My wife Crista and I are in an interesting spot regarding the education of our children. We have three kids: one is a high school sophomore who’s already starting to think about college; one’s in middle school; and the youngest is in elementary school. All three of them are currently enrolled in the public school system.
Crista has taught in public schools for years. Prior to entering financial services, I was trained to be a teacher, so I have a working knowledge of how the education system works. We are both firm believers in public education. At this point in our life, though, we find ourselves seriously considering the merits of private education.
Private School Vs. Public School: What Is the Right Choice For You?
This isn’t the first time that our family has discussed private versus public. Our eldest was in fifth grade when the idea of switching to private school came up for the first time The benefits were obvious: smaller class size, more attention on the child, and a stronger focus on academics. Even the dress code of private school was a bonus — wearing a required uniform relieves so much of the pressure that comes with what to wear to school and what’s socially acceptable.
We decided to stick with public school, and in hindsight, it was the right choice for that child, both socially and academically. However, I can’t say it didn’t come with struggles. An area where we felt that he didn’t get the support he needed is in the college preparation process. We live in a community with a great public school system, but is also within a stone’s throw of four private middle and high schools. There are 2,700 kids in the local public high school — roughly 700 kids per grade. The private high school that’s closest to us has 450 children enrolled, so about 115 kids per grade. Even if you set aside quality and resources, just the numbers make it clear: handling the needs of 115 students is much easier than supporting 700 students per grade.
To address the limited attention that our son would be getting in a public high school, we decided to hire tutors and engage a college prep company. With the help of these consultants, we (the parents and our son) are being educated on all the things necessary to get into our best-fit school. (Note, I said “best-fit school” not how to get him into Harvard or Yale.)
What we are appreciating most about this process is the focus on what’s right socially and academically for our child, and how our child can improve his chances of finding the school that’s the perfect fit for him. He gets assistance with researching schools, writing college essays, and even thinking about what are the best courses to take in high school.
For our middle son, we are leaning toward private school, for both the individualized attention and the social aspects. We are not going to wait until he is in high school, because the longer we wait, the more competitive it becomes to gain entrance into a private high school.
Private School Tuition Shouldn’t Come at the Expense of Your Retirement
I can tell you that when I was in high school none of these considerations were on my mind (or my parents’ minds). Thinking about how to position myself to get into the best-fit college was not on my radar. I was good at athletics, and I knew I wanted to play football in college — all I was looking for was which school would give me the most money. Some people look at which school is closest to home; some look at which is furthest from home.
Looking back, I believe that the best school is the one that will give the child the best education and support to grow. As parents, my wife and I are thinking, ”How do we optimize the time they have to learn?” The younger years are crucial for setting up our kids to succeed in life.
But how do you plan for this — financially, at least? We had no idea we would want to send our child to a private middle school or private high school. From the day they were born, we knew we wanted our kids to go to public school. We reached a point, though, when it was no longer about our belief in the public education system, it was really about what is in the best interest of our child.
Financially speaking, the cost of private high schools is in some cases greater than college. Some families know from the start that they want to send their child to private school and they plan for it from day one. They do their best to put aside the money as soon as possible since there are very few scholarships for private schools. For most families with higher income, paying for private middle and high school is a 100% cost.
Again, for most families, sending a child to private school does affect your financial future. Whether it's saving for your retirement or saving for a second home, paying for private school uses up significant income long before your kid is off to college. Even if you can afford it, it may still require you to deploy your assets in a different way — I know it does for our family.
Funding Your Child’s Future and Your Own Is a Careful Balance
As a financial advisor and as a parent, I can see both sides of the picture.
On the one hand, you do what’s best for your child, and you make it work. That’s where we stand as a family, and I know most of our clients feel that way, too. As a financial advisor, I tell all our clients to not make decisions today that will negatively impact their long-term financial goals. While you want to support your child, you want to do it in a way that doesn’t prevent you from being able to retire. It’s important that you meet both of your objectives: your child’s well-being, and your own.
In case you were wondering about our youngest child, our daughter is in public elementary school, which is perfect for her and for us. Time will tell how that one goes. One thing we know for sure is that we are absolutely not a homeschool family!
If the pandemic taught us anything it was that. Being the resident homeschool teacher during COVID, Crista observed how much kids (all kids) lost out on reading and math. That observation and the lifelong dream to help bring better literacy support into classrooms is what inspired her to go back to school to obtain a graduate degree in literacy and language. So now we have four scholars in our family.
If your family is facing questions about education and how to fund it, we’d love to support you in any way we can. Good luck on your journey!
James Bode is Managing Partner at Beck Bode, a deliberately different wealth management firm with a unique view on investing, business, and life.