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Can You Afford Private School?

school"Tuition's One-Fifth of Our Salaries"
At a public school north of Boston, 14-year-old Rob was bringing home a report card of straight Fs. His mother Jackie feared he wouldn't make it through eighth grade.

"He has a learning style, not a disability, that's different from what's reasonable to expect public-school teachers to teach," she says. "After fighting for eight years with public schools, I finally decided on private school."

One year later, his transfer to a private boarding school in New Hampshire has apparently paid off for Rob. He's happy in an alternative program that stresses group discussions over use of textbooks in class. The innovative curriculum includes an extreme sports component, designed to encourage students to push themselves physically, as well as mentally. The boy's grades have shot up -- all Bs, save for one D in math.

"He's doing fabulously," says his relieved mom. "It's like night and day."

While Rob's academic record has improved, his parents' financial fortunes have taken a dive. This year, they'll pay a whopping $31,000 for tuition and an additional tutoring program. Jackie has curbed her appetite for travel; she eats out less often, has put off needed home repairs, and for the first time ever, her two children will receive just two gifts each this Christmas, one from each parent.

"His dad said if we send him to private high school, we won't be able to afford college," Jackie recalls. "I said if we don't send him to private high school, there'll be no need for the money for college."

Private School Demographics Changing
Much has changed since the days when private schools were seen as elite institutions serving only a privileged class. Today plenty of middle-class parents like Jackie are investigating the private school option, either in response to a specific academic need, or out of general dissatisfaction with their local public schools. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, private-school enrollment has shot up 19.4 percent in the last 10 years. While economic prosperity is one reason for the attendance boom, an increase in financial-aid budgets is also a factor. Last year, private schools awarded a record half-billion dollars in aid to families, most of whom were middle class, not poor.

"One third of students are on financial aid," says John White, admissions director at Thayer Academy, a secondary school in Braintree, Massachusetts. "We have a very strong financial-aid program. It's 17 percent of our operating budget, and the average award covers 60 percent of the tuition."

Surprisingly, even some parents earning six-figure salaries discover they qualify for assistance, because schools use an aid formula that goes beyond income to include assets and special circumstances. Families with older siblings in college, for example, or heavy debts due to medical bills, school loans, or job loss, may receive help with tuition even though their salaries appear substantial. Awards are based on information provided on a PFS (Parent Financial Statement) and tax returns.

"What I tell middle-class families is, 'Go ahead and apply'," says White. "You never know."

Adding It All Up: Things to Consider

  • Start with your child. Many private-school parents are willing to make financial sacrifices because
    they believe education is the greatest gift they can give their child. If your child appears to hate school, or has a particular interest, gift, or learning style that is not being nurtured in a public-school setting, private school may be worth considering.

  • Don't assume you can't afford it. Unless you're fabulously wealthy, making a decision to send a child to private school involves a look at your lifestyle. Are you willing to drive an older model car, make do with one car instead of two, or even move to a less expensive community to cover tuition costs? Many families find it worth it.

    "What usually happens is that people look at their situation and find the money," says Thayer Academy's John White.

  • Yes, there are tax deductions (sometimes, for some people). If your child has any kind of mental or physical disability, including neurological disabilities such as ADHD, and if a doctor recommends that your child attend a particular school, tuition costs may be deductible as a medical expense. To qualify, the main purpose of the school must be to help children overcome their particular disability. Room and board costs may also be deducted.

  • Financial aid generally doesn't disappear. Assuming there's no drastic change in the family income, it's unlikely a school will "pull the plug" on an award after the first year. Generally, it's easier to get financial aid in middle and high schools than in first grade, simply because the child won't be attending the school -- and needing as much aid -- for as many years.

    More on: Family Finances

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