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Private School vs. Public School – Cost & Comparison

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One of the biggest expenses for many middle-class families is school costs for their children. Many parents pay thousands of dollars each year to send their kids to private schools – particularly those who live in areas where the public schools are poor quality. A 2014 comparison by the real-estate site Trulia found that in ZIP codes with top-rated public schools, just 4% of the children go to private schools, as compared to 19% of children in ZIP codes with low-rated public schools.

However, that doesn’t mean that the parents who live in good school districts are spending less overall. Homes in those high-performing school districts usually cost much more than other homes in the same area – about 32% more, according to the Trulia study. So for many families, the additional cost of housing adds up to more than what they would have paid for a private school.

This means that parents who want the best possible education for their children have a difficult choice to make: paying directly for private school, or paying indirectly for a home near a good public school. To figure out which is best, they need to know just how these two costs compare, and what options they have for keeping the costs down.

The Cost of Private School

According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 4.5 million American children were enrolled in private schools in 2011-2012. More than 80% of these students were in schools with some kind of religious affiliation. About 43% were in Catholic schools, and another 37% went to schools identified as generally Christian, Jewish, or a specific Christian denomination. About 68% of all private schools have a religious orientation, while 32% are nonreligious.

On average, the cost of private school tuition for the 2011-2012 school year was $10,740 per child, according to the NCES. That’s a significant burden for a middle-class family. In 2014, the national median household income in the United States was $53,657, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means that a family making the median income would have to spend about 20% of its income to send just one child to private school, and 40% for two children.

However, the cost of tuition varies significantly depending on the type of school. The average tuition cost was $6,890 per year for Catholic schools, $8,690 for other religious schools, and a whopping $21,510 for nonsectarian schools. So a family with average income would pay less than 13% of its income to send a child to a Catholic school, but over 40% for a nonreligious school.

schoolgirls at a private school

The Cost of Public School

The cost of private school is easy to identify – just a fixed number of dollars per year. Calculating the cost of public school is much more complicated. You have to know which neighborhoods parents choose for their schools, how much it costs to live in those neighborhoods, and how that cost compares to the cost of living in other, nearby neighborhoods.

A good place to start is with Niche, a website that rates and compares U.S. school districts based on factors such as students’ test scores, graduation rates, health and safety ratings, and reviews from parents and students. Each year, Niche lists the 10 school districts it rates as the best in America.

For 2016, the number-one school district on Niche’s list is the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District. Centered in Tredyffrin Township, Pennsylvania – a suburb of Philadelphia – this district earns A-plus ratings for its academic performance, teachers, extracurricular activities, and more.

According to Trulia, the median sales price for homes in this area is $532,500. This adds up to a monthly mortgage payment of about $2,610, based on a 30-year loan, a 20% down payment, and an interest rate of 4%. For a buyer who can only afford a down payment of 10%, the monthly payment jumps to $3,072.

In nearby Paoli, by contrast, Trulia says the median home price is only $287,000, or $1,407 a month. That’s a difference of $14,436 a year – about 34% more than the average cost of private school tuition for one child. So a family with one child would spend less by living in Paoli and sending the child to private school. However, a family with two or more children would spend less by living in Tredyffrin Township, where the extra money paid for housing would cover school costs for all of their children.

A 2014 article on school costs in Money reaches a similar conclusion. It compares the cost of private versus public school for two fictitious families living in eastern Massachusetts: One family spends $2,120 a month on a median-priced home in the village of Auburndale, which has some of the best public schools in the country; the other spends $998 a month for a home in a neighborhood with average schools, plus an average of $782 a month for private school tuition.

Adding these two costs together, the private-schooling family comes out ahead by $340 a month. However, the math changes completely if both families have two children. In that case, the public-schooling family saves a total of $70,000 over the course of both their kids’ school years.

school bus in new york, photo by Antonio Gravante
Public school bus in Manhattan, photo by Antonio-Gravante

Keeping School Costs Under Control

In general, it appears that public schools – even those in expensive neighborhoods – are a better deal for families with multiple children, while private schools tend to be a better value for only children. However, this rule doesn’t hold true for everyone. Parents who choose the right private school can bring tuition costs down to an affordable level, even with several kids in school at once. And, conversely, making smart choices about housing can make living in a great school district an affordable choice, even with only one child.

Private School Options

One way to make private school more affordable is to choose a school with lower tuition. As noted above, religious schools – particularly Catholic ones – tend to be much more affordable than nonsectarian private schools. Based on the NCES figures, a family could send two children to a Catholic school for an average cost of $13,780 per year. That’s a bit less than the extra $14,436 a year it costs to live in Tredyffrin Township rather than Paoli.

Another private-school option is a Montessori school. These schools take an educational approach that focuses on letting children learn at their own pace, using all five senses. Most Montessori programs are for younger children, but some extend into early adolescence.

According to a 2009 survey by the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association, the cost of a year in Montessori school varies widely, but the median price for elementary school students is around $8,600. That makes Montessori schools more expensive than the typical Catholic school, but about on a par with other religious schools.

Parents can also save money by starting their kids out in a public elementary school, then transferring them to a private high school. According to the Money article, if their hypothetical private-schooling family did this with two children, they would end up saving a total of $71,000 compared to the family in the pricey school district.

young girl raises her hand in school classroom

Private School Scholarships

Families who have trouble affording private school tuition can sometimes bring it within their financial reach through scholarships and other forms of financial aid. Some schools have their own financial aid programs, and others take part in national, regional, or state scholarship programs.

Sources of funding include:

  • The Children’s Scholarship Fund. Originally started as the Washington Scholarship Fund, the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) now provides partial-tuition scholarships for low-income families across the nation. Scholarships cover up to 75% of tuition costs, with the average amount coming to $1,700 per child. They can be used for any type of school – religious, secular, or even home schooling. To qualify for scholarships, families must meet have a child in elementary school and meet the income guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. In the year 2015-2016, the fund provided scholarships to more than 24,000 students. To apply for a scholarship, parents need to contact one of the CSF’s partner programs in 16 states; the amount of time the process takes depends on the specific program.
  • The Young Scholars Program. Run by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Young Scholars Program provides scholarships for middle-school and high-school students with top-notch grades. Around 60 students receive scholarships each year, which they can use for boarding school, day school, or parochial (religious) school. In addition to financial support, young students get academic advice, access to special enrichment programs, and other resources. Families with incomes up to $95,000 can apply, but most Young Scholars come from families with incomes below $60,000. The application period runs from January through April, and students know by September whether they have qualified for aid.
  • A Better Chance. This program is aimed at students of color in grades 4-9 who get good overall grades and are active in extracurricular activities. The program doesn’t actually provide scholarship funding, but it refers qualifying students to more than 300 middle and high schools nationwide – both religious and secular – and helps them apply for financial aid from those schools. A Better Chance says “most” students who apply through its program receive financial aid, but it doesn’t give a specific percentage. The application process starts in February for the school year that begins 18 months later.

There are many other scholarship and school voucher programs that operate in particular states or regions of the country. Parents can find out about programs in their area through the Private Schools website.

Affording a Home Near the Best Public Schools

In general, neighborhoods with great public schools are more expensive than other neighborhoods in the same general area. However, there are some notable exceptions to this rule.

Neighborhood Scout has compiled a list of neighborhoods in the country’s 20 largest metropolitan areas  that combine good schools with affordable home prices. For each neighborhood, the site lists the median home price and the school district’s rating on a 100-point scale, based on such factors as class size and state test scores.

For the 10 largest metro areas in the U.S., the top neighborhoods are:

Metro AreaNeighborhoodMedian House ValuePublic School Rating
New York, NYQueens, NY$234,92492
Los Angeles, CALos Alamitos, CA$411,22587
Chicago, ILElmhurst, IL$260,10586
Dallas, TXRichardson, TX$259,59790
Philadelphia, PANarberth, PA$274,08696
Houston, TXFriendswood, TX$218,83294
Washington, DCLaurel, MD$279,30788
Miami, FLHallandale Beach, FL$184,81952
Atlanta, GAFayetteville, GA$202,98065
Boston, MABrookline, MA$390,44798

If the area you live in – or want to live in – isn’t part of a major metropolitan area, Neighborhood Scout can still help you find an affordable area with good schools. You can enter your state and region into the site’s advanced search engine, then select your criteria for school quality, price, and other features that are important to you, such as crime rates or walkability. However, to use this feature, you need to subscribe to the site, which costs $40 per month, $90 per quarter, or $192 per year.

Another way to afford a home in a top-ranked school district is to deliberately choose to live in a smaller house. In Tredyffrin Township, PA, for example, Zillow lists three-bedroom homes for as little as $390,000. The mortgage payment on a house like this would come to about $1,912 a month – a savings of $698 a month, or $8,376 a year, compared to the median house price.

elementary schoolkids

Final Word

When choosing a place to live, the school district isn’t the only factor to consider. For starters, you want to find a home that’s close to your workplace, so you don’t have to face a long commute every day – possibly even one that’s close enough to allow you to walk or bike to work. Ideally, you’d also like to be close to friends and family. And finally, you want to live in a neighborhood that’s comfortable for you, with access to all the amenities you care about – from local businesses to a good public library.

So if the neighborhood that you like best isn’t the one with the best schools, don’t give up on it. Instead, crunch some numbers and see how much you could save by combining an affordable home with a private school. Or, on the other hand, if the place you’re in love with has a great school district and sky-high housing prices, look for ways to find an affordable home in that neighborhood.

Did you attend a public school or a private school? Which would you choose for your children?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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