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Parents need to take into consideration all the costs before they decide to send their child to private school.John Pettit/Handout

When it comes to deciding whether or not private school is the right choice for your child, parents may be overwhelmed by the financial considerations.

Financial experts say that the smart way to evaluate this choice is to look at it from a holistic and long-term perspective.

According to Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, the average annual day school tuition in Canada is $21,000, while boarding schools are closer to $52,000.

“Not a lot of Canadians have anywhere between $15,000 to $40,000 of excess cash flow just lying around every year. So it requires planning,” says Rona Birenbaum, founder of the national financial planning firm Caring for Clients.

While tuition is the largest upfront cost, it is not the only expense. From equipment to extracurriculars to social expectations, deciding to send your child to private school may come with a whole array of expenses many parents do not initially take into account.

“The best thing to do when considering making such a sizable long-term investment is to do some cash flow modeling,” says Birenbaum. Parents should assess how much of a pinch private schools will have on their budget, “because there’s no question it’s going to have an impact.”

Parents also need to take into account the things they won’t have to pay for at a private school, which could include daycare costs and daily lunches, says Jennifer Hughes, a planning associate at Caring for Clients, who went through the private school system herself.

She stresses that it’s important to think long-term and consider whether you are able to sustain your child’s private school education for their whole educational career. Moreover, this decision will not only affect the child but the whole family.

Jackie Porter, a certified financial planner, looks at private school as “a long-term daycare cost” because of how expensive both are in Canada.

She stresses looking into all available options “with your eyes open as much as possible.” This means looking at financial aid and subsidies, looking at schools in less expensive areas or looking for schools with religious affiliations, which may be less expensive. It is also important to research each school’s payment plan options.

Jerry Salvador, the head of school at Brookes Westshore in Victoria, B.C., says he encourages parents to speak to the school if they have any questions about finances. Brookes Westshore, for example, offers financial aid to students, as do many other private schools.

“At least at our school, we try to keep our costs down but without sacrificing the education,” says Salvador. The school currently charges $9,500 for day school students in the lower grades, which rise to $16,400 in the upper grades.

“We value diversity, and we want to be open and available to as many students as possible,” says James Boxshall, director of communications at Brookes Westshore. “Part of how we do that is offering financial aid.”

While financial experts say parents should explore all available financial aid opportunities, they also warn against relying on it as a sustainable source of funding since it may run out at any moment.

Therefore, after exhausting methods to bring the cost down, parents need to look at ways to fill the remaining gap.

“I generally don’t like parents trading off their retirement security for funding private school, unless their children have very significant support needs and it’s not really an option,” says Birenbaum.

Besides sacrificing retirement savings or taking out loans, other cuts will most likely be on discretionary spending, she says.

“Where the investment in the private school does not impinge on foundational wealth building and financial stability — so it doesn’t compromise retirement savings, or debt reduction or insurance that’s important from a risk management standpoint — then that’s a good place to start.”

Porter says that while some parents may value a private school education for their child if, for example, they have a learning disability or come from a marginalized background and want an extra leg up, it’s especially important to make a rational rather than an emotional decision.

“If you live in a certain neighbourhood, do you really need to go to private school?” asks Porter. There are some exceptional public schools, both in general education and in specialities such as art and science, she says.

Statistics Canada research published in 2015 found that while students at private schools tended to have better academic outcomes than public school students, this was largely due to socioeconomic factors and not to school resources and practices. This means that when controlling for factors that are associated with academic success — such as higher parental income — there is essentially no difference in performance between public and private schools.

“Studies so far have shown that there are no particular advantages of studying in private school,” says Parisa Mahboubi, a senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute. She says that since Canada’s education system is among the best in the world, parents do not necessarily have to send their children to private school to ensure future success.

“My point is that if this is their preference and they can afford it, it’s their choice,” says Mahboubi. “But for those who think that they are losing something, or they are not doing enough for their kids … this is not true.”

For parents who have come to the decision that private school is not the right choice for them, Mahboubi says that there are other ways to give children an advantage in school, such as spending more time working with them.

In all, private school is a major decision for a family and requires early planning from a holistic perspective.

“Just be realistic about what that situation looks like,” says Porter, “so you don’t start going further down the path and feel a little bit over your head.”

Looking for more stories about private school education? Get the latest on curriculum trends, financial assistance and the pandemic’s impact here.

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