RIISE Funding of an Independent School Blog Series

courtesy of NAIS; illustration, Henry Campbell

courtesy of NAIS; illustration, Henry Campbell


There is no denying that an independent school costs a lot of money to operate and a lot of money to attend. Resources In Independent School Education will look at the different ways funding shows up in independent schools for parents and schools, what that  looks like, and how prospective and current families interact with it. It’s not always black and white, (pun intended) but it’s always green (here, again).

Today’s installment of Funding of  an Independent School Blog Series, will begin with a brief narrative on financial aid and will move right into a great interview with RCS Director of Financial Aid, Sheila Hicks.

The Narrative:
The term financial aid often has a shameful tone to it, along with a feeling of being in need, of not having enough, that receiving it makes you somehow less than deserving of an indie school education. Some families of color who can afford full tuition don’t appreciate being perceived as financial aid recipients. Similarly, some families of color who are awarded financial support don’t appreciate being perceived as recipients. Either way, the perception and myths about who and what financial aid looks like can be burdensome.

My family receives financial support. There, I said it. I can’t say that I’ve made it a point to hide this bit of information from my kids, family, or friends inside/outside of my school community, nor have I consciously made an effort to share it, until now, for various reasons:

  1. It’s nobody’s business
  2. I don’t want my kids to feel as if they are undeserving of a distinguished private education
  3. I refuse to be subjected to the stereotypes associated with receiving financial support, etc., etc.

The fact of the matter is, other than the financial aid office, it’s nobody’s business if we’re afforded support or not; my kid’s value has nothing to do with what’s in my family’s bank account-they are doing an awesome job of more than making the grade; and as Jason Caldwell, Director of Admissions at HM, puts it, “we’re not giving you anything, you’re paying what you can afford” – yeah, that’s right, Jason! Please, understand that being able to afford full tuition is a financial goal of ours and well worth it in my book. Until then, I will thankfully continue to go through the “bear it all” uncomfortable financial aid application process (think tax season, for those who don’t have to contend with it).

Speaking of the financial aid application process, like Thanksgiving, it is upon us. My school recently changed over to a new application, TADS. I recently went to a TADS workshop, and to me, the application itself is less daunting than SSS.

Now that you know more than you probably need to, let’s move on to the enlightening interview with Sheila Hicks, on TADS; what financial aid means; who gets it; who doesn’t; the myths and misconceptions associated with it; and other ways to think about it.

1.What percent of families at RCS/nationally receive FA?
At Riverdale the percentage of students receiving financial aid is 20%. This is fairly typical for independent schools around the country according to NAIS stats.

2.How much FA did RCS award last year and what is budget this year?
The Riverdale financial aid budget for the 2013-2014 school year is $7.5M; this is an increase from $6.9M last year. These funds go towards tuition for 20% of our student body, and the co-curricular program. Just in the last week I’ve been asked about supporting students with Riverclub- our Lower School afterschool program, with our on-campus college admission test prep, and with some of our winter and spring athletic trips.

3. What is the makeup of the population that receives FA?
The population of families who receive financial aid at Riverdale is very diverse. Families receiving financial aid come from the Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester, and New Jersey. They include a true diversity of races and ethnicities as well as family size and composition. The average household income is about $115K with about 50% of families making less and about 50% of families making more. Most of the families have more than one child at a tuition charging school- whether another independent school, a day care, or a college. Parents have a variety of jobs- from teachers and lawyers, to nurses and engineers.

4. What is the main difference between TADS & SSS. Why did RCS choose TADS over SSS?
TADS does a really great job of more fully assessing each family’s financial need in a variety of ways. First, families who fill out the application will notice that TADS asks many more questions about the family’s expenses. For Riverdale, this also meant that we could eliminate the requirement for the Family Budget Sheet, while still getting a good understanding of each family’s monthly cash flow. TADS also helps us with clarifying the questions that come up with family’s files and making sure that each file is complete with a process they call “auditing.” In a busy financial aid office like Riverdale’s, this allows me to give more personal attention to current and prospective families, instead of hounding families to complete files. Lastly, we feel that the TADS customizable need calculation process allows us to calculate families need in a way that makes the most sense for our very financially diverse and (compared to the national level) high-income and high-expense financial aid applicant pool. Overall the data collected and flexibility permitted is different than what SSS offers at this time. In the past few months TADS has again and again proven to me that it’s the best tool for our school.

5. Do you think the app is easier for parents to complete?
Part of our investigation into TADS included conversations with several families who had completed both the TADS and SSS financial aid application processes. All said that the form was as easy or easier to complete. The only complaint we heard was that there’s a high level of supporting documentation that was asked of  a particular family, who has a more-complicated-than-average situation- we consider that a good thing! We also liked that the TADS application offers a live text chat feature- sometimes you want a question answered, but know that it would be nice if it was written down for future reference or if you didn’t have to haul out your phone and make a call- TADS allows families to have that convenience.

6. Where does the financial aid budget come from at indie schools?
The financial aid budget at independent schools generally is decided to be a part of the operating budget- the operating budget at independent schools is usually made up of revenue from tuition and other programs, annual fund donations, and a draw off of any endowed funds that the school might have. Some schools also look towards donations or endowment draws as a part of their financial aid funding. Because we are usually more tuition-driven than colleges, the size of and independent school’s endowment usually has less of an impact on the financial aid budget than it would at the college level. Some schools do something called “net tuition revenue” budgeting- (which I’m happy to explain to you) but that is somewhat rare, especially in the NYC area.

7. There is often a stigma about receiving FA, is there anything you want to say to help remove some of it?
Independent schools *need* financial aid. It allows us to have the students and the families at our school who are the best fit, without relying on each of those families to also be in a financial situation to pay full tuition. Without financial aid we would certainly have a decline in the diversity of perspectives that make up our parent and student bodies and we would miss out on some real gems. Our schools would suffer, as would the remaining students who would be in much less diverse (socioeconomically, racially, geographically, etc.) schools. In a search for excellence, it is imperative that we have diversity in our schools- thus we need financial aid. I also think that quite a few independent school decision makers believe in the transformative power of education and the social missions that our schools have to develop the next generation of leaders and change agents. We can imagine the possibilities that helping a family afford a Riverdale education might open for the student, the family, and the community and we think about how the experience of our schools paired with a variety of backgrounds might add up to wonderful things. Look no further than some of the independent school alums from more modest backgrounds who we all want to claim- former students like Wes Moore or Deval Patrick make all independent schools proud.

8. Is there anything else you want to add?
A parent receiving financial aid at Riverdale told me that she told her three RCS kids that “Some parents send their children [to Riverdale] out of their abundance, we send you here out of our sacrifice.” This is a parent who is thoroughly involved in the life of the school and is so happy to have her kids here. I think that her quote speaks to the experience of many families receiving financial aid and to my goals as the Director of Financial Aid. I know that even with financial aid many of our families are giving up other opportunities in order to send their children to Riverdale. I want to make theirs a manageable sacrifice and to make sure that they understand how very not alone they are- that there is a team of teachers and administrators who support them and a critical mass of other families making the same hard decisions.

At the end of the day, I hope that the educational experience that we can offer is one that the family will feel was without a doubt worth it. When I go around the post- graduation luncheon giving last hugs and sharing pride with the senior families that “We got our boy through” or “I can’t believe she’s going off to the west coast next year” I see signs that the families think that it was all worth it, and that makes it worth it for me too.

Thanks so much Sheila Hicks for enlightening the RIISE community!

Our next installment of Funding Independent School Blog Series won’t disappoint. Be sure to check back soon!

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