Applying to Boarding School: Lessons Learned
Boarding schools are a very important option for FS children. Here are some tips on applying.
BY JOHN F. KROTZER
The reasons Foreign Service parents choose the boarding school route are as varied as the students themselves: unsuitable schooling at post, special needs support, gifted student opportunities and the need for stability have all been regularly cited.
In my conversations with these parents, one thing that most have in common is that boarding school was not part of their child’s long-term education plan. Something happened, and suddenly boarding school was an option they needed to evaluate quickly!
Such was the case with us when we learned in 2014 that our next post was going to be Beijing. While the international schools there look great, the requisite language program my wife would enter meant that our oldest daughter would end up attending three different schools during her last three years of high school—a very unappealing proposition to any teenager.
We jointly decided that boarding school in the United States would be the best option for her, and I began to quickly learn as much as I could about the process.
I spoke with the State Department’s Family Liaison Office and the Office of Allowances, and I networked with as many boarding school parents as I could find. (The Facebook page “AAFSW Boarding School Parents,” for which I am an administrator, was unfortunately not yet in existence, but is now a great network and resource.) I also did a lot of research online, particularly about the application process and about college placement by the schools that interested our daughter.
Regardless of “need-aware” admissions, do not assume you will not get financial aid!
Ultimately, she applied to five schools in New England, interviewed on campus at each of them, and waited patiently. We were very optimistic, as she was an honor student with great grades, very strong test scores and lots of extracurricular success.
To our surprise, she was admitted to only one school and waitlisted at the other four. Despite all of our research, we discovered a number of key things about the boarding school application process too late. As a result, we experienced several “aha” moments—some good, and some not so good—over things we really wish we had known about earlier.
While some of these discoveries are more relevant to students applying to socalled “elite” schools in the United States, several are applicable to all types of boarding schools worldwide. I hope a few of these lessons will be helpful to those in the Foreign Service thinking about boarding school in the future.
“Need-Blind” vs. “Need-Aware”
We have all heard how most colleges are “need-blind” in admissions, meaning that a student’s financial need is not considered when an admission decision is made. It is easy to assume this would be the same at boarding schools—many of which look like college campuses—but that would be a mistake. Most boarding schools are “need-aware,” and if you do apply for financial aid, that will be taken into account when deciding whether to admit your child or not.
In fact, I discovered that many boarding schools provide no financial aid whatsoever to 75 percent of their students. Several people outside of the Foreign Service I spoke with said that they purposely did not apply for aid so as to improve their child’s chance for admission. Given this, Foreign Service families posted in locations with large education allowances or with children who qualify for SNEA funds have an advantage, because these may be sufficient to cover all of the school’s fees.
For us, applying for financial aid was a necessity because no education allowance is paid while on temporary duty at the Foreign Service Institute. I did, however, make it clear in the application process—both verbally and in writing—that we would have a larger educational allowance the next year (when posted in Beijing). I am not sure if this helped, but it definitely didn’t hurt.
Financial Aid Does Exist
Regardless of “need-aware” admissions, do not assume you will not get financial aid! Many schools have huge endowments, and every school admissions office we spoke with talked about attracting more students with a “global perspective.” As already mentioned, many schools offer financial aid to up to 25 percent of students; and, on average, that assistance amounts to about 75 percent of tuition, room and board. That can be a lot of money.
Of course grades matter. But in the case of boarding school, the grade you enter also matters. A lot!
Like colleges, most boarding schools use a third-party service (School & Student Services by the National Association of Independent Schools, or SSS by NAIS) that calculates what a family can afford. The school uses this information to determine what, if any, financial aid to offer.
Although only admitted to one school, our daughter was offered grants that amounted to a large percentage of tuition, room, board and books. It was a lot more than I thought she would get, and was more generous than the financial aid service calculation of our need. I think this was the only nice surprise we had in the process!
Grade (and Grades) Matter
Of course grades matter. But in the case of boarding school, the grade you enter also matters. A lot!
Many boarding schools only have grades nine through 12; and, in addition to not accepting any new seniors, their available spots for admission drop substantially after freshman year. In other words, it is easier to be admitted as a freshman than as a sophomore, and is much easier to be admitted as a freshman or sophomore than as a junior.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, I asked an admissions counselor at my daughter’s school about the number of students admitted by grade each spring. Roughly speaking, this is the breakdown:
- 100 freshmen
- 30 sophomores
- 12 juniors
The counselor added that these proportions are representative of most boarding schools.
This reality leads many people to consider having their child repeat a grade to improve their chances for admission. In fact, when visiting boarding schools, you will find many students whose first year of boarding school was a repeat of their last year of public or parochial school.
Keep in mind that the Office of Allowances will not pay for an extra year of tuition unless your child is formally held back.
This can seem like an appealing option—after all, who doesn’t think their kid could use an extra year of maturing? But keep in mind that the Office of Allowances will not pay for an extra year of tuition unless your child is formally held back. The rules for this are very specific, and rather than repeat them here, anyone considering this option should reach out to the Office of Allowances directly for the latest guidance.
There is another factor that can also come into play at some of the more elite boarding schools—athletics. Boarding schools that are competitive in sports may also be recruiting to fill open spots on their teams, and for sports like football, they may be targeting sophomores or juniors who are bigger and faster than their freshman counterparts. That further reduces the number of available openings to upperclassmen.
Our daughter applied to all five schools as a rising junior. Two of the schools that waitlisted her told me directly that she would have been admitted had she applied as a sophomore. Furthermore, the school she was admitted to accepted 11 juniors: two bright young women, and nine young men recruited for football or ice hockey!
College Counseling & Placement
Many boarding schools, for better or for worse, pride themselves highly on their college placement results, which in most cases are focused primarily on U.S.-based colleges and universities. They often have teams of counselors who meet regularly with students beginning in the junior year to identify each student’s target universities and strategies to gain acceptance.
Many schools offer structured support in essay writing and SAT/ACT test preparation. This level of support may be helpful to many students, but can be especially vital to students with learning differences—or, as some of my friends have pointed out, “most teenage boys.”
The ABCs of Education Allowances
BY PAMELA WARD
Employees of government agencies assigned overseas are granted allowances to help defray the cost of an education for their children in kindergarten through 12th grade, one equivalent to that provided by public school systems in the United States.
In most cases, posts abroad are served by one or more English-language, American curriculum schools.
The allowances for a specific post are determined by the fees charged by a school identified as providing a basic U.S.-type education. Parents may use this allowance to send their children to a different school of their choice—say, a parochial or foreign-language institution. If the alternative school is more expensive than the “base” school, the difference would be an out-of-pocket expense for the parents.
An allowance covers only expenses for those services usually available without cost in American public schools, including tuition, transportation and textbooks.
Parents may also elect to homeschool their children while at post, using a home study program or a virtual online educational program. They will receive an allowance to purchase materials and services while posted abroad.
If a foreign country does not have a secular, English-language school with an American curriculum, or has such a school that goes only through certain grades, an away-from-post or “boarding school” allowance is provided.
The U.S. government does not provide an allowance for college or other post-secondary education.
There are several offices in the Department of State prepared to help you understand how the educational allowances work, and what choices you have for your children. These include the Office of Overseas Schools (www.state.gov/m/a/os), the Office of Allowances (www.state.gov/m/a/als) and the Family Liaison Office (www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1958.htm).
We hope that you will get in touch with us if you have any questions about your situation. For information or assistance contact FLOAskEducation@state.gov or call (202) 647-1076.
Excerpts from an article by the same name by Pamela Ward, a former regional education officer in the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools. The complete article appears in the December 2014 FSJ.
On top of this, many of the schools we looked at dedicate a weekend during junior year when parents are invited to campus and walked through the entire college counseling process.
Of course, not every student needs this. Some families are focused on specific schools or types of schools due to family legacy, religion or for some other reason, and those people may not need much college counseling at all. But if your child will need some counseling, and plans to attend university in the United States, there is little doubt they will get excellent assistance at a U.S.-based boarding school.
Each of the schools to which our daughter applied boasted excellent placement at top universities, which at the time was good enough for me. It wasn’t until I attended a college counseling weekend at her school, met with her counselor and came home with the school’s 85-page college counseling program guide that I realized just how organized and thorough their program is.
Location, Location, Location
When our daughter began looking at boarding schools, we limited her to ones in New England so that she would be somewhat close to family. It wasn’t until after her fall break—when the school closed the dorms—that I fully realized how fortunate we were to have done this.
Boarding schools will often close their dorms during breaks, requiring kids to find alternative housing at those times. This is not a challenge for the average boarding school parent, who often lives within driving distance or is wealthy. But for Foreign Service families posted overseas, this can be difficult to manage.
Your child certainly won’t have a car, and may not be old enough to use public transportation on their own. Once friendships develop, they may be able to stay with classmates, but that can take time. There should be a shuttle to the airport, but if you have to fly them to an available relative for school breaks, it can add up to four to six domestic flights per school year.
There is another factor that can also come into play at some of the more elite boarding schools—athletics.
The bottom line is that parents need to identify when these breaks are, and have a plan in place for your child before you head overseas.
In our case, we had not put nearly enough thought into this in advance. Though our daughter was only admitted to one school, it happened to be in the same small town where her aunt lives. In addition, we are in the Washington, D.C., area this school year, so for longer breaks, we’ve had her come to us, a short flight.
If you are a Foreign Service family considering boarding school, I would strongly suggest that you join the group “AAFSW Boarding School Parents” on Facebook.
This is a place where you can ask questions of more than 100 current, past and prospective boarding school parents in the Foreign Service. By joining, you can also request a copy of the recently compiled list of boarding schools attended by FS kids.
Further, if you are concerned about your ability to find the right school for your child, consider employing an accredited independent educational consultant. Contact FLO, or ask on the “AAFSW Boarding School Parents” Facebook page, for recommendations.