Affording the Dream

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Over the past year, rising prices and worsening economic conditions have parents wondering, “Can we afford to send our child to a private school?” To find out how families can make it work, we talked to experienced parents and school officials.

Illustration: Jing Jig Tsong

Seven years ago, Rona Kekauoha found out her oldest daughter, Melia, had been accepted to Iolani School, her alma mater. At the time Kekauoha and her husband, Weldon, could afford the tuition, which hovered around $10,000 a year. But by the time their second daughter, Moea, started kindergarten at Iolani two years later, the family needed financial help.

“Once the second one got in, I was like, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to afford this?’” says Kekauoha, 40, who works as a scholarship officer at Hawaii Community Foundation.

First, they made some life adjustments, cutting back on vacations and dinners out. Then, the Kekauohas decided to apply for financial aid with the school, where 10 percent of the student body receives need-based assistance. Though the process was tedious and time-consuming, the effort proved worthwhile. Both daughters—and a third is entering kindergarten this fall—receive financial aid through the school.

The hours spent on the financial aid planning was “so worth it,” says Kekauoha. “This is an investment in their future. Their education is something that can never be taken away from them.”

The Kekauohas are one of thousands of families in Hawaii finding creative ways to finance private school education in tough economic times. In addition to applying for traditional financial aid, families take out education loans, borrow against their home equity, use credit cards and ask other family members for financial help.

Demand for Private Schools Still High

Of the roughly 400 schools in the state, about 120 are licensed independent schools that operate outside the state-funded educational system. Every school is different. Some schools provide specific religious-based education. Others, such as Mid-Pacific Institute, focus on technology and the performing arts. Still others, such as ASSETS School, serve gifted and/or dyslexic children with special educational needs. Parents value the distinct missions and tailored education that private schools can provide. Whether they’re looking for an emphasis on character building, fine arts or nontraditional learning, independent schools offer the gamut.

Despite rising costs—for example, the tuition at several schools, including Punahou and Maryknoll, posted a 6 percent increase in tuition this year—enrollment at independent schools hasn’t declined, indicating parents still value private school education.

“Families make this investment for the long term, and they’re figuring out how to manage that,” says Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS). “Increasingly, parents have come to understand the necessity of good schooling as a condition for their children to live a purposeful and meaningful life in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.”

Some parents might be daunted by the perception that private school is a five-figure commitment every year. It can be, but very often costs considerably less. You might be surprised to learn that statewide, the average annual independent school tuition is just under $6,500.

On urbanized Oahu, it’s a little higher, with an average tuition of about $7,900. Schools with tuitions around that level include Central Union Preschool and Kindergarten, Damien Memorial School, Honolulu Waldorf School, Lutheran High School and others.

Even on Oahu, it’s possible to find a private school for under $4,000 a year, including such schools as Adventist Malama Elementary School, Koolau Baptist Academy, St. Anthony School and more. For a complete list of Hawaii’s independent schools that are members of HAIS, see the chart beginning on page PSG39. There you’ll find information on tuition, the percentage of students receiving financial aid, class sizes, faculty size, contact information and other data to help you find the right school for your child.