Tuition assistance: Answers to your burning questions

By Jamie Buffington Browne ’85
Director of Admission

Attending an independent school can make all the difference in a student’s life. Independent schools provide a high level of education and an environment that can maximize your child’s abilities and personal growth, giving them an advantage in college and beyond. But for some parents, the cost of tuition prevents them from considering such life-changing opportunities. Tuition assistance breaks down that barrier.

The purpose of this blog post is to help demystify the tuition assistance process and its purpose. There are many questions families have that they may not feel comfortable asking the school, and talking about finances is a deeply personal topic. The information below will hopefully address many of those questions. Keep in mind that the professionals in tuition assistance offices are excellent resources, and they keep your financial information confidential, so please reach out to them.

What is tuition assistance?

Tuition assistance is also known as financial aid and is the most common type of financial assistance available to families applying to independent schools. For most schools, tuition assistance is given in the form of a grant and does not need to be paid back; it simply offsets the cost of tuition. In other words, families pay what they can afford, and the school pays the remaining balance. Schools typically pay the remaining balance by drawing upon a fixed tuition assistance budget.

What is the purpose of tuition assistance?

Admission offices seek the most qualified students for their schools—students who will enrich their communities in a variety of ways, such as academically, culturally, and socioeconomically. They don’t want the cost of tuition to stand in the way anduition assistance removes that barrier. With this financial assistance, families whose children qualify have access to the top academic institutions in the country.

Are there other types of financial assistance?

Yes. Some schools have merit scholarships that award money to an applicant who demonstrates excellence regardless of financial need. This kind of scholarship is not as common as tuition assistance, and the parameters vary from school to school. Some schools may also have grants to help offset educational expenses that are not tuition related (i.e., a stipend that can be applied toward books, travel, computer, etc.).

Do schools give scholarships for athletics?

Some do, but it can vary by state. In California, for example, schools (public or private) are not allowed to recruit for athletics; subsequently, they are not allowed to give athletic scholarships.

How do I qualify for tuition assistance?

Schools require a tuition assistance application through an independent, unbiased resource such as School & Student Services (SSS). Families submit required financial documentation as well as any contextualization helpful in determining their discretionary funds. SSS communicates to the school the amount they have calculated the family can afford. The school reviews the information and determines a financial grant based on this demonstrated need. Typically, tuition assistance grants are communicated at the same time as the admission decision. (Note: Tuition assistance applications often have earlier due dates than the admission application; it is important that you meet the respective deadlines. If you need a deadline extension, communicate this in advance.)

If I qualify for a tuition assistance grant, is it only for one year?

At most schools, you do need to apply for tuition assistance each year you enroll or re-enroll. If your income and financial situation does not change much, you can expect a financial grant similar to what you received the prior year. If your situation changes drastically one way or the other, the award will most likely change to reflect what you can or cannot afford. Any extenuating circumstances can be included in the tuition assistance application and discussed with the school’s tuition assistance officials. Tuition assistance best practices dictate, however, that once you are admitted to the school, your tuition assistance grant will be extended to you for consecutive years if you still qualify.

What happens if a family loses a job mid-year or falls upon unforeseen/unavoidable financial hardship?

Every situation is different, but bear in mind that some schools have emergency funds for this very purpose. Contact the tuition assistance office and let them know of your situation. Be proactive whenever possible—advanced communication typically yields better outcomes.

If I qualify, am I guaranteed a financial grant?

Because most schools have fixed tuition assistance budgets, schools are not always able to meet everyone’s financial need. Some schools will accept your child from an admission perspective; however, the tuition assistance office will put them on a tuition assistance waitlist (or in a wait pool). This means that your student is prioritized if funding becomes available. It also means that if a student’s family is able to pay the tuition, they are guaranteed a spot. If you find yourself placed on a tuition assistance waitlist and you want to attend that school, it is very important you notify the admission office of your interest. The school wants your child to be a member of their community, so if they know you want to enroll and money becomes available, your chances of being the recipient of that grant increases.

Another common practice at schools is that instead of accepting your child and putting them on a tuition assistance waitlist, they will put your child on an admission waitlist until funding becomes available. This is dependent upon whether or not there is still space available in the class.

I probably will not qualify for tuition assistance; should I apply anyway?

There are obviously income levels that will not qualify for tuition assistance; however, there are families who would be surprised to discover that they do qualify. For example, depending on their cost of living and other extenuating circumstances, there are numerous families across the country who make over $200,000 a year and qualify for tuition assistance.

If it is past the admission and tuition assistance deadlines, should I still apply?

It is always a good idea to reach out to the school. Some schools make allowances for military families, or there might be some movement in enrollment due to families relocating, for example. Some schools will have you complete an admission and tuition assistance application in case there is an opening and funding becomes available.

Are there any other ways in which a school can assist families financially?

This is a great question to ask an admission officer or the tuition assistance office. One way Santa Catalina School has been able to help all families is by offering payment plans.

What other questions should I be asking in the process?

There are often additional expenses beyond tuition that the tuition assistance grant does not cover. Many schools have these posted on their websites, but if they do not, ask for this information.

One extra expense that you should pay close attention to is tuition insurance. Most independent school contracts are yearly contracts that require families to pay the agreed upon amount of tuition even if the student is unable to complete the year due to unforeseen circumstances. Tuition insurance may be required in some cases and optional in others, and the additional charge to purchase this insurance will be a small percentage of the tuition you owe (approximately 2-3%). Note: Tuition insurance is administered by a third party organization and not by the school, so make sure you fully understand the parameters of the tuition insurance plan and what it covers and does not cover. It is designed to protect both the family and the school, but it has limitations.

It is likely that more questions will arise than the ones I have addressed here. Most schools want to make their education accessible and possible for families and are more than happy to assist you with information or help you navigate the technical aspects of the tuition assistance application and process.

If have questions about tuition assistance at Santa Catalina School, reach out to Director of Tuition Assistance Janet Luksik at 831.655.9382 or