It’s no secret that an independent school education can be expensive, with some tuition bills nearing $50,000 a year.
If you are expecting that financial aid will enable your family to afford this investment in your child’s future, know that an understanding of the financial aid process can make a big difference in the grant you receive. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Don’t understate your income or assets. Make honest estimates and predictions of future income. Besides the obvious ethical considerations, you could expose your family to embarrassment and a sudden revocation of aid if you are found out.
Fill out and submit all forms on time. If the deadline is November 1, get it in by then. Hand deliver it if necessary, and get a receipt or email confirmation. It helps to begin collecting the necessary documents weeks in advance, not the night before they're due, since this is usually a hard deadline and not a flexible one. The aid committee typically considers all applications filed on time and distributes aid accordingly. Then, in a second and separate round, it reads late applications and doles out only what money is left in a finite pool of aid dollars.
Be aware that most schools operate on a three-year time frame. That is, it is unlikely that they will substantially alter your award within the first three years of your child’s enrollment, so plan accordingly. Don’t imagine that you’ll pay $20,000 one year, and then magically have that price reduced to $15,000 the next.
Many schools require that you share your IRS filing in the next calendar year, after your aid application has been filed but before the school year ends. File your taxes well before April 15, and definitely don’t take an extension. Early filing allows the school’s aid administrator to close out the year’s work earlier and can only cause the school to take a more favorable view of your applications from year to year.
Don’t be afraid to ask for more help if you need it. If your circumstances change suddenly, or from year to year, due to factors like a death, divorce, illness, or job loss, meet immediately with the school’s financial office to explain your situation and your needs. The school may be able to adjust your offer to enable your child to stay.
When applying, don’t be shy. Point out all that your family and your child add to the school community. If your son or daughter makes top grades or scores, or contributes a lot to sports teams or arts ensembles, mention these strengths in your application.
Your child’s initial offer of admission to the school may be your only opportunity to exercise any leverage in negotiating the price you pay. If your second choice school offers a more attractive grant, negotiate with your first choice school for the same yearly tuition.
Don’t be foolishly optimistic about your ability to carry the tuition obligation, even after considering the aid offer. Can you make the monthly payment? Do you have liquid assets that will allow you to continue payments in the case of job loss, illness, or unexpected expense? You don’t want to have to pull your child from the school in the middle of the year when your options for alternative placement may be few.
Schools with larger endowments, especially in ratio to the number of students, can offer more aid because they have more money to spend. If you need more help, consider applying to such schools, which may be those with strong national reputations going back many decades.
Help with fundraisers. Chaperone on field trips. Volunteer your time and expertise to the school’s many committees and projects. Donate what you can to the school’s annual fund. These efforts show that you value membership in the community and that you care about making it stronger and more effective. The school, in turn, will be more likely to value your family and to show that in its aid offer.
Expect tuition to rise each year. It is a rare event when a private school reduces its retail price. Plan for a 5-10% jump annually, even after your aid award.
Pay your tuition on time, and don’t bounce checks. Make it easy on the school, and the school will treat you better.
Finally, call financial aid what it is: a discount. “Aid" is really a misnomer; you’re getting a discount on the price of a service. When you think of it this way, you can push for a better deal. Your leverage is what your child and family bring to the school community, as well as any other comparable offers out there. The school’s leverage is the actual and perceived value of its offerings, as well as the cost and inconvenience--and the risk--of your switching schools.
Be honest and realistic, advocate strongly for yourself, and be prompt in completing your obligations. These are the keys to navigating the private school financial aid landscape.
For more information, check out the following resources: