The average annual tuition among America's 22,440 private K-12 schools is $12,350 as of August this year, according to EducationData.org. But behind that average is a very wide range of numbers.
How much private school costs depends on not only education level, but where the school is located, whether it is secular or religious, how much financial aid is available and a host of other factors and variables.
"K-12 private education is an extremely decentralized, diverse universe of schools," says Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, known as CAPE, an umbrella advocacy group whose member organizations represent more than 80% of private K-12 school enrollment nationwide.
Tuition Costs Vary Widely
Catholic private schools, or parish schools, tend to have the lowest tuition of all private schools, including other religious schools, according to EducationData.org. For example, the average tuition at private elementary schools is $7,630, while the average for Catholic elementaries is $4,840. The same is true of high schools, where the average tuition is $16,040 and the average Catholic high school cost is $11,240.
There is also a huge variation among private school tuition costs in different states. Connecticut has the highest prices, with an average cost of $23,980 that's almost twice the national average. The average high school tuition is a whopping $33,610 a year, which is more than twice the national average.
Wisconsin has the lowest prices among states in which elementary and secondary school data is available (private schools are sometimes unaffiliated with a centralized agency or a network, which makes it difficult to collect official data). The average tuition cost for private schools in Wisconsin is $3,550, less than one-third the national average. The average cost of tuition at the state's private elementary schools is $3,280, less than half the national average for elementary schools. The same is true for high schools, where the average cost is $8,110, about half the national average.
Tuition Isn't the Only Cost
Tuition may be the biggest cost associated with a private school, but it is not the only one. Technology ($1,500 a year), books and supplies ($500), field trips ($500), uniforms ($400), athletics ($300) and a bevy of other expenses can add to the overall bill. These extra expenses raise the total average nationwide cost by almost 30%, from $12,350 to $16,050, according to EducationData.org.
Equally important, private school costs in K-12 are often expenses that families do not see coming and therefore are not able to plan for, according to finance experts.
"Parents don't usually plan to send their kids to private school, whereas college is almost always a goal," Kristin McKenna, managing director and wealth adviser at Darrow Wealth Management in Massachusetts, wrote in an email. "The need often stems from changes to the local school system or the child's personal needs. So when parents decide to send children to private school, it can be a sudden major expense with maybe 1-2 years' notice. Not a lot of time to save or for investments to grow."
Most Private Schools Offer Aid
To offset the cost, most private schools offer some form of financial aid, whether it is need-based, merit-based or otherwise.
However, every school has its own policies about who receives financial aid, what types of aid are awarded, and how much a particular family receives, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, known as NAIS, which represents more than 1,600 private K-12 schools.
"Talking to the school can really help," says Myra McGovern, vice president of media at NAIS.
An estimated 28% of private school students receive some form of financial aid, according to EducationData.org. Most families pay for tuition and related expenses through a combination of financial aid, loans and cash outlays, and payment plans allowing families to spread out these costs are common. Here are some forms of financial aid that are often available:
-- Grants. Grants are a very common type of financial aid offered by private schools. They are often paid for by the school and do not have to be paid back, but they often do require a new application every year.
-- Scholarships. Scholarships are generally awarded by the school according to a set of criteria. The most common are based on financial need and are thus called need-based scholarships. Others are based on academic achievement or specific talents the school wants to attract in music, art or another area, which are known as merit-based scholarships. It is also worth noting that organizations outside of schools also sometimes offer scholarship money. Scholarships do not have to be repaid, but some may come with requirements, such as maintaining a certain grade-point average.
-- Loans. Personal loans provided by a private lender such as a bank are a common way to finance private education. In this case, families deal directly with the institution, though some schools may be able to recommend a lender. Of course, loans do have to be repaid.
-- Discounts. Some schools offer discounts to parents actively serving in the military. Some do so for families with more than one child in the same school. As McGovern says, talking to the school about what is available can help.
Many states also provide assistance. More than half the states offer school choice programs that give families financial aid to send kids to K-12 private schools via scholarships from nonprofits and/or state-supported vouchers or savings accounts, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that works to advance school choice. The organization maintains a website that can help families navigate what's available.
Nationally, two types of tax-advantaged savings plans are available help parents set aside money for private K--12 schooling: a Coverdell Education Savings Account, which is a tax-deferred trust account created by the U.S. government, and a 529 Education Savings Plan, which is a tax-advantaged savings plan. Both have different rules and restrictions.
The Value of Private Education
Families can assess the value of private K-12 education through many different lenses. For example, parents and students may choose private school because they want smaller class sizes or increased educational resources. They may want specific religious education or enhanced academic offerings. All make private school attractive to millions of families nationwide.
When it comes to objective measures of student performance, the effect of private school often gets caught up in the national debate over school choice, with advocates and opponents each pointing to statistics that back their point of view. But there is evidence that students in private school perform better on college admissions tests.
The average score on the ACT test in 2018 was 24.1 for students at private schools, compared with 20.4 for public school students, according to ACT data released by CAPE. The ACT test uses a 36-point scale.
Similarly, the average SAT score for students at independent schools was 1188 in 2018, or 120 points higher than the national average of 1068, according to data provided to CAPE by the College Board. The SAT uses a 1600-point scale.
Having said that, the top-ranking high schools on the SAT and ACT in 2019, according to an analysis by the education company Brainly, were both public schools: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia (SAT) and The Davidson Academy of Nevada (ACT).
There is some data to indicate that more private school students graduate from college on time. In a 2017 study by NAIS and Gallup, 77% of students in private schools under the NAIS banner earned a bachelor's degree within four years, compared with 64% of public high school graduates.
Schuttloffel says private schools are getting renewed interest in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Parents increasingly want choices when it comes to their children's education, instead of one size fits all," he says. "Private schools are by their very nature responsive to parents, because the parents are paying customers who can choose to go elsewhere if the school is not meeting their child's educational needs."