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Private vs. Independent Schools: What’s the Difference?

January 6, 2023

You’re looking for a new school for your child, but you don’t fully understand your options. You’ve heard the terms “private school” and “independent school” and aren’t sure exactly what they mean. You want to be clear, because your child’s education is at stake—and the application process is underway. 

Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Let’s dive into the definitions:

What is a private school?

A private school is a school that does not receive funding from the state government.

What is an independent school?

An independent school is a school that does not receive funding from the state government AND is overseen by a board of governors or trustees.

In other words, an independent school is a specific type of private school (and not all private schools are independent schools). As defined by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS):

“Independent schools are non-profit private schools that are independent in philosophy: each is driven by a unique mission. They are also independent in the way they are managed and financed: each is governed by an independent board of trustees and each is primarily supported through tuition payments and charitable contributions. They are accountable to their communities and are accredited by state-approved accrediting bodies.”

How are private schools and independent schools different?

The biggest difference is in how they are run. A private school can be governed by a for-profit, non-profit, or religious entity, while an independent school is run by a board of governors or trustees. This puts some distance between the governance of the school and the school administration.

As NAIS indicates, independent schools are driven by a specific mission; this might not be true for private schools. Also, since private schools are governed by an outside entity, a private school might be beholden to the requirements or restrictions of that organization.

Tuition often varies between private and independent schools, with the average U.S. private school tuition investment at $12,271 per year (this varies greatly by state, so you can find a closer approximation of private school tuition in your area here), and the median cost of independent schools at $27,408 per year. Financial aid packages can help make the investment more feasible—NAIS notes that the median grant for financial aid is $15,817.

What is the best way to find the right private or independent school for your child?

Start with a private school search (remember, this includes independent schools, too!) using the search criteria that matter most to you.

Once you’ve narrowed down your search, browse school websites to get a feel for the schools in which you’re most interested. Request more information, take a campus tour (virtual tours can be great, too!), and even chat with alumni and current students and parents. By exploring schools through many different lenses, you’ll get a better feel for the right fit.

Ready to start applying?

Begin by getting familiar with the private school admission application process to ensure you understand the typical admissions cycle — it often begins a full year before the enrolling school year.

Want more tips and resources?

Remember: applying to a private or independent school is a marathon, not a sprint, but we’re here to help guide you every step of the way. For more help and resources, check out Admission Academy.

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