Should You Send Your Kids to Public or Private School? The Great Debate

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All parents want their children to get a good education and, hopefully, attend a good college someday. But where kids go to high school — or more accurately, how well they do in school and the quality of the courses, teachers, and guidance counselors — can influence where they end up. 

Of course, many parents don’t have the luxury of choosing between public and private or can afford private school even if they want their kids to attend. But does going to private school give kids an educational advantage? And by the same token, does going to a public school hurt their chances of getting into a good college?

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The Research

Studies show that private school students generally perform better academically and on standardized tests than public school students. A National Center for Education Statistics study looked at public and private school students in fourth and eighth grades and found that kids in private schools achieved higher levels in reading and math than students in public schools. Private schools also tend to push their students with more demanding graduation requirements.

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That said, there are many quality teachers in public school who can have equally positive and motivating effects on their students.

A good guidance counselor, whether in a public or private school, can also help kids navigate the overwhelming college application process, but private schools do have an advantage here. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s 2011 report, the average public school counselor devotes 23 percent of his or her time to college counseling, while the average private school counselor spends 55 percent. The report also found that only 26 percent of public schools have at least one full-time or part-time counselor whose exclusive responsibility is providing college counseling, compared with 73 percent of private schools.

However, public (and private) school kids have the ability to increase their chances of getting into their first-choice college by applying for early decision, in which they only apply to their top school and commit to attend if accepted, or early action, in which kids can apply early to several colleges and aren’t obligated to enroll if they get in.

Studies show that private school students generally perform better academically and on standardized tests than public school students. (Photo: Getty Images)

What the Experts Say

Even if you don’t go to the best high school, you can still up your chances of getting into a solid college by getting good grades, doing well on entrance exam scores, starting college preparations early, and writing a strong essay. “Getting into the school of your dreams comes from understanding the admissions process and committing yourself to maximizing your academic and extracurricular opportunities,” Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors, told SheKnows.com. "Just knowing how to write an essay, when to apply for admission, how to act in an interview, and more can make the difference between admission and rejection. As with most things, knowledge is power.”

Applying for early decision or early action also helps. “The early decision round is more forgiving than the regular round,“ Mike Muska, co-author of Getting In!, and dean of College Relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep, told the Daily Beast. "They won’t admit a candidate who is not in the ballpark. But they will enlarge the sweet spot. Is it a 20 percent variability? Absolutely. 30 percent? Maybe.”

In his Daily Beast article, Steve Cohen, co-author of Getting In!, points out that while Penn State accepted only 11 percent of kids who applied under the regular deadline, the school admitted more than 34 percent of kids who applied early decision. At Cornell University, 16 percent of kids who applied by the regular deadline were accepted, while 36 percent of early-decision kids got in.

But many families miss this opportunity because they start the application process too late. "The most important piece of advice good college counselors give families is to start the admissions process early,” says Cohen. “At most top private schools, the college selection process gears up in earnest early in the junior year. That gives families enough time to visit colleges, do substantive research about various places, and engage in a thoughtful sorting process.”

What the Parents Say

“My son goes to public school and he loves it. We were fortunate that the public school we had chosen was also a top-rated charter school, so he had to test into it and is now in all gifted programs. We felt confident in the curriculum and staff. Had he not been accepted, we would have still gone public, as we could not afford a private school. Thankfully, the public schools where we live are all very good.” — Vanessa Schadt

“My kids were in public school for three years, and then we left and went private. The academics are strong, with good math and science courses, and academically, the program teaches one year ahead of public schools. Music, art, performing arts, and computers are part of the overall curriculum, which sometimes are weak in the public schools. With private school, class sizes are smaller. The con is private school tuition.” —Annie S.

The Bottom Line

While kids who go to private school have a leg up when it comes to getting into a top-tier college, they’re not necessarily a shoo-in. Kids who attend public school and are motivated to get good grades and test scores and start the college prep process early can get into a great college. Also, applying for early admission can give you that extra edge.

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