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Bridging the Divide: The Economic Gap in Private Schools

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When most people think of a private school student, they think of someone from a rich family. Kids whose parents are doctors, lawyers, or CEOs. What people don’t see are the hundreds of lower and middle-class students attending these schools on financial aid. A student who is on financial aid is attending a private school on reduced or no tuition because their family is unable to easily afford the school without sacrificing other expenses. Financial aid is different from scholarships as financial aid is awarded based on need, not merit. Across 13 different private schools, a total of 2,631 students (~17%) attend with financial aid. On average, a student on financial assistance pays only 35 percent of normal tuition. Many lower and middle-class students work incredibly hard to excel academically despite facing challenges that their wealthier peers do not. These challenges can include the inability to afford uniforms, school supplies, field trips, or extracurricular. The average cost of materials not included tuition is almost $1000 for a new student and about $800 for current students. Shining a light on the financial diversity in private schools is necessary to overcome the harmful stereotypes that suffocate lower and middle-class students.

Twenty-six private school students answered a survey conducted by VOX about their lifestyle that helped point to their household’s financial status. Twenty students said that they have gone on a family vacation in the past year and 17 of those vacations lasted longer than four days. Families who are in the upper or upper-middle class often take longer vacations that are to international or expensive locations. Lower-class students are also less likely to have the time outside of school to catch up on schoolwork as many of them have to put in more work at home, such as helping younger siblings or preparing meals. This can make it so that their family is only able to take vacations during school breaks. 

The data also shows that 92 percent of respondents live with both of their parents and 60 percent have both parents working. On average, a family with both caregivers working has a higher yearly income than those with one or no caregivers working. Seventeen students have gotten a new phone since 2022, and 80 percent of those phones came out after 2020. As new cellphones go up in price they are becoming more and more exclusive to those with higher incomes versus those in the lower classes. This data shows that a large majority of students at private schools, if not upper class, are on the wealthier side of middle class families. Lower class students often struggle to relate when their wealthier peers talk about expensive vacations they’ve been on or the latest phone they received for a birthday or holiday.

The lack of transparency in private schools can lead to many families being unaware of financial aid, therefore leading them to think that they are unable to send their children to private schools. The obfuscation stems from several different factors such as efforts from some upper-class families to keep private schools exclusive to those with greater wealth and old-fashioned stereotypes that cause people to assume that exclusivity exists within these schools. It is important for all families to be aware of the options they have for their children’s education. Children of lower-class families can benefit from private schools in many ways that aren’t available in public schools, such as smaller class sizes, more rigorous academics, and access to more resources not accessible elsewhere. Many private schools are also able to offer more aid to students with learning disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia, or dyscalculia.

The wealth gap in many private schools is unseen by the public eye, but not unnoticed by those who are affected by it most. Middle and lower class students deserve the acknowledgment and recognition that often goes only to their wealthier peers. Private schools offer valuable benefits to all students, regardless of financial background. Tackling economic inequality would be the best way to address these problems, but until there is a nationwide solution to the income gap, private schools can address this problem by making information about financial aid more publicly available and encouraging students to learn about others’ lifestyles and financial background.

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