Nationwide, public schools are flailing and, in some cases, failing. Test scores are down and resources are stretched. This year, Chicago made headlines when the city announced it would close 54 schools to address a severe budget deficit. Predictably, the neighborhoods with the fewest resources seem to be hit hardest by the cuts.
What options do parents have?
To ensure that their children receive a quality education, many parents are seeking alternatives to the public school down the street. Homeschooling is exploding. New charter schools open every year. And many families now realize that a private school education is no longer an elite benefit reserved for only the most affluent Americans.
Private school funding
Now that private schools seem like one of the only viable options, parents are asking themselves: Where can I get financial aid help? With some exceptions for special programs, private schools generally don’t receive public money. They depend on student tuition, donations from alumni, community support, private grants and other fundraising campaigns.
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Tuition for private school varies widely. In southern California, annual tuition for K-12 students ranges from $5,200 to about $24,000. In New York and Connecticut, tuition of $40,000 per year or more is common. Without exception, every school researched indicates that a limited amount of financial aid is available each year.
At the elementary level, private schools do not offer merit-based or athletic scholarships. Instead, many offer sliding-scale tuition, in the form of annual grants, to a percentage of the students accepted each year. These schools want to offer their services to community families of all socio-economic backgrounds. The admissions process, therefore, is unrelated to each family’s ability to pay. After a student is admitted, a separate committee reviews the family’s financial needs and makes a determination with regard to aid.
Before even approaching the subject of financial aid, some schools offer automatic discounts related to an affiliation. Catholic schools, for example, frequently offer the lowest price to parishioners and a smaller discount to the extended Catholic community. Non-Catholic members of the community pay the highest rates.
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Many schools allow you to spread your payments out over the year rather than pay in one or two lump sums. This is a helpful budgeting tool for many families. The school may refer you to Sallie Mae, which administers interest-free tuition payment plans at participating schools. Most of the Sallie Mae participating schools are post-secondary; check the website to see if your private school is on the list. If the school doesn’t offer its own payment plan or one through Sallie Mae, third-party services exist that administer payment plans on your behalf, for a fee.
Don’t borrow money for elementary or secondary education.
Other funding sources
You can use money from a Coverdell Education Savings Account for private school tuition. As with all savings accounts, earnings are largely a function of time. If you are expecting a child or celebrating a tot’s birthday, consider asking friends and family early for donations to the account. (Note that the account can’t be set up before the child is born.) Qualified Coverdell distributions are tax-free, but contributions are limited to $2,000 per year, per beneficiary. Income limits apply.
Family members can pay (or prepay) tuition on your child’s behalf. Direct payments might not be subject to gift-tax laws. Check with your tax adviser.
Some states offer vouchers to defray the cost of private school. Check with your state’s department of education to find out if vouchers are available in your area.
Don’t pay for a service to identify possible grant and scholarship sources. You can find the information yourself in a thorough internet search.
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Increase your chances of getting aid by following these guidelines:
1. Choose wisely
If you hope to enroll your child in a school you cannot afford, apply strategically. First, narrow down the choices. Research each school’s approach to education. Decide which curricula are most desirable to you – religious education, rigorous post-secondary preparation, self-directed, arts-focused, classical… the list of choices is extensive. It’s important that you do your research, because your child’s application will (and should) reflect your family’s educational philosophy. A strong alignment with the school’s philosophy will be to your advantage. Remember, each school you apply to will evaluate your child’s application for multiple criteria, including your child’s skills, personality, interests and academic recommendations.
2. Apply sparingly
Choose no more than three schools at which to apply. You will have to submit an application fee with each application, and usually an additional fee with your financial aid application. Follow the application instructions exactly and meet all deadlines. Don’t ask for exceptions to any of the school’s application requirements.
3. Leverage any edge
Pay close attention to any mention of preferential treatment. For example, religious schools usually admit members of the congregation first. Most schools give preference to younger siblings of existing students. Look for any advantage that you might have over other applicants.
4. Do your part
Instead of asking for as much as they’ll give you and hoping for the best, realistically assess your finances and proactively figure out the maximum amount that you could contribute toward your child’s tuition. Private schools have a finite financial aid budget each year. They can only afford to accept so many families who can’t afford to pay, or who can afford very little. The more you can contribute, the better your chances are of obtaining a portion of the available funds.
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