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You'd like to send your child to a private school, but money is an issue. What should you do? Should you spend the money you've saved for her college education on a high-quality private elementary school? Or should you continue to save (or invest) your money so that you can send her to a top-notch college?
Lay the foundation early
According to many experts, it's best to pay now and dream later. They claim that the foundation of your child's education is established in the early years. This is when she's not only learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic but also discovering a love of learning.
"The early years are so important," says Eve Stabinsky-Ackert, an early childhood educator and former preschool and kindergarten teacher from Monroe, Connecticut. "This is when your child can gain the intellectual, emotional, and social confidence that will carry her through her entire life. These are also the years when a child can get lost in the system."
And remember – if you're concerned about getting your child into a top college, then sending her to a private school may give her an advantage, especially if she's not a straight-A student. Teachers in private schools are more likely to have the time to recognize and nurture your child's personal skills and talents.
The cost of investing in your child's future
Many parents feel the individual attention children get from a private education is a worthy – if substantial – investment. The National Association of Independent Schools says the average tuition for its member schools for 2011-12 was $19,100. But not all private schools are members of the association, and many of the top private schools (especially those in large cities) can cost much more than that.
For instance, a survey of private schools in Chicago, done by Chicago magazine in 2011, found the most expensive private school in that area charged almost $36,000 a year. That may be out of reach for many families.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that only rich kids can afford private school. "Some schools offer financial aid to nearly half their students," says Selby McPhee of the National Association of Independent Schools. In that very expensive Chicago school for instance, more than a third of the students received financial aid.
The different types of financial assistance
Scholarships. Many schools offer money to promising low-income students. Ask for a list of available scholarships. (Local community organizations and religious groups sometimes offer aid for private elementary schools, but the amount is usually minimal.)
Financial aid. This type of aid is need-based, and it doesn't have to be repaid.
Loan programs. This option helps you borrow money to pay all or part of your child's tuition. Some schools offer loans directly, and others are affiliated with outside agencies through which you can apply for a loan. Ask your bank for loan information.
Payment plans. Many schools offer this option, which lets you pay your child's tuition in monthly installments as you would a mortgage. (You may also have to pay a nominal fee to sign up for this service.)
Where to start looking
The schools. Always start by asking private schools directly. They will be your best source of information on scholarships, student loans, and other types of financial assistance. Many private schools provide their own scholarships and should also be able to provide you with a list of outside sources.
Voucher programs. Some public school systems use vouchers to pay for children to attend private schools. For example, vouchers may be used to pay for a private school that offers a specialized program for children with a particular developmental condition, such as autism. (It's worth noting that critics of vouchers say parents should be wary of these programs because there isn't enough public oversight of them.)
School and Student Services, run by the National Association of Independent Schools, has plenty of tips for parents on all aspects of private school financing. You can also use their website to apply for financial aid to all the schools you're interested in.
FinAid is a comprehensive financial aid website that has some information on loans and other types of financial aid to fund private elementary school tuition.
Sallie Mae, the financial services company that manages 529 college savings plans, also has loan programs to help parents pay for tuition to private elementary schools.
F.A.C.T.S. Tuition Management offers tuition payment plans for specific participating schools. Visit their website, call (800) 624-7092, or write to P.O. Box 82527, Lincoln, NE 68501-2527.
Smart Tuition Management Services allows participating private schools to apply for a tuition payment plan on your behalf. You pay a modest monthly fee as you would a mortgage. For more information visit their website or call (888) 868-8828.