NAIS Research: How Parents Pay School Costs

Overview and Purpose

The NAIS survey “How Parents Pay School Costs” is a periodic study conducted to better understand the methods families use to pay tuition, the importance of financial aid in their enrollment decisions, and their emotional state when paying tuition. The study helps schools understand how the market of independent school parents responds to the affordability issue so they can develop pricing, financing, and financial aid communications strategies with these market-based realities in mind.

Executive Summary

The 2018 “How Parents Pay School Costs” survey findings underline the key role that financial aid plays in families’ ability to pursue a private school education for their children. Tuition remains the largest outlay for families with children in private school, and, for many, the help they receive in meeting these costs is a crucial element in their ability to send their child to the chosen school.

The importance of financial aid to these families shows an overall pattern of stability compared with the 2013 survey. In almost every area, parental responses in 2018 were at or near those from 2013. Families had, on average, the same number of children enrolled/applying to private schools (56 percent with one child, 29 percent with two children, and 9 percent with three or more); the same percentage of parents borrowed money to help pay school costs (12 percent); and there was a similar distribution of other types of sacrifices and cutbacks families made in order to send their child to private school. As in 2013, one-half of parents reported that their foremost emotion regarding paying for private school was satisfaction that they were making the right choice for their child (54 percent), while nearly as many continued to feel stressed (47 percent).

The few changes evident in the survey results in comparison to 2013 were mainly in terms of inflation in school-related costs and a corresponding increase in reliance on financial aid. Annual tuition costs reported by parents have increased by an average of about $5,000 since 2013; and other categories of school-related expenses, such as books, supplies and uniforms, lunches, room and board (at boarding schools), transportation, and after-school care and supervision, have all risen as well.

Given these cost increases, it is not surprising that financial aid was mentioned as a funding source by 88 percent of parents in 2018, up from 80 percent in 2013, and that the amount of financial aid received had shifted upward to help parents address the increased financial pressures. In 2018, one in five parents reported that they received $25,000 or more in aid (21 percent) compared to just 12 percent in 2013.

There was also little demographic change in these private school households, although there were small shifts upward in terms of the distribution of education level of parents and in overall household income. Generally, parent responses did not vary much by age or income levels.

Most parents remained highly satisfied with the financial aid process they experienced, but write-in comments frequently mention several areas where improvements would be welcome. Among these suggestions, three were raised most often:
  1. Streamline the application process by “pre-filling” prior year information for parents who have applied in the past.
  2. Set the deadline for supplying tax information to align with the date parents receive tax-related documents (W-2s, 1099s, and K-1s, etc.).
  3. Take into consideration other aspects of a family’s financial situation, such as additional school-related expenses, the regional cost of living, tuition paid for additional children (at private school or college), household debt, medical expenses, and other unavoidable household expenditures. Also, reconsider how some other assets, such as retirement savings and home equity, are handled because these are not liquid and cannot be tapped for school costs.

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