Art by Jonan Everett
How to Afford Private School on a Tight Budget
Paying for private school may seem overwhelming, but options ranging from scholarships to vouchers to payment plans can make it affordable.
It’s easy to get stressed out when making decisions about school. There are so many options to choose from — public school, charter school, homeschool, private school. And there are so many considerations to take into account, such as your child’s personality and talents, your location, your values, and, of course, your budget. After all, you may still be paying off your own student loans when it’s time to send your kids to school.
Parents on a budget might be tempted to dismiss private school out of hand, especially since public schools, including charters, are free. But there are many nonfinancial reasons to consider private school, and if it’s right for your child, it can be affordable. My parents sent both my brother and me to private school on a pretty low single income. While it meant making a few sacrifices, he and I ultimately received great educations in warm, smaller, and supportive environments. Here’s what I learned about how to afford private school when you’re on a tight budget:
- Shop around
- Apply for financial aid
- Get government assistance
- Find scholarships
- Ask about payment plans
1. Shopping Around
Depending on where you live, there may be only one or two private schools within easy commuting distance, or there may be dozens. Whether there’s one or many, take a quick look at them all. You can narrow them down based on criteria like location, values, and services offered. (For example, if your child has special needs, some types of private school may be better able to meet those. Or you may want all your children in the same school, which means the school needs to offer every grade.)
Then start investigating tuition. While some private schools in larger cities charge tens of thousands of dollars a year, making them as expensive as college, many others charge far less. Depending on your location, tuition could be as low as $500 a month.
Keep in mind, though, that your kids are kids. The school doesn’t need to have the newest buildings or equipment as long as it has caring teachers and a good principal.
My brother and I went to a very inexpensive private elementary school near our house. It wasn’t fancy at all, but we made great friends and learned plenty.
That said, you shouldn’t automatically dismiss the more expensive options. There are many ways to lower what schools call the “sticker price,” or the cost of tuition that you might find on their websites.
2. Financial Aid
Most private schools have financial aid programs to help lower-income parents afford their children’s education. That’s how my family sent my brother and me to a big-name — and quite expensive — high school. When you speak to the school, ask what criteria it uses. For example, some schools give more aid to siblings of students already at the school; to children of employees; to lower-income families; or, if the school is religious, to families that belong to the relevant church, synagogue, or mosque.
Ask if the school is “need blind.” That means that admission decisions are made without regard for parents’ ability to pay. If your child is admitted to a need-blind school, then the school commits to help you afford the tuition, usually with substantial discounts. (Heads up: You will have to fill out a lot of forms to explain your income and expenses.)
Sometimes the schools with the highest tuition also have the most aid available. My friend J., a counselor at a K–12 private school in New York City, encourages all parents to reach out. “What upsets me is when I hear that parents thought they could never have sent their kid here just because of the money,” J. says. “But they didn’t even talk to us. If a family is a great fit, we can do a lot to make it happen, and we’re always looking for smart, creative kids, no matter what their financial situation is. Call us up!”
3. Government Assistance: Vouchers and Tax Credits
Governmental aid depends a lot on what state you live in, but many states have some kind of assistance available for parents who want to send their children to private schools. This assistance ranges from tax credits, which reimburse you for some expenses, to vouchers that can cover the full cost of private school tuition. To research the law in your state, check out the National Conference of State Legislatures’ “Interactive Guide to School Choice Laws.” Just click on your state and look under Private School Choice for a summary of relevant law.
While it may seem just like financial aid, a scholarship is a grant given by any organization that is not the school you’re going to. If you have your heart set on a school that can’t give you enough financial aid, you should research scholarships you might be eligible for.
Some scholarships require national competition, and some are open only to families that meet certain criteria — for example, low income or members of minority groups. But others are open to any family in certain areas. You should definitely check if your company or a local organization in your town offers scholarships. Here are two excellent resources to help you in your search:
- FinAid has a terrific list of scholarships open to children under age 13.
- The Children’s Scholarship Fund lists both nationwide and state-specific scholarships.
5. Payment Plans and Other School-Specific Options
As my counselor friend J. said, you should always talk to the administration of any school you’re interested in to find out how else it can help, other than with tuition grants.
For example, many private schools offer generous payment plans that allow you to spread out payments over the course of a year instead of paying for each semester up front. Most of us couldn’t come up with $5,000 a month, but could you come up with $500? Or could tuition that seems unmanageable for three kids fit the budget if you get a 25 percent discount per sibling? Many schools will also make special arrangements if you lose your job. As with most things in life, it never hurts to ask.
It may seem overwhelming to consider private school when you’re on a budget. But if you’re committed to the idea, the resources are there to help you out. If you work closely with your school’s administrators, keep in mind what’s really important to you, and check out all your options, then private school is definitely achievable.
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