Updated on 09.15.14

Private School or College Savings?

Trent Hamm

As a parent of a young boy, I’m very concerned about the best educational path for him. As we sock money away for his college fund, I’ve been considering the concept of private school for him in the back of my mind.

I recently stumbled across an article entitled Private School vs. College Savings: Which is the Better Investment For Your Kids?:

Okay, I admit it somewhat sheepishly, I send my kids to private school. It’s easy to justify since I live in an urban neighborhood where the district public schools just aren’t all that well-regarded. And man, my kids’ elementary school is nice. Large, sunny classrooms, awesome teachers, great facilities and “specials” galore like gym, art, music, foreign languages. The kids love it.

[…] I hope it will turn out, as the principal of their school asserts, that the kids are getting such a great educational foundation that spending so much money on elementary school will make sense in the long run. Ripping them out of a school they love certainly doesn’t seem like a good choice right now.

The extensive comments on this article seem to reflect the same basic idea: if the school district in your area isn’t strong or reflective of your values, then you should strongly consider private school. What do you want your child to get out of education? Core knowledge and skills? Social skills? Manners and respect for others? Some of these are well-served in public school settings, while others are not. Once you’ve determined these, you should look for metrics by which you can gauge a school’s performance. Test scores can often indicate academic performance, while attendance numbers can reflect social information.

Once you’ve determined what you’re looking for, you need to find out if your local public school district meets the needs of your child adequately enough. How do you find out? Do your research. Most states have school report cards that provide extremely detailed metrics on many different dimensions of the public school experience. For example, Iowa offers IowaSchoolProfiles.com, which gives great comparisons between specific districts and the state averages in many different metrics. You can also find out anecdotal information by asking around in the community and also attending public school events.

One also needs to consider the financial picture. Private schooling is quite expensive: the median tuition for private day schools in the United States is about $12,000 for grades 1 to 4, $13,000 for grades 5 to 8 and $15,000 for grades 9 to 12. Those numbers alone put private school out of reach for many of us, even if we’re already saving for our child’s college fund.

My current plan is to send my son to the local public school through at least eighth grade. Up to that point, I am confident in my own skill in supplementing his education in certain areas, particularly given that my wife is a teacher. Once he finishes eighth grade, we’ll see where he is at both socially (is he respectful and so forth) and academically and determine whether a private school would be better for him to grow as he readies himself for college.  Another benefit is that he will have a well-stocked 529 college savings account at this time, which will help pay for private schooling if that is the route we choose.

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  1. John says:

    My wife and I are expecting w/ our first soon, so these are questions on my mind as well. A site that helped me out a bit is http://www.neighboroo.com/

    It has interesting data from elementary school ranks to politics.

  2. Nice posting. Tough decisions people have to make at some point. Thanks for the insights. I’d really like to read any thoughts you had on 529 plans!

    A Financial Revolution

  3. My wife is also a teacher so she is a little biased but she swears by the public school system.

    Here is a question. If you live in a not so great school district you may consider paying for a private school. However, private school can be very expensive. Instead of spending the money on private school, would you be better off moving to a better school district?

    Often, a better district means higher home costs. A cost/benefit analysis of a higher mortgage & taxes vs paying for private school, of course factoring in the kid’s education, would be interesting to see.

  4. Andromeda says:

    I teach at a private school (whose tuition is well above the median). One thing that many people are not aware of is the financial aid opportunities. The National Association of Independent Schools guidelines for financial aid imply that families making as much as $200K a year can be eligible, depending on circumstances. (Of course, individual schools need not follow the NAIS guidelines, but I am led to believe that most of them base their policies on these guidelines.) A few years ago, an admissions person at my school told us that the fastest-growing category of aid recipient (nationwide, iirc) is families making $100K-$150K. So plenty of people who don’t think they’re eligible for aid actually are. In fact, many private schools are frustrated because they have tons of rich people, and they have some very poor people on enormous scholarships, but (except for the teachers’ kids) they just don’t have a middle class; many people assume that they just can’t afford it and don’t even look into the possibility.

    (When I first heard this I was startled — I don’t typically think of six-figure incomes as middle class — but then I started running the numbers for my area (Boston) and realized that, with the housing market and cost-of-living around here, a family with two kids and $100K actually is likely to need aid. Gosh.)

    Also — 529s help pay for private schooling? Is there something I’m missing? I had thought that Coverdells could be used for K-12 as well as postsecondary, but 529s were only college and grad school. (I’m having a baby, oh, any day now, so I’ve been looking into it…and I expect to private school, given that my husband and I have very high educational standards, and given that — in re the above comment — we think that the tradeoff of buying a cheaper house in an area with inadequate schools and paying for private is worth it. Well, let’s be honest here — we actually can’t afford to buy anything in the towns with really good public schools, because we can’t acquire a million-dollar mortgage (Boston, remember). And, you know, you can get scholarships for private schools, but not for mortgages…

    There’s also a risk factor I think is important to take into account, albeit hard to quantify, in that analysis. No school is a good fit for every child; you can buy an expensive house in an area with great public schools only to find, when the kids are of age, that they have some kind of need not well-supported by the school in your district. By expecting up-front to private school we build choice into the equation; we can wait to see what the kid’s personality and needs are, and select a school that will be a good fit. We haven’t committed ourselves to a potentially bad fit in the absence of data.)

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Public schools work in some parts of the nation and not in others; I’m fortunate to live in a place where public schools churn out National Merit scholars and the like. If you are considering private schooling for your child, a Coverdell is a good place to put it. 529s are for post-secondary education only.

  6. Hope says:

    I hope you all have some suggestions for me. On Monday I have to let my son’s private school that we ADORE give his space away for next year because we can no longer afford it. My husband makes decent money, but not enough for us to afford this and we received no financial aid because they do not take into account that my daughter attends a private preschool that costs an additional $400 a month. I have spent the whole summer looking for some sort of job, but having my daughter in school for only 3 hours a day does not leave me any time to work at a job. I am caught in that middle class area of wanting more for my child, but not being able to afford it. It is such a shame, because my son really struggled with some issues in preschool and now he is finally at a school where he is thriving and I have to pull him because of money and put him in a bad, overcrowded public school system where I will worry every day about how he will even make it to college (much less how to afford that!!!). If any of you know any options that I can consider I could really use some advice quickly!!!

  7. Mary says:

    Private school is expensive but it’s a huge investment in a child’s future. I know that my parents struggled to put me through private school from K thorough 10. And although I went on to get my GED, I didn’t have to take any classes in order to pass and it the top 90th percentile. So I think that’s a good indicator of the quality of the education. I also think homeshcool is an interesting option. In Hope’s case, she could look into that as an alternative. It’s not what it used to be. They have support groups, you can do your own field trips, and have social groups. I know several ppl who’ve been homeschooled and they are extremely inteligent, well adjusted, etc. I did homeschool for 11th grade and I really enjoyed it, it was self paced and the materials were well designed. Extremely cheap too. Anyone interested should look into American School. But no matter what choice the parent goes with, they need to be in charge of their child’s education. I wouldn’t leave it up to the teacher to teach my child to read, for instance. But too many parents send their kids off on the bus and figure the teacher has it under control.

  8. Patrick says:

    One option to consider is religious schools. In my area (Alaska), that can be a less expensive way to get a private school education. My kids are both enrolled at a Catholic school, with costs of about $3600 per child per year. Not bad! I doubt more than half of the kids in the school are Catholic.

    Our decision was based on what they were getting from the public schools. We were able to force an issue and get our kids moved to a school out of their area, which had the reputation for being one of the best schools in the district. However, my son in third grade was at the absolute head of the class in every subject but handwriting. My daughter in first grade was one of 8 kids (in a class of 26) NOT being pulled out for remedial reading help (this was basic letter-recognition stuff), but those 8 were being kept in a “holding pattern” while waiting for the others to catch up. They were not learning anything!

    The issue in both cases was recent changes to curriculum. The math is a “New Math” type approach that left third graders unable to subtract 9 from 16 without a calculator, unable to add if there was carrying involved, and had them doing complex puzzles with number grids for half an hour at a time. The reading curriculum had changed the year my daughter entered Kindergarten and was bad. She was told in class not to sing the Alphabet song (that we all know and still use when looking something up in the dictionary) and to interpret her guesses about words from the pictures, not sounding out the letters.

    I figured out what was going on because I volunteered two days a week in my children’s school. I tried to help kids understand how to do basic math functions and how to sound out words like CAT. I then went and talked to the curriculum office at the district level to try to understand why things were done the way they are.

    I know not every parent will have the time or desire to do this, but I would encourage any and all parents who are concerned about education to actually look over the texts used by their public schools before putting kids on the bus to learn from these same books. Some schools have great results from mediocre books, some have lousy results from great books. But I suspect you will find that books that make sense to you as an adult will work better than books (like my son’s math book) that do everything backward and don’t actually cover the basics in the first place.

    Take two hours to evaluate your potential school before you make a decision. Ask questions about how the school handles kids who are ahead of the curve. Is there provision for early advancement if the kid is far ahead of his classmates? Is there an option for kids who excel in one area to explore that subject without being alienated from his peer group? Is social status more important than actual education (as is the case when the public school acknowledged that my son was well ahead of grade level but refused to let him work at the level he was ready for because he wasn’t “old enough”)? Find out what the school offers before you simply trust or distrust public education.

    In my case, my dad, who teaches Electrical Engineering, spent an evening reading my son’s math text and the next day offered to pay for whatever I could not afford if I moved the kids to a private school that did not use that curriculum. He works with math every day and this particular curriculum he feels will set kids up for failure.

    My kids came in and were right in the middle of the pack, not out front. That’s right, they are not geniuses, they just had parents at home making sure they learned the material. Now that they are in a school where lots of the kids have that support, they no longer lead the packs and no longer feel like outsiders. Public schools can do the same things, and perhaps many do, but not here. Find out about your area and make your decisions based on your research.

    We do invest in a 529 plan for each child, but expect our kids to use loans and scholarships for a lot of their college. Getting them a decent start is how we ensure they will have what they need in terms of basics when they get to that level. For now, I want them to actually learn something at school so they will be used to learning when they apply for secondary education.

  9. Mneiae says:

    I went to public school up to 8th grade. The school system is genuinely one of the best in the country and the education that I received there was fantastic. Because my high school would have had 4500 kids, my parents decided to send me to private school instead. Private school was also an excellent choice on their part, even though I had to leave the friends with whom I had spent all of my prior school years. Putting your kid in private school means that they get more personal attention. My high school placed a lot of emphasis on getting kids ready for college. Now that I am in college, I can safely say that they did a good job. We had a lot of free time which we were responsible for; we also were able to interact with our teachers outside of the classroom. Of course, people should consider this decision carefully, because private school is monstrously expensive. However, 25% of the students at my school had financial aid of some kind. Private school is a good investment in your child’s future.

  10. molly44 says:

    There are a few things you also have to remember when sending your children to a Private School. Donations & Contributions…….

    These will be asked of you throughout the entire year. They also have a funny way of making you feel bad if you don’t. For example……I pay $12,000 a year for each of my children to attend a Private School (a total of $24,000 a year). On top of that, I get hit up for contributions. I have not donated anything to date….I think my tuition is enough. This year, my daughters room mom decided to send out a e-mail to all the parents, stating who has contributed & who has not over the last 3 years. If you ask me….That is BS & completely dis-respectful of others.

    Be aware of this….& Don’t forget to about Holiday gifts & end of year Teachers gifts. In many Private Schools……At least 2 teachers (usually more) are in 1 classroom. Be prepared for them to ALWAYS be asking for money. It is a NEVER ENDING Cycle.

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