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If you’re considering an independent education for your child, you’re not alone. Whether you’re seeking smaller class sizes, a more rigorous curriculum or a faith-based education, there are so many reasons to consider private school. Maybe you loved your own independent school experience or are making the choice to go private to support your child’s athletic goals. Whatever the reason, the first question parents typically ask themselves is: Can we afford it?

“Too often parents will dismiss the idea of investigating an independent school, rushing to the notion that it will be too expensive and that they will not qualify for any assistance,” says Carole J. Everett, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS). In reality, there is no single income cap and each family has a different financial profile, she says. Although financial aid is typically need-based, what constitutes need varies widely and every school has its own way of determining who gets aid and who doesn’t.

FINDING FINANCIAL AID

The amount of available aid may depend on a school’s endowment, as well as its track record in attracting full-paying students. Schools gauge a family’s ability to pay based on income and assets but many also consider debt, living expenses, the number of dependents, the age of the parents, elder care costs and the number of children in tuition-charging schools.

Traditional application platforms like TADS Financial Aid and School and Student Services (SSS), for example, even factor the high cost of living in New Jersey into their financial aid formula. It’s for this reason that many schools don’t have a maximum income above which a family won’t qualify for assistance. For example, at Newark Academy, 45 percent of recipients have parents earning more than $200,000, says Alexis Sommers, the Livingston-based school’s director of admission and financial aid. “Families are often surprised at how wide the income range of those receiving financial aid is,” she says.

Increasingly, schools are courting socio-economic diversity to create well-crafted, well-rounded classes and avoid what Edwin Nunez, director of enrollment management at The Pingry School, located in Short Hills and Basking Ridge, calls a “barbell effect.” In essence, he says, middle income students can serve as a bridge between full-pay and full-ride students, creating a more connected, cohesive student body—not a stratified class of haves and have-nots. Aware that by-the-numbers aid algorithms penalize this segment of potential students, some schools are working to correct this bias by taking a more personal approach to assessing each family’s unique ability to pay, taking in the real-world circumstances. “The formula is black and white, but life isn’t like that. We truly understand. If we think a student is a great fit, and we really want him to be part of the school, we do what we can,” says Nunez.

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BOOST YOUR APPLICATION

And there’s the catch. Prospective applicants must apply to find out how much help they’ll receive—as one admissions representative said: “You have to be in it to win it.” And though there’s no doubt it can be a time-consuming slog—and a heartbreaker for kids whose financial package isn’t enough—at least applying for aid is becoming easier. According to Nunez, the industry used to put up so many obstacles that people wouldn’t go through the “intimidating and foreign” process (“It was like an IRS audit, truly daunting.”). Today, tech is helping to change the game in the form of Clarity, the first financial aid platform to directly accesses tax returns from the IRS (instead of finding, scanning and mailing years of 1040s). Clarity allows parents to apply for aid in less than 30 minutes, even using a phone. When schools talk about removing barriers for families applying, this is an example.

Other tried-and-true tips for boosting your family’s chances include applying early (when the fund runs dry, it’s dry) as well making sure your favorite institution knows it’s your number one—especially if you think the love is mutual. “It’s worth taking the risk,” says Nunez. “Give your family a chance, and the schools a chance, to use their resources for your children.”

A flush financial aid package, though major, isn’t the only way to make private school a reality. Here are some additional ways to afford an independent education.

INVEST FOR SUCCESS

Did you open a 529 plan the day your child was born? You can tap this tax-advantaged education fund for up to $10,000 a year, per child, to pay toward private primary and secondary school tuition. Even at a private school, parents qualify for Child and Dependent Care Credit for before and after care ($3,000 for one qualifying child or $6,000). And since every little bit counts, parents can invest up to $2,000 per year in a Coverdell Education Savings Account, which grows tax-free and can be used to pay for tuition and related expenses.

SEEK OUT SCHOLARSHIPS

Every little bit counts. Children’s Scholarship Fund works with Catholic Partnership Schools (Camden and Pennsauken) and the Tri-County Scholarship Fund (Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties) to help families afford a K-8 private education in New Jersey.

Local town halls, houses of worship and civic organizations may also be resources for additional funds.

TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH

Religious schools (Catholic schools in particular) are the state’s not-so-secret best option for affording an independent education. You don’t have to be Catholic to attend (about 20 percent of secondary school students are not, according to the National Catholic Educational Association) and the cost can be half the tuition of secular private schools, though Catholic prep schools can be equally costly. The draw? Stellar academics, a faith- and values-infused curriculum and often top-notch athletics (especially in the upper grades).

ASK ABOUT THE EXTRAS

Uniforms, field trips, materials, donations, gala events at some schools—tuition isn’t the only cost, not to mention the pressure on kids to keep up with wealthy classmates. Before committing to a school—even one with generous aid—inquire about the extras and the culture. Some schools have expanded the school’s budget to absorb incidentals traditionally borne by families. “Newark Academy has made the monitoring and limiting of costs beyond tuition an important institutional priority,” says Sommers.

FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS

If your student’s special needs aren’t being met, out-of-district placement to an approved special education school (and occasionally a non-approved one) is possible via two methods. “Parents convince the district to agree to provide it, or they sue for it,” says Will Meyer, a Maplewood dad and a special education lawyer practicing in NYC. It won’t be easy. “Generally speaking, a school district is going to want you to run the bases, so to speak,” he says. This means IEPs, testing and legal support all to prove to your district that it’s absolutely necessary. It’s a slog, but it’s your right courtesy of the Naples Act.

SEEK AND SAVE

Some parents turn to their families to help support their kids’ private school journey. According to a 2018 NAIS survey, 15 percent of parents relied on grandparents to help with private school and 12 percent sought out a loan. Families can also choose to prioritize education over discretionary spending on eating out vacations and other major purchases. The decision to send your child to private school is a big one and it’s up to each family to decide if funding a private education is worth the significant investment.

—Jennifer Kantor is an education, parenting and lifestyle writer and a Maplewood mom of two.