Financial Aid: My Story by Barbara Cameron

Wild flowers in meadow

We are excited to publish this piece by Barbara Cameron, who shares her honest thoughts and advice on what it’s like to apply for and pay tuition at L.A. private schools with the help of financial aid. –Christina

In the past, if asked about applying for financial aid, my advice was: be humble. I just looked up humility in the dictionary; its definition surprised me: lack of pride, meek, servility.

I will take servility. To be of service.

However, I will not take debase, demean, a low estimate of one’s importance from that definition. No. You have a right to ask; the school has the power and the right to grant aid or not, depending on their needs and wants. You don’t deserve it.

Always remember: It is a gift.

Be honest and be true. The true meaning, walk in with who you are, who your child is and a promise to honor yourself, your child and the school you say you want to become a part of. Why? The prestige? It should be far more than that. Find the school you can believe in and tell them why.

Remember, when applying you are not in the same position as someone paying full tuition. There is a specific amount of aid to distribute each year. These choices are being considered along with the factors involved in creating a new class each year. Also, I think it wise you never assume that because someone has plenty of money, dishing out that expensive tuition isn’t noteworthy. In most cases, they have worked long and hard to earn it; you just have different circumstances, but work hard, too.

However, you are as valuable. You can be as valuable. You and your family enrich the school, money or no money.

Exhausting and tedious, filling out all that aid information, yes, it is hard and should be. Also, there are reasons they ask if you own a boat or have inherited money. People who don’t need money will try to get money. Tell the truth and explain all your circumstances honestly. Age and earning power might play a role, even if there has been an inheritance. Details are important.

You are going to partner with this school in a financial bargain so always, always be honest. Your circumstances may change. Never assume you are not negotiating every year. However, never fear if your child isn’t perfect you will lose the money. My son was not easy, diagnosed early on with ADHD/Anxiety, and The Willows Community School, as well as our current school, Arête Preparatory Academy, supported, and continue to support us above and beyond. Did every teacher, every parent? No. Just because this is a private school does not mean you are in a magical land of understanding staff and parents abound. No. It’s a school full of humans complete with complicated issues encountered in all schools. You, too, are complex and could be someone else’s headache some days, some years.

However, did we receive support from teachers and other families? Yes! More than I could have hoped for.

Sacrifice. I sleep in the living room in a one bedroom apartment. I drove an eleven-year-old car and would have driven that Toyota Corolla into the ground had not someone hit is and totaled it. I put my son’s education above all. Yes, you must make sacrifices to ask for free money. You are not begging, but you are asking for less tuition. They will call it your financial award. I have always taken it in my heart as a gift, grateful as any human who receives. I work long, long hours and am not always able to volunteer. However, when I can, I do.

Grateful: indebted; obliged, obligated, in someone’s debt. Thankful.

Award: present to, bestow upon, decorate with.

You honor the school, they honor you. In the end, a wonderful partnership can be had.

A wealthy parent I knew at The Willows, although I did not know her well, offered early on to help out with childcare if I ever needed it. A few years later, knowing we were received aid (your choice but I never hid it and we were never treated any differently at The Willows or at Arête because of financial difference) approached me one day and said this to me. “You know, I admire you. I think it’s great you’re here. My sister and her husband don’t have much money, and I tell them so much is possible, but she says, ‘No, we’ll never get it.’ She doesn’t even try. I think you are an amazing mom for fighting to get Jack what you feel is best for him.”

And I felt proud; all the hard work, the filling out of paperwork, the worrying each year, would we would receive enough to stay, is worth everything if you end up where you want to be. If you cannot afford to do it with the award you receive, wherever you end up, the thing I always remembered throughout the years during this process, something my now best friend and former high school English teacher reminded me: “You are your child’s best and first teacher. He (she) will always bloom where planted because you are his mom.”


Barbara Cameron is the 2012 winner of the American Literary Review nonfiction contest, judged by Alice Elliot Dark, and her winning essay, “Hawk Blood,” was published in the journal. It was republished in the Colorado Review as an editor’s pick. Her essay, “In Avalon, She Fell,” was a finalist in a 2017 literary contest, judged by Abigail Thomas. She has studied with Mary Gaitskill and with Tom Jenks, founder and co-editor of Narrative. Barbara is a graduate of Barnard College, a former restaurant server and now manager, a single mom by choice and a resident of Los Angeles. You can read Barbara’s most recent essay in Angels Flight Literary West.

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Quick Tips on Applying for Financial Aid by Sandy Eiges, LA School Scout

LA School ScoutHere’s an informative primer on what’s required to apply for private school financial aid by our good friend, Sandy Eiges of L.A. School Scout, an L.A. area educational consulting company. To see our interview with Sandy, click here. 


We’ve come to that part of the private school admissions cycle where everything is coming due at the same time – teacher recommendations, head of school recommendations, transcripts, and for those of you applying for financial aid, tax returns.
For those of you wondering whether you qualify for financial aid, wonder no longer. The answer is – maybe!


The truth is that every school has a different amount of financial aid available in any given year. Coupled with a different income ceiling per school, this makes it challenging to determine whether you qualify or not. Some schools focus on ethnic diversity in their financial aid calculations; some expand that to include socio-economic diversity as well. If a large school commits a sizeable percentage of their annual income to financial aid, then clearly they will have deeper pockets and will have more aid available than a smaller school might.


Applying for financial aid is a very challenging process. While I’ve covered this before, I’m reviewing the steps here. For some schools it’s not too late to submit a financial aid application. For all schools there is one part of the application due by February 1st – your tax returns.


Here are some guidelines you’ll need to know when applying for financial aid:


1. Have your economic house in some kind of order.
 Once you apply to a school they will ask if you are applying for financial aid. If you are, they will send you specific instructions. While the application isn’t due until February, and you can complete most of the application online, you will have to add supplemental materials. You will need copies of previous years’ tax returns – for some schools it’s one year, for others it’s two. The tax return for the current year will need to be completed and submitted in January, just to meet the deadline.

You will need to itemize every expense and all of your income. If you are divorced, both parents’ incomes are used in the calculation, whether or not both parents are contributing to tuition – or even on speaking terms!  
Be aware that many schools have two aid applications – one you access online, and one that belongs specifically to a particular school. You will need to complete them both.


2. Expect to pay some tuitionVery few schools offer full financial aid these days. The more typical scenario is that if you qualify, the school will offer up to 2/3 of the payment. That means that you should expect to pay at least a third of the tuition. At the average L.A. private elementary school, tuition ranges from $18,000 – $25,000 per year. For middle and high school, it can go as high as $35,000 – $40,000 per year. You do the math!


3. Financial Aid applications are online.There are two main sites that process financial aid applications – the National Association of Independent Schools School & Student Services application (NAIS/SSS): “We estimate the amount you can contribute to school expenses and forward that estimate to the schools where you’re applying. It’s one form, for one fee, for any number of siblings, for any number of schools.” and FAST (the schools you are applying to will forward the link to their application).
To repeat, once you enter your information they will estimate what they think you can afford. You will also be asked what you can afford. This isn’t the amount of aid you will necessarily receive, but it’s always a good idea to ask for what you need.

Whether you use the FAST form or the SSS form, you will only have to submit one set of materials to each, which will be used for all the schools you specify. Both sites make it easy to upload supplementary materials, such as tax returns. Unfortunately if some of your schools use one form and some the other, you will have to fill out two separate forms.

Just as with school applications, it might be easy to press “submit” – but don’t submit until you’ve checked and double-checked the accuracy of your answers, and especially of your numbers. And of course you should always keep a copy.


4. Watch the deadline! While you might be tempted to wait until your child is admitted to a school before submitting an application for financial aid, applications are due prior to admission. If you applied and got in, but only now realize that you really need financial aid, you can always ask – but it is highly unlikely that there will be any aid left. Aid normally goes first to faculty and staff for their children, then to current students at the school, and then to new acceptances. If you apply late, you risk losing any access to financial aid. 

For the most part complete financial aid applications, including current year tax returns, are due by February 1st. If you can get the application done early, then by all means take care of it. Then if all you need to do is upload one tax form on the due date, so much the better.



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