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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Financial Aid for High School

Updated: May 15, 2022

For many prospective private high school parents, tuition is not attainable without financial aid. In this article, I’ll cover how schools calculate need, how they prioritize their budgets, and what parents can do to plan. It is critical to do your research up front so that your child lands somewhere that you can afford the tuition, or where they have a good chance for financial aid. This research can help you target your child's search from a financial perspective. I try to remember that no school owes me financial assistance, regardless of my need, so it is up to me to focus my child on private schools most likely to fit from a financial, academic, and social fit.

Calculating Financial Need

When schools calculate your financial need, they use their own definitions of needs vs want. It’s important to ask questions up front to avoid surprises. To obtain your financial information, most schools use financial aid platforms, such as NAIS.

  • Estimated Taxes. Plan to estimate your taxes by the first week of January, potentially before you have any W2’s or 1099’s. You can estimate these by looking at December statements and pay stubs. I recommend purchasing tax software, such as TurboTax. If you own a small business, you will also need to estimate your business taxes, so plan ahead with your accounting, and update your system (such as QuickBooks or the like) by end of year.

  • Budget. Organize, ideally in a spreadsheet, all your expenses, including rent/mortgage, home/renters insurance, medical expenses, property taxes, utilities, phone, internet, childcare (camps, tuition, activities), and optional items like vacations/clothing. I keep a file in Google docs that I add to each year. I look for annual statements from camps/schools/etc, and download my bills from utilities into the spreadsheet. For my clients, I have a template that they can enter their data into, but you can create your own.

  • Assets. Next step, collect balances for all your accounts, including cash and investment securities, and your children’s savings, including 529’s. You will also need to estimate a value for your cars and homes.

  • Optional Essay. You may write an explanation for your situation; I always recommend taking this space to describe what you can afford and why, as well as how you will share the expense of private school with financial aid.

Allocating Financial Aid Budget

Most private high schools in San Francisco do not have sufficient budget to meet the financial need of every accepted student. In other words, there are very few “meets needs” schools. Each school handles this differently. Below are questions to ask.

  • How do you prioritize which students should receive aid? In this topic, understand that each school has its own priority, which could be diversifying the student body, helping students who would be the first in their family to attend college, boosting those with the highest need, or a holistic look at the student. Be realistic about your student's chances for financial aid in light of the school's priority -- some schools will be a better "aid" fit for your child than others, based on this question.

  • What do you do if you don’t have financial aid budget available for a student you were originally planning to accept? Some schools will accept the student without aid (essentially waitlisting them for aid if they feel there is need), whereas others will wait pool the student. There is no easy answer here. It takes remarkable disappointment and maturity for a 13-to-14 year old to decline an offer to their dream school because their family cannot afford it. It also is incredibly disappointing not to be accepted in the first place. As long as need is higher than the budget, each school will need to address the situation as they see fit.

  • Do you include home equity and/or retirement funds in your need calculations? While most schools do not, some might deprioritize a child whose family has these resources.

Calculating for Myself What I Can Afford

Everyone has their own priorities. My advice talk, make the assessment before you apply to schools. Once your child has invested the time and care into the application process, it is heartbreaking to tell them you cannot afford a school. I remind families not to sacrifice needs to pay for high school as you still have years left to pay for college and your own retirement. If you can instead reduce discretionary expenses, such as vacations or summer programs, then you are in a better position. If you cannot afford your needs plus tuition of a given school, consider carefully their answers to the questions above, and focus on schools where either (1) you can afford to pay tuition, for instance considering parochial schools with a smaller price tag, or (2) your child is in a priority category for financial aid.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will applying for financial aid reduce my chances for acceptance? Yes. Some schools will absolutely waitlist a student that they were originally planning to accept if they don’t have sufficient financial aid budget for the child. Others will accept and wait pool for aid.

  • What is the maximum financial aid? Grants range up to full tuition plus expenses, depending on the student’s financial need, and where they fit in the school’s priority.

  • What is the maximum income to receive financial aid? There is no one answer for this question. On the one hand, schools in San Francisco understand that the area is expensive and will look at your entire financial picture to make a decision. On the other hand, most schools don’t have enough resources to meet the needs of all students they’d like to accept.

  • My financial aid offer isn’t what I hoped for. What should I do? Take some time to consider the offer. Run your budget, see if the offer can be paid for with reasonable cuts of discretionary spending like vacations, and compare the offer to other school offers. If you feel that your family cannot afford the school’s offer without drastic measures, write an email asking for reconsideration. I have helped families with this process successfully.

Need more help?

Vicky consults with families to help select public and private schools in San Francisco. Email to learn more about her services.

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