Looking for a school to send their son for Grade 7, Aliki and Xavier Rivas put Upper Canada College (UCC) in Toronto among their top choices.
They knew that their son, Xavier-Alexis, a gifted student in the public system with a passion for architecture, would benefit from the elite school's well-rounded program, high standards and motivating environment. But how to manage the hefty fees, with a single income from Mr. Rivas's middle-management position at Bell Canada and four other children to care for?
While their son applied for the school, his parents applied for tuition assistance, laying out their finances to an agency that determined what they could afford to pay. UCC offered an almost full "needs-based" scholarship and he thrived, graduating in June with a 95 per cent average and a position as editor of the school yearbook. Today, he is starting studies in architecture at The Cooper Union, a top, full-scholarship college in New York City that he heard about and applied to though his art teacher at UCC.
"The opportunities that have opened up to him are countless," says Mrs. Rivas, whose daughter Isabella is also on an almost full scholarship in grade 10 at The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) in Toronto. "We've seen the advantages of these schools – tenfold."
For families of modest means that want to send their children to private school, financial assistance is critical. For the schools, which are offering more and more aid through endowments and scholarships, such students are needed to enriching the quality and diversity of their communities – especially in today's tough economic climate.
"Financial assistance is great for schools, because it allows you to broaden your pool of great students," says Innes van Nostrand, vice principal of UCC. The school's philosophy of financial support dates to 1829, when founder Sir John Colborne, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, committed funds to keep tuitions low, in order to welcome remarkable boys from different backgrounds. Over the years, subsidies dropped to a minimal level, Mr. van Nostrand says: "What we're trying to do is go back."
UCC today charges $27,600 for day students and $48,000 for boarders. About 6 per cent of its 1,100 boys are on either partial or full assistance; the goal is to increase that to 20 per cent, or 220 students, by 2015, through a campaign that "serves a broader community purpose," Mr. van Nostrand says. "It will further raise the bar for both student quality and contribution to the public good."
Mr. van Nostrand says that when he graduated from UCC in 1982, about half of the top 10 students in his class received some level of subsidy, which "had a huge and positive impact on school dynamics, culture and achievements".
Independent school tuitions have escalated in the last few decades, and boarding schools especially have to market aggressively, he says, although applications to UCC continue to increase.
Paul Kitchen knows the value of offering financial assistance at private schools. As head of Rothesay Netherwood School outside of St. John, NB, for the last 25 years, he's focused on subsidizing tuitions and keeping fees low.
Over that time, the Grade 6 to 12 school has grown in reputation and size, from 100 students in 1986 to 270 students today. Just under $1-million of the school's $6-million operating budget is spent on financial aid, which goes to as many as 40 per cent of students, based on need. Tuitions are also kept low, at $18,000 for day students and $32,000 for boarders. All of this is made possible through donations, endowments and budgeting, in order to attract high-calibre students, especially from Atlantic Canada, and from a mix of backgrounds.
Costs are kept low in creative ways, Mr. Kitchen says. For example, teachers are compensated with housing for 80 per cent of them on campus and by offering to educate their children at just 10 per cent of the usual fee.
Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), says the 98 schools the organization represents increasingly offer financial assistance to students across Canada and around the world. "That's how you ensure that the best, brightest kids who fit the culture of the school can attend," she says, "not just the kids whose parents can afford it."
Among the 28 CAIS schools that offer boarding, a total of $14-million is given in subsidies according to need, she says. Most of the funds come from alumni "passionate" about the schools, she explains, similar to the model at private schools in the United States, where such donors support some 40 per cent of students.
"You have to start with the belief that schools can change lives, and you find people to subsidize that opportunity," she says, advising that "parents should never be afraid to ask what the school has to offer".
Jewish independent schools, for example, provide significant tuition subsidies. The United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto allocated more than $10-million of the $63-million it raised last year to assist families who cannot afford the full $13,000 to $20,000 tuition for Jewish schools, says Steven Shulman, the organization's campaign director and counsel.
About 2,300 of the 11,500 students in the Jewish system in the Greater Toronto Area benefited from the campaign last year, he says, "which ensures a broader student base, which enriches the schools." One third of school-age Jewish children in Toronto attend Jewish day schools.
Financial assistance especially comes from alumni interested in helping students directly, says Deryn Lavell, head of BSS. About 6 per cent of senior students at the school currently receive assistance, which is double the amount of four years ago.
Today, financial assistance is "much more overt" than in the past, she says, with people speaking openly about its advantages. Schools, meanwhile, compete for and seek out high-calibre students through the subsidies they offer, she adds. "It's about recruiting."
For Aliki Rivas, having two children in private school still requires sacrifices, but is well worth it. Her son and daughter "truly value it, in a deeper sense," she adds. "They know the benefits."
Isabella, 14, loves the fact that at BSS she can participate in the gymnastics team, choir, vocal and dance classes, none of which were offered at the public school she attended until last year. "I was missing what I most loved."
Her brother Xavier-Alexis, 18, profited from close relationships with UCC's teachers, like the one who raised the prospect of attending The Cooper Union, and contacts among fellow students. He got a summer internship at the architecture firm of a classmate's father.
"School isn't only about academics," he explains, adding that some day he'd like to repay his alma mater for all it has given him. "I can't imagine not having gone to Upper Canada College now."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Ensuring "educational greatness"
Private schools like Upper Canada College in Toronto have long had reputations for being socially elitist, says Innes van Nostrand, the school's vice-principal. Through increasing financial assistance "we want to be a merit-based elite place," he explains, drawing in the best students from a range of backgrounds.
UCC is already quite mixed ethnically and culturally, he says, but not socio-economically, which was the goal when the school was founded. Children who benefit from aid come from "a continuum across all incomes," as tuitions have outstripped affordability over the last few decades. "It's about the full spectrum."
For children from absolute poverty, UCC is willing to pay "110 per cent" of tuition, he says, even covering most extras such as uniforms and books, although if families can pay even $1,000 or $2,000 they must. Parents should "make some degree of sacrifice," he explains, giving them and their sons a stake in – and commitment to – the school. "Generally speaking, it's a very good thing for families to have some skin in the game."
While admissions at full fees are currently strong, making the school accessible to a broader range of top-notch students will ensure "educational greatness" over the long term and serve the public good, he says, which is "overwhelmingly" supported by alumni.
"The more you can bring in great kids, the more you can raise the experience for all kids," he adds. "It's an essential contributor to the character of the whole school."