensive option is available for members of a Catholic diocese. The Catholic Church will help pay for tuition with its regional funds. The rates are higher for those who are non-Catholic or not a member of a parish, similar to how state universities treat out-of-state students. Average tuition for parish members is a low $2,607 in elementary school, and $6,906 for the freshman year of secondary school.

The more expensive independent schools can reach upwards of $35,000 or higher, with extra fees for those with a boarding option. The Madeira School, for example, charged $39,830 for day students and $52,710 for its students who choose to board during the 2013-14 school year. Most yearly tuition payments fall into the $20,000 range. For tuition figures for almost 100 independent schools in the DC area, but sure to check out my upcoming book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition. As you review tuition at various schools, bear in mind that eve the priciest of schools do not want to preclude students based on finances alone, and they boast large financial aid budgets to help those in need.

The reality is that since independent schools do not receive state funding from taxes, they have to rely on tuition, private grants, and fundraising as sources of income. Some schools will offer multi-sibling discounts and most give the option of a payment plan so that a lump sum does not have to be paid all at once. Schools are very willing to have honest conversations about finances and, when possible, arrangements can be made to best suit your needs.

With the exception of a few for-profit schools, independent institutions are not run like businesses. “Profits” are usually invested directly into the student body, the faculty, and the development of new facilities. Long-standing, prestigious schools will use superfluous funds to bolster the endowment, but for the most part, independent schools are focused on providing the best education they possibly can and serving their families faithfully.

Other Fees to Consider

When touring a school or speaking to an admission director, it’s important to learn exactly what tuition covers. When asking about yearly tuition, make sure to verify exactly what it includes. You don’t want to be hit with a surprise bill for new uniforms that you hadn’t worked into your budget. Some common questions parents ask are the following: does tuition include hot lunch, books, uniforms, fees for extracurriculars, fees for technology (laptops, iPads), transportation? Transportation in particular can run a few thousand dollars, so make sure you know up front what the school expects of its families. Some schools, such as Nysmith, offer their tuition at face value with no other costs added, but others will require you to pay out of pocket for additional services.

Beyond these fees is the unwritten expectation that every family will contribute to the school’s annual fund. A contribution is the norm, not the exception. I remember my first exposure to this unwritten rule when my youngest son attended preschool at Green Hedges School in Vienna, Virginia. On top of the annual tuition, which at the time was around $20,000, we were expected to give to the school’s building fund, silent auction, and a number of other fundraisers. In total, we easily contributed $2,000 in donations by the end of the year.

Many parents are turned off by this expected contribution, but they shouldn’t be. There’s a reason schools request donations from their current families and alumni. It takes a serious amount of money to run a school and independents are not supported by tax dollars or religious organizations. Tuition covers approximately 75% of the funds needed to operate a school; the rest is generated through fundraising, an annual appeal, and interest earned from the money set aside in the endowment fund. Schools are in the business of educating students to the best of their ability and to do so, money is needed for cutting-edge technology, teachers’ salaries, and building renovations. Discerning parents want and expect great teachers and state-of-the-art facilities.

The Ins and Outs of Financial Aid

private school financial aid Financial aid has also grown tremendously in the past decade. On average, independent schools dedicate 12% of their overall budget to supporting families through financial aid. With more assistance available than ever before, it’s important to know the process 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 what they can realistically offer. Some schools offer a greater amount of aid, such as $10,000 per year. Others will offer smaller awards, such as $2,000 per year, but give it out to a greater number of students. It’s appropriate to ask schools about their average package amount, but a student’s specific allotment of aid will not be known until decision letters are sent out in March.

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 the 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 costs went up 4% in 2012 over 2011 and in just the last five years, average tuition increased 24% nationally. 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

Be aware that most financial aid is awarded on a year-to-year basis, and there may be no guarantee of assistance 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 admission 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 independent school students. Even in the top 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 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), is $2,772 for day school and $7,744 for boarding school. There are also merit scholarships available at some schools. This kind of aid depends on achieving high grades or possessing a particular talent. Always ask if there are additional scholarships available in addition to traditional financial aid awards. Bank loans are also possible 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 at how much a school is willing to help.

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 (SSS) form provided through the NAIS, 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) that is submitted electronically. The PFS is considered the “common application” for financial aid since it’s used by so many 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 selected. Schools use your PFS as a starting point in calculating financial aid awards. Many schools will want additional forms filled out to aid in their decision.

Be sure to submit the application by the school’s deadline. Aid is often awarded on a first come, first served basis. 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 admission office is almost always happy to help.

Apply On Time or Early

Financial aid directors at schools around the area encourage parents to be well aware of deadlines. Many families are not conscious of cut-off dates or don’t adhere to them. Schools try to give away their 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. The most successful families build relationships with the financial aid office early on. Honesty and open communication are essential.

Monetary awards are not negotiable, but if there is new information after the application is submitted, such as a death in the family, sudden health issue, or job loss, the school is able to reevaluate the situation. Although aid is reassessed on a year-to-year basis, any school worth its salt will never abandon a student once they’ve agreed to provide financial support. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the school will do everything in its power to help pay for a student’s education. The calculation is very specific, and the school will not expect you to pay what it knows you cannot afford once it has seen your PFS. Financial aid directors want to help parents navigate the waters and remind families that there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help. If a parent feels overwhelmed, most are happy to work through the first form together.