Public v. private school: which has the advantage?

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Public school or private school? Do you think it matters? Do you think one or the other will help your child get into a better college?  Having conducted a very scientific study, I can report here which school system parents think is better, and better at getting their kids into top-notch colleges:  neither.  I interviewed eight families, four who have sent their children to public school from K-12, and four who have sent their children to private school from K-12.  I asked each family (in the person of my girlfriends) five questions, designed to elicit their opinions about the public/private distinction, or whether there is one, in terms of getting into college.  I expected families to embrace their own choices, and celebrate the value of the school system their child attends.  Here is what I learned:  

  1. If money were no object, would you send your child/ren to public or private school? Explain.

To generalize, the families with children in private schools said they would (as they do) send their kids to private school.  The reasons?  Smaller class sizes, greater individual attention, perception that teachers are better, and environment is more controlled.  One said their kids went to private school because her husband and she had gone to private schools.  It’s what they know.  There was an expectation that academics are more rigorous, and a sense that the course offerings are broader in range.  

Again, to generalize, the families with children in public schools said they would probably send their children to public school, even if money were no object, because “public elementary schools are better equipped to meet a vast range of needs.  Public schools can accommodate the range of students from gifted to challenged.”  Some of the public school parents said they might consider private schools for their children if money were no object, because they like the idea of the smaller class sizes, but one of the families expressed concern that exposure to high levels of privilege might warp their children’s assumptions about the world in general, and might impact their ability to adapt to a larger student body in college. 

A point of interest:  the two places where both sets of parents found common ground in preferring private school were in class size and guidance/college counseling. 

  1. Do you think sending your child to public/private school will affect his/her ability to get into college (any college)? Explain.

Private school families:  I got a mixed bag of yes’s and no’s – some thought private school will better prepare their children for standardized testing and resume building; some thought the academics would prepare their children better for the college application process.  But two families thought it would “not necessarily” make any difference. 

Thoughts from the public school families:  No difference – “I think a good student is a good student no matter where they go.”  Based on what these families have seen in their public schools, the competitive students are taking challenging courses and doing well. “Colleges seem to look at the GPA, class ranking, AP classes, and SAT/ACT scores pretty closely,” and if a student thrives at public school, it seems to these parents to put them in the same place as a good student in a private school.  

  1. Do you think sending your child to public/private school will affect the caliber of college your child will be accepted to?  Explain.

The answers to this question were more consistent between the two groups – both generally thought the public/private choice would not necessarily affect the caliber of college their child would be eligible for, except for the perception that “colleges are actively pursuing public school students.”  One parent mentioned that the quality of the public school system really matters, and one parent held strong that private school is better for preparing their child, so it might make a difference.  Again, one factor favoring private: “the opportunity for college counseling might help with the higher caliber schools,” and if you are looking at the Ivys, private school pedigree might help.  But, one public school parent, whose son is going to Princeton in the fall, said “I think your kid is going to do what your kid is going to do wherever he or she is.”

  1. Do you think your child has better opportunities in the school system you have chosen over the school system you did not choose? Explain.

Parents agreed that the opportunities varied between public and private, but both had strong positives in their own camp.  For the privates, that individual attention, and ability to create relationships with teachers, was special – the personal experience.  For the publics, athletics were a clear plus.  Privates have study abroad, but clubs, music and drama, were diverse and numerous at the publics. 

  1. Do you think your child is happier having gone through the school system you have chosen over the school system you did not choose?  Explain.

All the parents I spoke with, save one, said their children are happy where they are and would not change systems.  There were some particular reasons (e.g., more attention at private school, local public school is not good, more teams to try out for), but the reason that grabbed my attention was from a public school friend.  She said her kids are happy because they know when it comes time to choose colleges, they will have enough money to pay for any school they want.

So, ignoring flaws in methodology, it is still interesting to hear how parents feel at this pivotal time – at the end of the elementary/high school era, where the rubber hits the road in college admissions.  I am always happy when my friends celebrate their choices and for the families I spoke to there are no regrets.

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  1. A good thing you were expecting all the parents to defend the choice they had already made. It might be enlightening to survey a set of sixth-graders’ parents and find if they had the same predilections ahead of time.
    And how can there be flaws in the methodology of a survey in which every question is the first one? Top priority to all! Thus, equal weighting and balanced results. Genius !

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