Private schools are elitist.

Private schools provide a superior education.

Private schools are strict.

Only the rich can send their kids to private schools.

There is no shortage of strong opinions about private schools, one of the biggest that they are only for the wealthy. While the stereotype persists, the average private school student is probably not a member of the upper crust. Nowadays, a surprising number of families who send their children to private schools are scrimping and taking out loans to do so.

About 5.5 million students attend private schools throughout the U.S., according to the Council for American Private Education’s most recent survey. That’s about 12 percent of all elementary and secondary school students nationwide. Many of those private schools are in urban and blue-collar enclaves where few of the elite would venture. But because of a bad economy and rising tuition, enrollment has dropped in recent years.

Catholic schools make up by far the largest number of private schools in the country. There are also a significant number of Christian and Jewish private schools, as well as nonsectarian schools like Montessori and Waldorf. Some private schools offer a progressive, more liberal education. Others feature a more orthodox approach, tempered with religious training. Some schools focus on learning through the dramatic, visual and musical arts, while others specializes in foreign languages, mathematics, and the sciences.

The truth about private schools

While the debate rages about how private schools stack up against public schools, there are some things we know for sure:

  • Expensive tuition: They may be different from one another, but what all private schools share is an annual tuition. Although a rare few offer instruction at a price higher than at some Ivy League universities, the national average for tuition is much lower, about $19,100, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Tuition is slightly lower in elementary grades and higher in high school. Boarding schools, where students live and attend school, charge a much higher premium, about $28,500 on average.In some cities, such as New York, private schools can set a family back as much as $40,000 a year. Catholic schools tend to be far less expensive. The average Catholic school costs about $3,383 a year for elementary and $8,787 for high school, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.In cities and states with voucher programs, such as Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and most recently Louisiana, there are different breeds of private schools that serve essentially low-income students who opt to use state vouchers. These schools range widely in their tuition and effectiveness — but in essence they are private schools funded by public dollars.
  • Varied curriculum: Private schools aren’t limited by state guidelines in developing their curriculum, so they can offer classes that differ dramatically from public schools. That said, many private schools choose to use the same curriculum and follow the same state standards that public schools use. Parochial schools can offer religious education along with academics. Waldorf schools emphasize experiential learning through art, drama, and music. Other private schools focus on students with disabilities or learning differences and tailor their curriculums accordingly.
  • Low teacher-student ratios: The average classroom size varies, depending on the report you read. One study of private schools shows that on average, there are about nine students for every teacher, while a larger national survey of both sectarian and nonsectarian schools reported one teacher for every 12.5 students. The law of averages can be very deceiving depending on whether the school counts teacher aids, librarians, and non-classroom specialists. Even so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the teacher-student ratio in U.S. public schools is 15.4. Some Catholic schools do have larger classes than local public schools — as many as 35 students for every teacher.
  • Limited racial diversity: Peek into a private school classroom and it’s likely you’ll see mostly white students. Nearly three out of four private school students are Caucasian; only one out of four students comes from a racial minority.
  • Graduation rates just shy of 100 percent: Nearly all of the twelfth graders enrolled in private schools graduate. Not only do students graduate from high school, supporters say private school gives students a competitive edge in college. But when it comes to test scores, the picture is a little more muddled.A 2006 study of test scores at both public and private schools by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in reading and math, private school fourth and eighth graders did better at reading than their public school counterparts. But in math, there was almost no difference between them.Critics say some private schools excel because they can afford to be selective when choosing students. They also argue that private schools admit students whose parents are well-off and can afford to be more involved in their education and these students would do well no matter where they were educated.
  • Parents giving, and giving again: Along with tuition, expect to be hit up for donations to capital campaigns and endowments even after you’ve paid for tuition, books, and other supplies. Without tax dollars, the money for student travel, libraries, athletic facilities, and arts programs has to come from somewhere. So private school administrators can be relentless fundraisers, even in good times. Schools pay for the rising cost of administrators and teachers’ salaries, renovations, and new classrooms. Their tactics can mean the difference between adding and slashing programs.

Questions to ask about private schools

While it can be difficult for parents to know if a given private school is right for their child, the best way to know is through the school visit and by talking to school administrators. Parents and children can easily be overwhelmed by the selection process, but are well advised to be selective as well.

Don’t shy away from asking probing questions about the school’s curriculum, culture, and disciplinary policy, as well as how it keeps parents involved and what it expects from parents – both in terms of time and money. Here are tips on what to consider when visiting a school.

Financial aid: show me the money

With tuition skyrocketing at many schools, the biggest question many parents ask is how to pay for it. It’s no wonder that even families in high-income brackets seek financial aid. According to SmartMoney, about one in five families applying for financial aid from a private school had an income of more than $150,000 a year. Does it make sense to take out a loan to send a kindergartner to school? That’s a question best left to individual families, no matter what their income. Plenty of low-income families make private school a priority, and many do so with financial assistance. That help can come from several sources:

  • Financial aid based on need
  • Scholarships based on special achievements or talents
  • Payment plans
  • Loans

Each school should have a financial aid office or manager that can help identify programs that help pay for tuition. Remember that applying for admission to a private school and applying for financial aid are two different processes, and the deadlines can vary. Finally, financial aid forms can be a paperwork nightmare (and have far earlier deadlines than the application), so start the work early and get help from the school if you need it.

The NAIS has an online financial aid form that many schools ask parents to fill out, and while still time-consuming, can make applying for financial aid slightly more manageable. The form can be completed online or printed out and mailed in, and parents can submit it to several schools at a time. For students applying to schools in a region with vouchers, there is often a lengthy application process as well. Don’t wait to begin researching how your area deals with vouchers and whether the school of your choice accepts them.