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Financial assistance and grants can make an independent school education a reality for your child
By Rob Levey
Contrary to traditionally held views regarding their “elite” status, independent schools are much more affordable and accessible than you might think.
Noting that “most, if not all, independent schools offer some kind of financial assistance,” John Hutchins, director of financial aid at Phillips Exeter Academy, said this kind of need-based financial aid does not need to be paid back either.
Referring to such assistance as “rewards without any financial obligation to pay back,” Lisa Mahar, school administrator at Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene, cited a similar financial aid environment within her school.
At High Mowing School in Wilton, Director of Admissions Patricia Meissner noted approximately 45 percent of their students receive an adjustment in their tuition based on their respective family’s ability to pay.
Hutchins cited comparable statistics at Phillips Exeter Academy and said their average grant award is $36,000.
“In addition to their grant towards tuition, all financial aid recipients also receive a stipend of $850 towards the cost of their books and supplies,” added Hutchins.
Reflecting their institutional commitment to make attendance at Phillips Exeter Academy affordable, Hutchins referred to their financial aid initiative that first begun in 2007 in which students whose family’s income is $75,000 or less can attend the school for free.
“What this means is that any admitted students whose family income falls within that range will receive a financial aid package that includes all tuition and fees, plus their stipend for books and supplies,” he said.
For families still in need of some assistance, Meissner cited two independent student loan programs that may be used to finance a student’s education to spread the costs over a longer period of time.
“We also offer several scholarships that range from several hundred dollars a year to thousands,” she added.
Despite steadily increasing enrollment numbers across the state and the nation, Mahar said, “many parents eliminate themselves preemptively” when considering independent schools.
“There is this belief that parents of current students also went to an independent school — a legacy of independent education that has gone on for generations — but that’s just not true,” she said.
At Phillips Exeter Academy, Hutchins said they have deliberately created a diverse student body with non-Caucasians accounting for more than half the student population.
“Students come from 45 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam and 13 percent of our students are foreign citizens,” he added. “We are intentionally diverse because part of the original deed of gift states that ‘The Academy shall be equally open to youth of requisite qualification from every quarter.’”
Having awarded nearly $400,000 in financial support to families in their nursery-kindergarten, elementary school and high school, Mahar said the admissions process is tailored to meet the very specific needs of each applicant.
“We look at each family individually — it’s a personal process,” she said. “We’re very motivated to work with everyone.”
Taking the first step
To begin the financial aid application process, parents need their prior year’s tax returns, Mahar said.
“We look at a family’s income, expenses, and any special circumstances to see where the school can fill in any gaps,” she said.
While each school’s financial aid application process may differ slightly, many families will submit their application through an online application process at the National Association of Independent Schools site (nais.org).
Hutchins also cited the importance for families to contact the respective admissions office of their school of choice.
“While the financial aid application process may seem intimidating and challenging at first, we try to make it as straightforward as possible and are available to answer questions as families navigate the process,” he said.
According to Hutchins, the key is to not “let the initial sticker shock deter you from considering independent school as an educational option for your child.”
“Financial assistance is available to a wide range of incomes and family situations so it is worth taking the time to speak with someone who can answer your questions,” he said.
Making the best choice
Noting each school possesses “its own personality,” Meissner said the most important consideration is “to find a school that sparks [a child’s] interest and keeps him or her excited about and engaged in learning.”
In fact, it is the diverse nature of the educational experience at independent schools that attract many families.
At Phillips Exeter Academy, for instance, the school employs the Harkness teaching method in which a teacher and 12 students work together collaboratively in the classroom around an oval table.
“It is not possible to talk about the education at Exeter without talking about Harkness, added Hutchins. “Harkness teaching […]is what distinguishes Exeter from other schools. Harkness tables, named after Edward Harkness, are used in every classroom and subject.”
At High Mowing School, the curriculum is experiential in nature.
“We provide a richly artistic and academic curriculum that cultivates social and emotional intelligence in a school environment that connects young people to nature,” said Meissner.
For Mahar, one way to make the best choice is to consider reversing your priorities.
“Rather than first asking if you can afford it, ask yourself if this school would be a good fit for your child,” she said. “Reach out and explore and investigate each school.
Return on investment
According to Meissner, investing in an independent school makes good sense.
“These important years of growth cannot be replaced nor can providing positive support to a developing adolescent during this period be put off for another time,” she said.
She noted the benefits extend far beyond the immediate future, too.
“Both college representatives and our parents are consistently impressed with the way our graduates meet their potential and shine among their peers,” she said. “This kind of well-rounded student is recognized by today’s colleges and universities.”
“A sampling of 13 of High Mowing graduates from the class of 2011 reported receiving 34 college scholarships, totaling $1,522,264,” she added.
In every case, Hutchins said the key is to keep in mind that independent schools are affordable and accessible.
“If you are considering an independent school for your child, look at the school’s website and talk with the director of financial aid or director of admission,” he said. “It is the goal of the admissions office and the financial aid office to make the experience at their school affordable to families.”
Rob Levey is the director of development and communications at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Jan 3, 2012.