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.

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.

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.

Testing the process waters
  • If you want to fill out the SSS form just to get an indication of what your estimated contribution might be, you can go to the Web site, fill out the PFS and request a “Parent Report” only. In that case, the information will be sent only to you. Later, if you decide you would like one or more schools to receive the information, you just go back to the site and fill out an “Additional Report Request.” The fee to apply is about $12 per school that you want to submit to, but if that represents a hardship, you can request a fee waiver.
  • Another service, Independent School Management’s “Financial Aid for School Tuition” system, allows families to view the financial forms online and practice filling them out, but does not provide any resulting financial information to families.

Funding philosophy

It’s important to note that although the process may often be standardized, the awards will not be.

There are several reasons for this.

Differing philosophies of financial aid: One school may specifically use financial aid to fill certain goals — for example, if they have a gender imbalance in a particular grade and need to attract more girls, they might be more generous with aid to a family with girls. Or they may be trying to increase their ethnic or socioeconomic diversity through the strategic use of aid.