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Can You Afford Private School?

If you have school-age children, investing in their education might well be one of the wisest investments you could make right now. But when money is tight, a private school education may seem more out-of-reach than ever. It need not be.

Kim Cofino

Private education is sometimes considered a luxury, and yet, according to a recent study by the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics, more than 5 million students in the United States attend nearly 30,000 private elementary and high schools. They can't all be scions of the super-wealthy. How are they doing it?

Although tuitions range from the high four figures to more than $30,000 per year, many, if not most, schools have a firm commitment to making their offerings accessible to a wide variety of families. What's more, they will often work hard to help make it possible.

The primary source of financial assistance for elementary and high schools comes directly from the schools themselves. "Schools distribute their own funds and so there are no 'oversight' groups that dictate how they award to families," says Melvin Rhoden, of School and Student Service for Financial Aid, or SSS.

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Merit awards are rare, especially in the younger grades. (How do you determine, for example, that one first-grader has more academic potential, or more community service achievements, than another?) Therefore, most schools provide tuition assistance based on some calculation of the families' ability to pay. They do not, however, do this in consistent ways.

A school commitment to aid?
Policies vary greatly, but nearly all schools have at least some commitment to financial aid. It may be tied to a percentage of their overall budget, or it may be -- if they can afford it -- a promise to assist any qualified student.

It is common that a school will ask all families to show some commitment by paying at least a small portion of the cost themselves, but a few will offer to cover 100 percent of tuition if the family demonstrates sufficient need. Some will go even higher than that by contributing toward books, lunches, transportation, prom tickets and other items, to make sure that a student on aid can participate fully in the school community.

Evaluating financial data
In order to make sure they're awarding financial aid dollars on a logical and fair basis, many schools participate in a service that helps them evaluate the financial data provided by parents. With about 2,400 participating schools (including religious and secular; boarding and day; primary and secondary), SSS is one of the most popular of these services, and receives about 140,000 applications a year.

The process works like this: Families fill out the Parents' Financial Statement, or PFS, and submit it directly to SSS through their Web site. The PFS form asks for information similar to what you'd put on your tax return, and includes room for notes and explanations of special situations. SSS runs the data through its proprietary analysis system and arrives at a number called the "Estimated Family Contribution." It then sends a report, including that number, to any schools the family has identified as recipients.

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