Preparing for College

Private vs. Public High School for Our Son?

Question: Our son is in a K-8 private school. We are now in the process of selecting a high school. The local public high school is rated as excellent by the state. Will he get added value in learning in a private high school versus a very good public high school, and how will our choice affect his college plans?

College admission officials evaluate their applicants in the context of where they attended high school, but that's not to say that one route is better than the next. There are some very fine public high schools and there are some mediocre (and sometimes even awful) private ones. At the top colleges, admission officials are looking for candidates who have taken advantage of the most challenging classes available to them, but they certainly don't penalize those who haven't had the same opportunities as more well-heeled peers. So you should aim to send your son to the high school where he will be both happy (as much as you can predict teenage happiness!) and academically challenged.

Some private school guidance counselors do have "insider" connections with admission officers at elite colleges, but that can be true at public schools as well. If you are deciding between two high schools, ask guidance staff at each for a list of the colleges where recent grads have been admitted. If one school name appears over and over, chances are good that this high school has a strong rapport with the college. You can even feel free to ask about that, too. However, it's a common misconception that private school students fare better at college-admission time than their public school peers. Colleges are eager to enroll diverse freshmen classes and shy away from admitting too many "preppies." In addition, I've observed that at some of the more competitive colleges, there's a subtle preference for applicants who've not had everything handed to them, so public school grads edge out private school kids in that respect.

For me, class size is always a key concern. While one tends to assume that classes are smaller in private high schools, that's not always the case. Also, because private schools are typically smaller than their public counterparts, students may have more difficulty scheduling the classes they prefer because each subject may only be offered in one time slot and not in several, as they are in many public schools.

Geography may play a role in your decision, too. Is either school within walking distance? How easy--or difficult--will it be for your son to visit his classmates at their homes? How much does this matter?

How about extracurriculars ... does one school offer certain sports or arts programs that the other doesn't provide? If so, is this important?

Bottom line: when choosing a high school for your child, there are pros and cons to selecting both private and public schools, and it's important to look at whether a particular school is right for your child by considering many factors but, perhaps, going with your "gut" for the final call.