Public or Private?

Choosing the best school for your student

Back in the olden days (as my father used to say), when I was approaching high school, people who went to private schools were the rich, the elite.

The rest of us who were college-bound, even the most academically talented among us, made the most of whatever public school there was, beefed up our yearbook entries with a bunch of clubs and activities, took the SATs on the day they were given (having given them little thought beforehand) and applied to whatever colleges were within our financial and academic capabilities. We may have been mildly concerned in high school about blots on our “permanent record,” and we may have been interested in being in the college-bound academic track, but we didn’t labor under the assumption that anything below an A+ was a threat to our futures.

Now, however, many private schools understand the value to their school of including talented students, whatever their financial roots, and the value to their students of classrooms that are economically diverse. They offer full and partial scholarships to those who might not otherwise be able to swing the full tuition or focus on endowments that allow them to make tuition more affordable for all students.

At the same time, many public schools are struggling with large classrooms, violence, drugs, bullying and maintaining an experienced and dedicated teaching staff. During this shift, the competition between students has accelerated geometrically, with SAT prep courses, summers filled with academic enrichment, extensive volunteer résumés, and a 4.0 GPA little more than a starting point.

As a result of the increasing competition, the accessibility of private schools and the newsworthy challenges of public schools, many parents are considering private school for the first time, especially for their children who are college bound.

Like public schools, the quality of private schools varies widely, and deciding whether to choose a private school for college prep depends entirely on the public and private schools that are available and on the goals and personality of the student.

However, whether your college-bound student will do better in a private school than in a public school has little to do with the performance of students as a whole. The idea is for your student to be in the place where he or she can get the best possible preparation for college. Setting aside cost considerations, how can you determine whether a public school or a private school is best for your college-bound student?

The answer lies not only in what course work and facilities the school offers, but in the environment in which your student is likely to excel. The size of the school and class size, as well as its safety and disciplinary environment, academic focus and assistance, extracurricular opportunities and facilities can make a big difference — and what’s best for one student may not be what’s best for another.

If you’re tending toward choosing a private school, remember that the quality and focus of these schools vary widely, and it will be important to choose the one that best suits your student’s academic needs and personality to help ensure he or she gets into the right college. Private schools’ objectives and offerings also vary widely.


The average private secondary school has just under 300 students. The average pupil/teacher ratio in private schools is about 14:1. A smaller teacher/pupil ratio may mean more teachers are involved in curriculum planning and special programs, both of which can be an advantage to your student. A little over a third of private schools have a pupil/teacher ratio less than 10:1, while only about 10 percent of public schools do.

Smaller class sizes mean more attention from the teacher and less opportunity for your student to fall unnoticed through the cracks. Smaller classes can also provide more motivation for your student if he or she excels or tends to do only the minimum to get by; attention from the teacher can encourage your student to stretch.


Many parents choose private schools over public schools because of their public school’s problems with violence, drugs, bullying and classroom disruption. Students in private schools are generally there because they want to be, and they can be asked to leave if they create too much disruption. Not so in public schools, where the schools have a legal obligation to provide an education to all comers and must retain students who add little more to the academic environment than distraction.

Of course, not all public schools have these problems, but if the public school available to you has difficulties in this area and your student is either fearful or prone to “hang with the wrong crowd,” a private school may offer a more productive environment for college preparation. In private schools, it’s often cool to be smart.

Many private schools require parents to sign a contract agreeing to their disciplinary procedures. While public schools have codes of conduct, discipline in public schools can often be more lenient and more difficult to carry out because of state-mandated processes related to students’ rights.


While a determined student can do well in either a public or a private school, if your student knows the area in which he or she is interested – whether math or science, liberal arts or social sciences, or the arts – you have an opportunity to choose a school that has specialized programs and advanced placement (AP) courses in that area.

Students in smaller private schools are apt to work harder, to stretch themselves, because private schools tend to assign more and harder homework and more challenging projects. Smaller private schools may specialize in a handful of areas, creating an enriched curriculum that is particularly good for college prep, and hire specialist teachers with unique qualifications for teaching in that field. Private schools also tend to offer more field trips and hands-on experiences, which add to the depth of study.

Private schools may also have more demanding graduation requirements than public schools do, requiring more course work in the solid subjects: social studies, mathematics, English and science, as well as foreign languages. For example, on average, private schools require 3.1 years of mathematics, compared to public schools’ requirement of 2.7 years. Private schools also tend to expect more from their students in terms of community service and volunteerism, with about 40 percent of private schools requiring participation in community service for graduation, compared to only about 10 percent for public schools.

Private schools may limit the number of AP courses available to the areas in which they specialize. Most colleges will give preference to students with decent grades in harder classes over those with excellent grades in easier classes.


Some academically talented students have special needs that must be met so they can achieve their potential. If you feel your student will perform better in a single-sex, military or boarding situation, a private school is likely your best option. There are private schools geared to students with special needs, such as deafness or learning disabilities.


Not all college-bound students are looking for advanced academic opportunities alone; some are focused on winning admission or scholarships based on athletic, artistic or other talents and on pursuing those talents through college and into their professional lives. Even those who are focused on excelling academically understand the importance of a well-rounded college application that includes other kinds of accomplishment. There is an old saying that every successful person should be able to play an instrument, speak a second language and excel in a hobby, and many colleges recognize this wisdom.

For successful college preparation, then, part of your decision in selecting a school should include the availability of the kinds of extracurricular activities and clubs in which your student is particularly interested, whether it’s playing football or chess, writing for the school paper, performing in theater productions or playing the bassoon. Small private schools are likely to give him or her a greater opportunity to participate fully than might be available in a larger school where there’s lots of competition.


In addition to course work, college-bound students need access to the facilities that will give them in-depth experiences in their areas of interest, whether they be labs, libraries, media centers, technology or specially qualified teachers. One particular “facility” that is often overlooked is the availability of counselors who can help students not only make decisions about what classes to take but also help them narrow their choices of colleges and find scholarships.

While the concept of finding the right fit for your child means you shouldn’t look too closely at generalized statistics about the school, if you have a particular college or university in mind, you should look at the percentage of graduates from the school you’re considering who applied to that school and were accepted. You can also reverse the process and ask the college how many applicants from the school you’re considering — public or private — were accepted.

High school can be either an enjoyable and enlightening passage from childhood to adulthood and a springboard to college and success, or a depressing and even fearful slog through requirements until that long-awaited day of release. Today’s parents have more choices than ever before in making sure that high school offers their college-bound students the opportunities that fit their goals and personalities, not only to excel and get into the college of their choice, but also to shine and grow.