My kids’ school tuition costs more than my husband and I make each year.
We are a middle-class, white family. We work hard, and we’re well-educated. My husband and I both hold salaried jobs.
And we receive significant financial aid from our private school.
My husband and I chose to work for nonprofits for the first several years of our careers, and we had our kids early and close together. Those were deliberate decisions, and I do not regret them. But both of those factors put us years behind our peers in terms of financial security. When we decided that a private school was the best fit for our kids — a decision we never expected to make — we found ourselves applying for and receiving financial aid.
I am forever grateful for the financial aid we have received. And yet, my experience is that financial aid is not talked about openly, and there are many misperceptions and misunderstandings.
So here I am, writing about it. I don’t have shame in receiving financial aid, but I’m writing anonymously because I want my kids to be able to choose when and how they reveal that part of their experience.
Here are five things I wish you knew about financial aid.
1. There are a lot more of us who receive financial aid than you know — and we look different than you might expect.
We are your PTA leadership, your class parent, the parents who volunteer to host every class gathering or party, and the ones who show up at every event. We blend in, for the most part. If we did a hand raise, you would be surprised by how many of us there are. We dress well, we participate, and we work hard. In fact, many of us work extra hard because we want to prove we have a right to be there.
2. We are not lazy or looking for a handout.
Each of us has had a moment of looking at the price tag of the school and wondering if this was a prudent financial decision. And yet, for reasons that are different for everyone, we have decided this was the best opportunity for our kids. It is not easy to apply for financial aid — logistically, it’s a ton of forms and processes — and personally, it’s deeply humbling.
We don’t want charity. We want the same things everyone wants: A chance for our kids to have their best shot at success and high-quality education. We’ve asked the question, “Does having less money mean our equally smart, talented kids should receive an education that doesn’t meet their needs well?” And we’ve decided to do what it takes — including working incredibly hard and accepting help — to give them the best possible opportunities.
3. It can be cheaper to go to a more expensive school.
This has been one of the biggest surprises for me! The schools that cost the most often times are the most well-endowed — and, as a result, they have more ability to level the playing field for all qualified students. Simply put, they have more ability to offer financial aid than less-expensive mid-size organizations.
Please don’t assume that choosing a pricey school is a poor financial decision. Sometimes it’s wiser financially to go to an expensive private school than to go to a mid-size state school or community college, because the ability to meet a financial need is greater at a more well-endowed institution.
4. Sometimes it’s hard to live in a world where we’re in a different economical place from others
Overwhelmingly, our experience has been good — our wealthier friends and their kids are typically very welcoming, and most don’t make a big deal out of money. But there are times when we are keenly aware of our differences in status — we might be struggling to pay our bills while others bemoan having to pay extra for the Italian tiles for the pool at their second house. Those are uncomfortable moments for us, and sometimes we struggle with jealousy.
Please don’t assume that everyone in your circle is in the same boat financially. We love being invited to join you for exciting outings, but we have to pick and choose what we say yes to based on our priorities and budget. A simple choice to split the check evenly can be logical for you but complicated for others. Our finances mean we have to make hard decisions — and sometimes have hard conversations with our kids. Be gracious with us when we have to say no — and maybe plan some free playdates at the park, too!
5. We have a lot of feelings
We wonder if we deserve to be there, and sometimes we wonder if we’ve made the right choice when the differences feel most pronounced. But for others of us, we are confident that we know our kids and have made the right call for our families. But even so, we still carry a lot of complex feelings.
Mostly, however, we’re just grateful and hopeful. Hopeful that this choice — like every other choice we make for our kids — will enable our kids to live their best possible lives and learn and grow into their best selves. And we’re forever grateful for the resources and generosity that make that possible.