A few years ago, my husband and I watched a documentary called Nursery University. At the time, our oldest was an infant. We laughed at the idea that parents would obsess over private school admissions for children as young as three.
But if the creators of Nursery University could see us, they’d be the ones laughing now.
Choosing a school for your child can be overwhelming. As we live just outside NYC, the best schools are hyper competitive. But does an elite private school really give your child an advantage?
Many kids go to public school – 50.7 million children, to be exact. But 5.9 million choose private schools for their child’s education. Let’s find out if those 5.9 million children are better off than their public school peers.
Reasons families consider private education
Years ago when we watched Nursery University, we laughed because we thought that we’d be homeowners in a great school district by the time our kids were old enough for school. Fast forward half a decade, and although we’re making plans to try to buy a house in a good school district, the reality is we’re not sure we can make it happen by the time school starts this year.
The district we currently live in is great. But we’re renting, and we desperately want to buy a home where we won’t face annual increases in rent and the constant nag of “will we be here next year?” In short, we’re ready to get rooted and settle down in a home.
So, as we house hunt, we’re considering what we’ll be able to afford. And many of the homes we could potentially afford are in school districts that are less than desirable.
Our primary motivator in considering private education is because the public school district option may not be up to snuff. But that’s not the only reason parents choose private education over public education.
Why parents send their kids to private school
Other reasons parents say they consider private school include:
- Smaller classrooms
- Religious affiliation
- Peer environment
- Graduation rates
- Flexible attendance policies
But is that really the honest reason parents choose elite schools?
Why most students go to public school
The most obvious reason is cost. Public schools allow all children who live within the district to attend, with tuition being covered by taxes. On average, federal, state and local governments spend over $10k per child on education. Depending on where you live and how many kids you have, public school may give you a real bang for your buck.
In high cost of living areas, the taxes you pay to live in a great school district may exceed $10k per year.
So while the default is to send your child to public school because it’s “free,” many conscientious parents make calculated decisions about public school. They consider the district and taxes before purchasing a home and effectively choose what school their child will attend.
What the research says about private education
The research is interesting.
…in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment.Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study, Pianta and Ansari
From an educational standpoint, it seems like there is no true learning advantage. However, as bad as it sounds, the curriculum is not often why parents choose to send their children to private schools.
The reason many parents choose private schools is socioeconomic. Parents want to send their child to a school with equally or more elite peers.
Peer influence, or peer pressure, is very powerful. And if that influence is positive, it can create better outcomes for an individual.
The peer environment
It’s something we all seem to know.
The “who you know” intangibles of the elite private school experience undoubtedly exist but are tough to quantify.Is there a private school advantage in college admissions?
Private school gives children and their families unique access to influence and information.
Want your child to attend an elite university? Chances are, one of the private school parents is an alumni and can help get your kid in the door.
Looking for your kid to land a great internship during college? Again, the peer group will come in handy here. Those families who became close through the elementary and high school years remain in touch. And opportunities that are otherwise hard to come by open up based on who you know.
But it’s more than that. At many private schools, the almost all students move on from high school to a four-year college. Compare this to the 69.7% of public school graduates who pursue higher education, and you’ll get a sense of how the peer environment is different.
Private school students prioritize education now and later
Although college may not be right for everyone, students at private schools are goal-oriented and career-focused. Almost all private school graduates go on to a four-year college. (Yup, 95% of private school graduates are attend college.)
And throughout their time in school, they’ve developed a love of learning. Even public school teachers admire private school setups, with many public school teachers sending their children to private schools.
Children in private schools are motivated not just by the curriculum but by a peer environment that is pro-education. In public schools, kids in honors and AP classes often report similar environments.
Private vs. Public School Considerations
What if something happens and you can no longer afford private school?
Let’s say you choose to buy a home in an area with a bad school district. You plan to send your kid to private school, so you’re ok with the bad school district because you have the extra cash from lower taxes.
Then, something unexpected happens. You, your spouse, or both of you lose your jobs. You’re no longer able to afford private education. And now your privileged, sheltered child needs to rapidly adjust to “the real world.”
Your child will have to quickly adapt to a new environment. And they’ll have to do it under the pressure of a strained home environment.
Religious affiliations (and scandals)
Some families choose to send their children to private schools for religious reasons. This is a personal choice.
Of course, there are things to keep in mind about the religious schools you choose. It’s no secret that Catholic schools have been shutting their doors due to scandal. This could happen at a non-religious private school, too. But it is something to consider when the likelihood of scandal may be higher for certain schools.
Not up to the hype
What happens when you send your child to private school, and it’s not what they promised? What if your child isn’t getting the best education for your money, and is then ill-prepared for much more competitive educational environments? How about the negative socioeconomic considerations? Like when your child is the only average kid in a school full of trust fund babies?
When you send your child to a private school, you may be forfeiting some benefits of a public school. For example, at private school, kids come from all over. There’s more of an urgency to travel home after school has ended. There may be less after school activities and low extracurricular participation.
If your child wants to play sports, there may be a disadvantage, too. Sports like baseball are often run by towns until high school. Your kid might grow up playing sports with the local kids, then suddenly lose their home team as they move on to high school sports. Whereas a local kid playing for the town’s league will go on to play with the same kids in public school.
While some private schools ofter bus options, many schools require children to have their own forms of transportation. Consider the commute between your home and your child’s prospective private school. You could be making quite the drive each day. And if you have work obligations, it can become a major source of stress and work to arrange your child’s ride to school each day.
Bottom line: What’s better for your child?
Private vs. public school research has been frustrating for us. Why? Because there’s limited data to show that the investment you make in private education is worth the cost.
It seems to boil down to whether you have means or don’t have means. If you live in a high cost-of-living area, you may find that determining your socioeconomic status is not quite so easy. If the school district you live in is not up to your standards, it no longer feels like a choice between public and private school. Private school begins to feel like a necessity. But if you live in a great school district, there may be nuanced reasons to consider private education.
Ultimately, the decision to go with public or private education is a very personal one.
What factors did you consider when making the choice for your child?