Financial Aid: A Guide

by Joan Kaplan, The Brearley School

Many families hesitate to explore the possibility of independent school for their children because they believe they cannot afford it. Despite growth in the U.S. economy in recent years, the purchasing power of the typical family has actually fallen. The cost of independent school tuition, on the other hand, has been rising faster than the rate of inflation. Independent schools are as concerned as parents about affordability. We work hard to identify applicants whose academic potential and personal qualities best fit our individual missions. These students come from public, private and religious schools, from all parts of the city and from a wide variety of family backgrounds. Educators recognize that this breadth of socio-economic diversity within their institutions enhances the excellence of their programs for every student. As the cost of education has risen, the commitment of the New York independent school community to providing access for these qualified students has steadily increased. Need-based financial aid is the vehicle by which schools make enrollment possible for those whose parents cannot afford full tuition.

Who Provides Financial Aid?

It is a common misconception that federal, state or local governments fund school financial aid programs. In fact, most independent schools receive no government support for financial aid but, as an indication of the importance they place on it, allocate a portion of their own budgets each year to their assistance programs. To do this they rely on funds donated by generous members of their extended communities and they draw on in-come from their endowments. Over the past few years, many schools have been taking a growing percentage of their tuition dollars to formulate their financial aid budgets. Some have budgets of several million dollars and in some schools over 20 percent of students receive aid ranging from partial to almost total coverage.

An Emphasis on Need

Generally speaking, schools believe that it is the parents' responsibility to pay tuition to the extent they are able and to look to all their own resources before applying for financial aid. Need-based financial aid is awarded when the cost of school expenses exceeds the family's ability to pay. The amount of aid offered corresponds, to the best of a school's ability, to the difference between the two. Aid is usually given outright and does not need to be paid back. By using a standardized method called "need analysis," financial aid officers seek to be fair and equitable in assessing each family's ability to pay. Under a need-based system, a school will try to meet the full need of a family. On the other hand, it is antithetical to the spirit and purpose of need-based aid for a school to offer more money than is needed in an attempt to entice a particular family to enroll.

Merit scholarships differ from need-based financial aid in that they are made to students based on criteria unrelated to financial need, such as academic, athletic or artistic talent or some other quality. Virtually all independent schools make awards on the basis of need rather than merit, choosing to use their limited funds for those who could not otherwise afford to attend.

But is Admission Need-Blind?

Parents are often concerned about the effect that an application for financial aid will have on their application for admission and want to know if the school has a need-blind admission policy. A true need-blind policy means not only that a school makes its admission decisions based solely on the candidate's qualifications and without regard to financial need but that it is committed to meet the full demonstrated need of every student it admits. Few independent schools can afford a genuine need-blind policy. Most do make the initial admission decision based solely on a candidate's qualifications and without regard to ability to pay. However, it may happen that a greater number of qualified applicants require aid than a school can afford to support. In this case, some schools will offer partial financial aid, some will deny aid, and some, when they have reason to believe that funds may become available, will place a student on a financial aid wait list while they manage their resources.

The Application

To apply for financial aid, a family will be asked to complete a Parents' Financial Statement (PFS) and send it to the School and Student Service for Financial Aid (SSS). An affiliate of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), this service will send its analysis to as many schools as the family requests. Families will also be asked to submit federal tax returns to each school to which they apply. Most schools use the SSS need analysis as a guideline. Each institution has a somewhat different financial aid policy, however, so that the final assessment of need as well as the determination of grant amount rest not with SSS but with the individual schools.

Many factors are taken into account in determining whether a family qualifies for financial aid. All schools will include but may not limit them-selves to the number of children in a family and how many of them attend tuition-charging schools; additional dependents; all sources of income, assets and liabilities; expenses such as rent or mortgage, camps and lessons; and un-reimbursed medical expenses. Schools' policies on such issues as divorced or separated parents or non-working spouses may differ. Frustrating though it may be, it is not possible to generalize either about an income cut-off or the amount of assistance a family might expect. Each family's situation is unique and will be assessed carefully and individually by the financial aid officer. In general, schools encourage families to apply for aid if they feel they may not be able to afford full tuition.

The process of applying for financial aid may seem confusing at first. A great deal can be learned both from the printed materials that schools send with their application packets and by visiting their Web sites. The NAIS Web site is also an excellent resource. But admission and financial aid officers are the best source of information. It is our job to see that parents are well informed about all aspects of our institutions including our financial aid programs. We will gladly answer questions or clarify details either during an interview or on the telephone so that parents will be in a position to make the best possible choices for their children.

When to Apply

A family must apply for financial aid at the same time it applies for admission. Each year a school will determine the sum it can afford to set aside in its annual budget to support financial aid for new families. If a family waits until it has been accepted to ask for aid, it will most likely find that the school has already exhausted its budget on those applicant families who applied at the outset and that it has no additional aid to offer.

Once a family has been granted financial aid, it can expect the school to renew aid each year providing the family continues to demonstrate need. Each family will be required to reapply every year by submitting a PFS form and federal tax returns. If the level of need remains the same, the school will likely provide support at the same level from year to year. Of course, if demonstrated need decreases the aid will decrease proportionally.

If a family is enrolled without financial aid, they are unlikely to be granted aid unless there is a significant change in their financial situation. Should that be the case, most schools are sympathetic and will do the best they can to help a family experiencing a financial crisis such as the loss of a job. Depending on the circumstances, the school may offer an extended payment plan or some other form of financial assistance. However, many schools have a policy whereby they will not offer aid to a family who has been enrolled less than a certain number of years.

The Award: What to Expect

The size of a financial aid award is determined by the demonstrated financial need of the family and the availability of funds on the part of the school. It is important for parents to be aware of the financial aid policy of each school and to know which expenses will and will not be covered by aid before making the decision to enroll. This will differ from school to school and admission or financial aid officers are always available to explain the details. Parents should make sure they understand what is included in tuition and they should inquire about the availability of assistance for non-tuition school related expenses. Some of the things to ask about are: lunch, books, supplies, class trips, uniforms, athletic equipment, transportation, after school programs, musical instruments and computers.

Life After Financial Aid

All schools treat financial aid information confidentially and generally restrict access to the information to those few who need to know. In most schools neither teachers nor other parents know which students receive assistance. Students receiving aid are held to the same academic and behavioral standards as those students paying full tuition and nothing more or different is expected of their parents. Schools usually solicit all families for their annual giving because they are aiming for 100 percent participation. The expectation is that families will donate only within their means. Be it $5 dollars or $5,000, participation is what counts.

A Foundation of Trust

Financial aid exists due to the generosity of the schools. For the financial aid programs in independent schools to survive and achieve their goal of making access available to as many academically qualified students as possible, each family who requests assistance must do so in a timely manner, accurately portraying its financial situation and offering to pay as large a fraction of tuition as it is genuinely able to do.

While schools ask parents for a variety of documents to determine need, they believe in and rely on the integrity of their applicant families. It would be unethical to exploit this openheartedness for personal advantage.

Primarily funded by parents, alumni, past parents and friends, the in-dependent school financial aid system is noteworthy. It assures that its schools are socio-economically diverse and that access to them is affordable for many hundreds of academically qualified students who would not otherwise be able to attend. In the end parents will find that it is well organized, equitable, thoughtfully administered and generous.

Joan Kaplan is Director of Middle and Upper School Admission and Director of Financial Assistance at The Brearley School in New York City.