Over the past two decades private schools have developed very generous financial aid programs. This has happened for a variety of reasons. But the most compelling reason is that private schools want to diversify their student bodies. They want to attract academically well-qualified applicants whose families simply cannot afford the enormous expense of sending their children to private school. Generous financial aid programs are one way of helping schools achieve that goal.
Here's how Exeter describes why it offers the very generous financial aid it does:
"Socioeconomic diversity has been a characteristic of Phillips Exeter Academy from our founding. It's built into our ethic—to attract and teach 'youth from every quarter'—and it's crucial to the nature of our community and our classrooms."
St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire expresses its commitment to financial aid as follows:
"We are committed to making St. Paul’s an affordable option for families.
To honor this commitment we will:
- Consider a household income of $80,000 per year or less as qualifying for full financial aid.
- Families with an annual income of less than $200,000 will not pay more than 10% of their income toward tuition per year."
Deerfield Academy outlines its full-need grants as follows:
In 2012-2013 over 28% of our financial aid recipients received full-need grants. These full-need grants include 98% or more of tuition coverage as well as other forms of assistance. These can include coverage for laptop and schoolbook purchases, travel allowances, stipends for school supplies, music and dance lessons, and other school-related events and trips. Typically, students who receive full-need grants and grants close to this amount come from families with total income under $80,000 per year and with few additional assets."
How generous are private school financial aid programs? Let's look at a few examples. Basically Exeter is free to those with need. Families with incomes less than $75,000 will contribute nothing for an Exeter education. Same thing at Groton. St. Paul's is close behind with a $80,000 threshold. Deerfield's limit is $80,000. Phillips Andover offers 'need-blind' assistance to all deserving applicants. Read At Elite Prep Schools, College-Size Endowments to understand why this has come about. What is exciting to see is that these private schools state their thresholds clearly. Years ago sometimes the financial aid pages required a lawyer to decipher exactly who was eligible for assistance. The verbiage was that complicated. No more. Schools spell out their financial aid programs clearly and concisely.
Inclusivity is In. Exclusivity is Out.
So, what's happening here? Why are these highly competitive schools offering a free education to children from families with incomes below $80,000? Simply because they want to make their excellent educations available to a wider constituency. When tuition and expenses creep into the $55,000 range, it means that only a tiny percentage of American families can afford to attend those schools. Schooling has to be free in order to attract students from families making less than $75,000.
For many years private schools had a reputation for being exclusive as opposed to inclusive. Visionary school leaders and their trustees have realized that exclusivity based on financial considerations is not always a good thing. Many academically qualified students won't even bother to apply to a private school simply because they perceive that it is beyond their means. Eliminating that financial barrier opens the doors to inclusiveness.
Top Colleges Lead The Way
The top private schools tend to follow the lead which top colleges set. In this case several colleges decided to give applicants from families below a certain income threshold a free education in order to diversify their student bodies. Harvard University took the initiative in fall of 2007 by announcing that children from families making less than $60,000 would not pay if they were admitted to the university. Yale and Dartmouth then followed suit by offering similar programs. Just about every university offers financial aid. However, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth simply drew a clear line and stated unequivocally that families below that $60,000 threshold don't have to pay.
Ask About Financial Aid
Financial aid sounds complicated. It often is. On the other hand, with institutions like Exeter, Groton and St. Paul's blazing a need-based trail for financial aid, the process just became a whole lot easier. Make sure you ask about financial aid programs. The financial aid officers at the schools in which you are interested are experienced and helpful. Ask.
Besides considering private schools which offer generous financial aid programs, you should also consider one of the free private schools if you happen to live in the area.
Several schools around the country are tuition free or virtually so by design. They all offer a high-quality education a little or no cost to you.
- De Marillac Academy, San Francisco, CA
- Epiphany School, Dorchester, MA
- Girard College, Philadelphia, PA
- The Glenwood School, Glenwood, IL
- Milton Hershey School, Hershey, PA
- Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, HI
- Regis High School, New York, NY
The Cristo Rey Model
Another option is the Cristo Rey model. The Jesuits came up with a work study approach to helping families in inner cities finance a private school education. It has been highly successful and has attracted substantial corporate support. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has championed this model as it tries to transform American education. This short video offers you a glimpse of how Cristo Rey Schools work. In Conclusion
Each private school offers its own financial aid program. So do not assume that the amount of financial aid which one school offers you will be the same as another or other schools. Always ask each school.
Be prepared to file The Parents' Financial Statement as part of your documentation. Schools use The School and Student Service for Financial Aid, a third party service operated by the National Association of Independent Schools, to document your financial need. The SSFA does not determine how much money, if any, will be granted to you. The individual schools have their own financial calculators which take into consideration a host of factors. You can find more information about how financial aid is calculated at each school on their web sites and by asking their financial aid staff.
My last piece of advice is common sense: apply well ahead of each school's published deadlines. There is a lot of documentation to gather and submit. That can take 5-10 man hours to do just by itself. Then allow a another hour or two to complete and submit the financial aid request using the PFS and any additional forms which the schools require.