When choosing between private school and public school for your kids, one of the biggest issues is cost. In the U.S., a year of private school tuition costs $12,350 on average. That’s an awful lot of money for a middle-class family.
But the average cost doesn’t have to be the cost you pay. There are lots of ways to lower the cost of a private school education, from choosing a cheaper school to seeking aid from private or public programs.
If you think your family can’t afford private school, make sure you’ve considered all the options. A bit of work could be all it takes to put the cost within reach.
How to Afford Private School Tuition for Your Kids
Explore these options for making private school for your kids more affordable for your family.
1. Find Low-Cost Private Schools
Private schools aren’t all alike. There’s a huge variety in curriculum, teaching style, and cost. In general, day schools cost less than boarding schools, and religious schools cost less than secular ones. By shopping around, you can get the most for your private school dollar.
On average, Catholic schools are cheaper than other private schools — both religious and secular. Many Catholic schools are parish schools, also called parochial schools. That means they’re officially part of the church and receive funding from it.
Because these schools don’t get all their funding from tuition, they can charge less. The average Catholic elementary school costs a mere $4,840 per year.
Catholic secondary schools cost more, at around $11,240 per year. But that’s still lower than the $16,040 average for all private secondary schools.
You don’t have to be Catholic to send your kids to a Catholic school. In fact, nearly 20% of Catholic school students are not, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
You do have to be OK with your kids saying prayers and taking classes in the Catholic faith. But religion doesn’t dominate the school day. Most of it goes to standard subjects like math and history.
Also, if you’re not Catholic, your tuition costs for Catholic school could be higher. Many churches subsidize the school cost only for Catholic students and charge others the full amount. But Catholic schools often provide financial aid (discussed below) for low-income pupils.
Finding an Affordable School
Although Catholic schools tend to be cheapest, costs for other types of schools vary widely. If you shop around, you can often find other private schools in your area that fit your budget.
The best place to start is at Great Schools. Enter your address or ZIP code and select “private schools” to see a list of all private schools near you. You can click each school to see details about it, including reviews from parents.
Narrow down the list to a shorter list of schools that interest you. Then call each one or visit their websites to check tuition costs.
2. Apply for Private School Scholarships
Many organizations throughout the U.S. offer scholarships for private school students. Churches, nonprofits, and even some large companies endow scholarships to help specific types of students.
The catch is that these scholarships aren’t available to everyone. Many are only for low-income families. Some are for students from specific racial or ethnic backgrounds or students of a particular faith. And some target students in a certain part of the country.
Still, it’s worth checking out available scholarships to see if one could help your family. These are a few of the top ones to explore.
The Children’s Scholarship Fund
The Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) provides partial-tuition scholarships for low-income families in 18 states. Its scholarships cover between 25% and 75% of tuition costs. In 2020 and 2021, it gave funds averaging $1,984 each to over 23,600 children.
To qualify for CSF scholarships, families must have a child entering elementary school or middle school who is not currently in private school. They also need to meet the income guidelines for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
To apply for a scholarship, contact one of the CSF’s partner programs in your state. The application process depends on the specific program.
CSF awards scholarships on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you apply, the better your chances of getting a scholarship. If your family qualifies, CSF will provide scholarships for all your eligible children.
The Cooke Young Scholars Program
The Cooke Young Scholars Program is a project of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. It’s a five-year program for high-school students with low or moderate income and top-notch grades. It supports these students with:
- Financial aid
- Academic and college advising
- Learning enrichment, such as summer programs, extracurricular activities, and technology
- A network of other high-achieving students
Students apply for the program in grade seven. Those who qualify begin receiving advice in grade 8, including advice on how to choose the right private high school. The program covers their school costs from grades nine through 12 as long as they meet all its requirements.
The Young Scholars Program is open to students with family income of up to $95,000. However, in 2020, the average family income for new scholars was only $38,000. The number of scholarships covered varies from year to year. In 2020, 50 new scholars joined the program.
You can apply for this program online from January through March. You will know by May if your child is a semifinalist. If your child receives a scholarship, you’ll know by September.
A Better Chance
The A Better Chance program helps students of color find scholarships. However, it doesn’t fund scholarships itself. Instead, it helps them apply for financial aid at more than 200 member schools nationwide. These include both day and boarding schools, religious and secular.
A Better Chance is open to students of color in grades four through nine. That includes Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and multiracial students. The best candidates for the program have high grades and are active in extracurricular activities.
Finding aid through A Better Chance is a multi-stage process. It starts in February for the school year that begins 18 months later.
First, you apply to A Better Chance itself. There’s an online form with questions for both you and your child. You must also provide items like your tax records, your child’s report card, and recommendations from teachers. And there’s an optional mock SSAT test for students.
About 700 applicants each year make it through this stage and become “cohort” candidates. A Better Chance works with them to choose and apply to private schools. Those who succeed become official A Better Chance Scholars. In 2020, 525 Scholars enrolled in member schools.
Local and Regional Scholarships
In addition to these national programs, there are many programs in specific states or regions of the country. Examples include:
- The AAA Scholarship Foundation for students from grades Pre-K through 12 in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Nevada
- ACE Scholarships for low-income students in eight central U.S. states
- The BASIC Fund for low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area
- The Black Student Fund for Black students in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
You can find information about these and other regional scholarships through School & Student Services and FinAid. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) also has a list of scholarship-granting organizations.
3. Apply for Financial Aid
Most private schools offer some form of financial aid for families that can’t afford the full cost of tuition. Types of aid include:
- Grants. A grant is a payment awarded to a student based on financial need. Grant money comes out of the school’s budget and families do not need to pay it back. Each grant is good for only one school year, so students must reapply for them each year.
- Tuition Loans. A grant can’t always cover full tuition costs. However, schools can help parents get a loan to cover the rest. The money comes from a private lender, not from the school. The terms depend on the amount borrowed and your credit score.
- Tuition Payment Plans. If you can’t afford to pay tuition in a lump sum, a payment plan can help. It spreads out the cost of tuition across monthly payments, with a small fee added. Most schools offer payment plans through outside financial companies.
- Merit Scholarships. Some schools offer merit-based scholarships for gifted students. These can be based on academic ability or a special talent like art or music. Scholarships can be one-time or ongoing payments.
- Outside Scholarships. A few schools have partnerships with outside organizations that help support their students, such as a local Rotary Club chapter. Each program has its own rules and requirements. You can learn about these by asking the school.
- Discounts. Some schools give a sibling discount to families with more than one child at the same school. Others offer discounts for military families. Talk to the school about what discounts are available.
In most cases, the only way to find out if you qualify for financial aid at a school is to submit an application. You can apply for aid at the same time your child applies for admission. If your child is admitted, you should receive a decision on aid shortly after that.
4. Apply for State Aid Programs
Many U.S. states have programs to help families afford private school. Some programs give money directly to families. Others supply it through tax breaks. Most of these programs target either low-income families or those with special-needs children.
State Voucher Programs
Several states have voucher programs to help families pay for a child’s education. They take the money it would have cost to send a child to public school and give it to families as a voucher. Parents can use this voucher to pay for all or part of their child’s tuition.
School vouchers are not available to everyone. Some voucher programs are only for families below a certain income level. Others are for students with special needs. A few states, such as Florida, have both types of vouchers.
States that currently offer school voucher programs are:
- District of Columbia
- North Carolina
To learn about voucher programs in your state, visit the Alliance for School Choice. Select your state in the drop-down list to see details about who qualifies for vouchers and how to apply.
Public Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
States can also distribute money to parents through publicly funded Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs. These are not the same as Coverdell ESAs, discussed below. They’re state programs that give tax dollars directly to parents.
When parents withdraw their child from public school, the state takes all or part of the money set aside for their schooling and puts it in a savings account. Parents can draw money out of this account for educational purposes. Many states provide a prepaid debit card for this purpose.
The main difference between a voucher and an ESA is that ESAs aren’t just for tuition costs. Parents can also use them for private tutoring, online learning, and other educational costs. In Florida, they can be used for homeschooling expenses as well.
Eight states currently have public ESAs:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
Some of these states provide ESAs only for students with special needs. Others limit access based on family income. To see details about ESA programs and their rules, visit EdChoice.
State Tax Credits
Some states help parents with private school tuition costs through tax credits. These allow families to deduct all or part of a child’s tuition from their state tax bill.
The Alliance for School Choice site provides details about state tax credit programs as well as school vouchers. States that offer them include:
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
A direct tax credit isn’t the only way for states to give private-school parents a break on their taxes. Many states allow parents to save on taxes with special savings plans. There are two main types: Coverdell education savings accounts (ESAs) and 529 plans.
A Coverdell ESA works like a Roth IRA. The money you put into it isn’t tax-deductible, but the money in the account grows tax-free. You pay no tax on it when you make a withdrawal as long as you use it for education costs.
Most families use ESAs to pay for college. However, the money in an ESA can also go toward private school tuition and fees. Or you can apply it to other educational expenses, such as tutoring.
The 529 is another type of fund traditionally used for college savings. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expanded it to cover K-12 schools as well.
A 529 is an investment plan rather than a savings plan. That means the money in them can grow faster, but returns aren’t guaranteed. You can also put more money into a 529 plan each year than a Coverdell ESA.
5. Sign Up for TRIP Programs
Some private schools help parents pay for their cost through a tuition reimbursement incentive program, or TRIP. These programs are partnerships between the school and local merchants, such as stores, gas stations, and restaurants.
To use a TRIP, parents buy gift cards for participating local merchants at the school store. The merchants give a portion of the money spent on the cards back to the school. A typical percentage is 5% to 10%. The school then passes those savings on to the parents.
For instance, suppose you generally spend $800 per month on groceries for your family and $200 on gas. Instead of paying with your credit card, you buy and use gift cards from the school store. The school gives you back 7% on each as a $70 discount on your tuition.
6. Negotiate Tuition Rates
Parents don’t always realize that it’s possible to negotiate private school tuition costs. Many schools have a little wiggle room in their prices and are willing to give parents a break in order to boost their enrollment rates.
Schools don’t tend to advertise this fact, however. If you want a lower price on tuition, you have to be willing to ask for it. Just ask if there’s anything the school can do to make the cost more affordable for your family. The worst it can do is say no.
Even if the school can’t lower its tuition cost, it might be willing to help you out in other ways. For instance, it might offer you a monthly payment plan. Or, if it normally charges by the month, perhaps it can give you a discount if you pay the full amount upfront.
Another option is a work-trade agreement. You agree to put in a certain amount of hours volunteering for the school, and it gives you a discount on tuition.
7. Take Out Loans
Sometimes you can’t reduce the cost of private school enough to fit within your budget. In that situation, a loan can help make up the difference. There are several types of loans you can use to help pay for private school, each with its own pros and cons.
Some private lenders offer education loans, also called tuition loans. These are personal loans used specifically to pay for K-12 education costs. Often, you can get a tuition loan to cover the costs that a grant or scholarship doesn’t meet.
The amount you can borrow and the interest rate vary by lender. However, most education loans have variable interest rates. That means that your monthly payment can rise or fall over time.
To get an education loan, apply directly to the lender. You can find lenders who offer tuition loans through the NAIS directory. In the side menu, select “Financial Aid Services & Programs” and your location.
If you can’t find a lender who offers education loans, consider a personal loan instead. You can use this type of loan for any purpose, including education.
All kinds of lenders offer personal loans. You can borrow a lot more with them than with credit cards, and the rates are lower. They usually have fixed interest rates, as well. And you don’t need collateral.
However, personal loans usually charge higher interest than education loans. Also, some charge a penalty if you pay off the loan early. In most cases, a tuition loan is a better deal if you can get it.
Loans (or Gifts) from Family Members
If you can’t find another lender, you can try asking for help from family members. After all, your parents, grandparents, or siblings have more reason to care about your child’s education than a bank. They might even be willing to lend you money with no interest.
However, there are reasons to be wary of lending to family. If you have trouble paying back the loan, it could put a strain on your relationship with your relatives. They could feel awkward pressing you on it, and you could feel ashamed for letting them down.
It’s often a better idea to ask for a gift from family members, rather than a loan. Explain why you think private school is a good idea for your child, and why you’re having trouble paying for it. They may even volunteer to help you out before you get a chance to ask.
But before you ask family members for help, make sure they’re in a position to afford it. When you ask for aid, relatives may feel obliged to give it even if it puts their retirement savings at risk. Don’t let them sacrifice their financial future for the sake of your child’s.
8. Delay Private School
A final way to save on private school costs is to put them off as long as possible. Each year you can keep your kids in public school or teach them at home saves you a year of tuition.
One option is to start your kids out in a public elementary school, then transfer them to a private high school. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average private elementary school costs $7,630 per year.
By keeping them in public school for grades K through six, you can save over $50,000. You also give yourself seven extra years to save up money for their high school education.
Another possibility is to homeschool your kids when they’re young. and then move them to a private school. Homeschooling isn’t exactly free, of course. With books, materials, field trips, and activities, it can cost anywhere from $700 to $1,800 per year for each kid.
However, sending your kids to public school isn’t 100% free either. In 2019, the average public-school parent paid $1,017 for school supplies, technology, and extracurricular activities. So, if you do it frugally, homeschooling can actually be cheaper.
Sending your kids to a private school obviously isn’t cheap. But don’t forget, sending them to a good public school has its costs too.
Houses tend to cost a lot more in towns with good public schools. For instance, in Lincolnshire, Illinois — home to the top-rated school district on Niche — the average three-bedroom home costs $446,581. In nearby Buffalo Grove, the average cost is only $325,841.
So if you think you can’t afford private school, make sure you’re factoring in the cost of buying a home. If you can lower the cost of private school enough, it could actually be cheaper than the local public school in a pricey area.