Do Private Schools Offer a College Admissions Advantage?


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Before the 1920s, attending a top-flight prep school was nothing less than a prerequisite for admission into an Ivy League college. In the elitist admissions landscape of early 20th-century America, a diploma from a blue-blood boarding school actually trumped academic superiority and raw ability.

Today, nearly 100 years later, 63 percent of Harvard University students hail from public high schools. This number is lower at a few other highly selective colleges (Wesleyan University is just 48 percent and Princeton University is 60 percent) and higher at others (Vanderbilt University and California Institute of Technology are both around 66 percent).

So this begs the question: Do private schools still offer an admissions advantage at our nation’s most selective colleges and universities?

The Argument for Private School

Clearly, there are some undeniable admissions-related advantages to attending a private school. At the top of that list is the fact that counselors in public high schools report spending only 22 percent of their time on college-related counseling while their private school counterparts spend a far healthier 55 percent, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Moreover, most private high schools employ a counselor who is solely dedicated to matters of college admissions, something very few public high schools are able to offer.

Private school students are also more likely to be completely surrounded by highly motivated, college-bound peers, which research published in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s “How Peers Affect Student Performance” fall 2012 series suggests raises their expectations and performance. In fact, private high school attendees go on to attain a bachelor’s degree at double the rate of public-schoolers, according to a 2012 National Center for Educational Statistics report that analyzes a group of 2002 high school sophomores 10 years later. It’s also worth noting that, according to a National Center for Education Statistics 2017 report on private school enrollment, only 10 percent of children in the U.S. attend private school, yet they make up a disproportionately high percentage of accepted students at elite colleges, as noted in this article’s opening.

Academic powerhouses such as Harvard-Westlake School, which services Hollywood’s elite, or the Trinity School in New York City, which caters to the children of Wall Street, still serve as direct pipelines to Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT, as prep schools did back in the day. While some may look at the close relationship between premier high schools and elite colleges and bemoan the sad state of meritocracy, there is still evidence that public schools may offer an equal or even better chance at admission to an Ivy League school than spending four years at Groton School or another Hogwartz-esque boarding school.

The Argument for Public School

Taking into account the staggering number of private high school grads who attend selective colleges, it would be easy to conclude that going to a public school will be problematic to your students’ admissions chances at a private college or university. Yet, this would also be a classic case of falling victim to selection bias.

The vast majority of students at private schools (especially nonparochial ones) come from relatively affluent, educated families. To compare this set of students — and all of their inherent advantages and support networks — to the general population would be absurd. In other words, the fact that double the number of private school students go on to complete college degrees has more to do with who attends private school than what the private school is actually doing for the child’s college prospects.

While public schools vary in quality, a large number of suburban public high schools offer many of the same amenities a private school offers, as well as a lineup of strongly credentialed, dedicated instructors (i.e., Green Hope High School in Cary or Myers Park High School in Charlotte). Opportunities abound for the motivated and talented students who attend public schools. AP courses are typically plentiful and public schools often offer more opportunities for international baccalaureate and dual-enrollment courses.

Students may also gain an edge by being a big fish in a small pond or, if you prefer a less overused analogy, a gargantuan begonia in a miniature greenhouse. A 2005 Sociology of Education study called “The Frog Pond Revisited: High School Academic Context, Class Rank and Elite College Admission,” suggests that when you control for scholastic ability, attending a school surrounded by fellow academic superstars actually has a negative effect on your admissions chances at an elite college. In other words, a student with a 1300 SAT score at a public high school where the average SAT score is 1000 will have an admissions edge over an equal student at a private school where 1300 is the average SAT score.

How to Decide What’s Best for Your Student

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone in the world. Some teens may benefit from being around a private school group of peers who are almost universally serious about academics. Others will have no trouble thriving academically in a public school environment where not every student may be quite as focused.

If your teen is unmotivated and floundering at a public school, a private high school may be the right choice for your family. If your teen is a self-starter possessing a reasonable level of maturity, public school might be the perfect place for your child to stand out and excel.

The Bottom Line

Remember, colleges admit high school students, not high schools. The “who you know” intangibles of the elite private school experience undoubtedly exist but are tough to quantify. However, if your child is a student who can finish at the top of his or her public school class while securing the support needed to navigate the college admissions process, then he or she may be better off as a giant gerbil in a pint-sized Habitrail. 

Sources for university admissions-related statistics mentioned in this report include “Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges 2015,” The Harvard Crimson, Princeton University Office of Undergraduate Admission, Vanderbilt University Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Caltech News.


Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at collegetransitions.com.

 

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