Strategies for financing private school tuition

$15K for kindergarten?

Illustration by Luke Bott

Private school tuition can be a daunting financial proposition, with annual costs higher than college. Consider: In-state tuition at UGA runs $8,028; the lowest tuition for five-day students at Arbor Montessori School, which teaches kids from preschool through grade eight, is $8,450. Four years at Tech ($7,718 annually for Georgia residents) can be cheaper than one year at Ben Franklin Academy, where tuition tops out at $33,600.

Before you’re too intimidated to continue your school search, consider these tips.

Set up a payment plan
Very few schools expect you to fork over tuition in a lump sum, or even, as colleges do, require a semester’s payment up front. Most offer monthly or quarterly payment plans with minimal or no interest or penalties—meaning the final cost is similar whether you pay tuition in one or a dozen payments.

Ask about financial aid—early
All private schools offer need-based financial aid. That said, the amount awarded and the ease of getting aid varies. At the Friends School of Atlanta (annual tuition $15,400 to $17,800), 35 percent of students receive financial aid, while at Greater Atlanta Christian School ($11,540 to $16,960), only 7 percent of students get aid. Ask about aid policies before you even apply. “As you’re talking to the admissions department about being the right fit for them and vice versa, bring it up at the time,” says Jason Flurry, president of the Woodstock-based National Center for College Planning.
Flurry advises parents to ask very specific questions about how the financial aid program works, including how much aid is typically offered, the requirements to qualify, and when the applications are due. Sometimes the financial aid deadline can come before the actual admissions application deadline, Flurry says.

Investigate work-study programs
Some schools let your kids do work to pay off part of their tuition. They might answer phones, file, or help clean, depending on what the school needs. If students have a rigorous schedule or are really involved in sports or the arts, schools may allow them to do their work-study over the summer.

Look at religious affiliation
Schools with strong religious affiliations often provide more financial aid. At the Torah Day School, for instance, three-quarters of students get aid. In most of the archdiocesan Catholic schools (see pages 112 and 136), families receive discounts if they show they are active members of a parish. The discount varies from school to school, but it’s approximately $1,500. Some of those schools also give multichild discounts if you have several students enrolled. Note: Five Catholic schools were built in 1999 and 2000 and funded with tax-free municipal bonds, so they are legally forbidden from offering tuition breaks based on religion. Thus, there’s no Catholic tuition deal at Blessed Trinity, Holy Redeemer, Our Lady of Victory, Our Lady of Mercy, or Queen of Angels.

Consider loans
If you’re not already terrified about the money you may need to borrow for college, you might consider talking to your bank about taking out a personal loan to pay for school now. Sallie Mae also has a K–12 Family Education Loan that allows applicants with good credit to borrow from $1,000 up to the entire cost of tuition and expenses. That includes books, computers, sports gear, and musical instruments.

Get creative
Is your child really active in community service or sports? Look for scholarships or financial aid that might be available from some sponsorship organization. Check with your company to see if there are educational benefits that might extend beyond college. Flurry also suggests talking to school administrators to see if you can meet any of their needs with your own services. Do you own a landscaping company or have accounting skills? The school may be willing to barter with you in exchange for your talents and services.

Be honest about your priorities
Opting for private school is a personal decision that varies for every family. As you weigh your alternatives, consider how paying for tuition fits into your other household goals. Are you willing to hang on to an old vehicle and trade a car payment for a monthly bill from school? Can you stay in a smaller home in a neighborhood with a lower tax rate and prioritize spending for school over housing? “It can be difficult sometimes, but I advise people to be realistic and remember your priorities,” says Flurry. “Getting a good high school education is important, but leaving some resources available for college will likely give you a greater return on the investment over time.”

This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.