Prior to the 1920s, attendance at 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% of Harvard students hail from a public high school. This number is lower at some other highly-selective colleges (Wesleyan is just 48%, Princeton is 60%) and higher in others (66% at Vanderbilt and Caltech). 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

Let’s begin by acknowledging that 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% of their time on college-related counseling while their private school counterparts spend a far healthier 55%. Moreover, three-quarters of private high schools employ a counselor who is solely dedicated to matters of college admissions, something very few public schools are able to offer. Private school students are also more likely to be completely surrounded by highly motivated, college-bound peers which research suggests raises expectations and performance. Roughly 95% of non-parochial private high school grads go on to four-year postsecondary institutions compared with 49% of public school grads. And it’s also worth keeping in mind that only 10% of children in the U.S. attend private school, yet make up a disproportionately high percentage of accepted students at elite colleges (see opening paragraph).

Academic powerhouses such as Harvard-Westlake which services Hollywood’s elite, or the Trinity School in New York City which caters to the children of Wall Street, still serve, as prep schools did back in the day, as direct pipelines to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT. While some look at the close relationship between premier magnet 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 than spending four years at Groton or another Hogwartz-esque boarding school.

The argument for public school

Taking into account the staggering number of private high school grads that attend selective colleges, it would be easy to conclude that going to a public school will be detrimental to your admissions chances. Yet, this would be a classic case of falling victim to selection bias. The vast majority of students at private schools (especially non-parochial ones) come from relatively affluent, educated families. To compare this set of students, with all of their inherent advantages and support networks to the general population would be absurd. In other words, the fact that 95% of prep school grads are college-bound compared to only 49% of public school grads has more to do with who attends private school than what the private school is actually doing for the child’s college prospects.

Of course, public schools vary greatly in quality. The dilapidated state of too many urban and rural schools in the United States is a well-chronicled tragedy. Yet a large number of suburban public high schools offer many of the amenities of a private school 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 attending public schools. AP courses are typically plentiful and public schools actually offer more opportunities for International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual-enrollment courses.

You 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. Studies have shown 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 at a public high school where the average SAT is 1000 will have an admissions edge over an equal student at a private school where 1300 is the average SAT score.

How do I decide which is best for my kid?

As parents, you know your kids better than anyone in the world. Some teens may benefit from being around a private school peer-group 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 them to stand out and excel.

College Transitions 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 you are a student who can finish at the top of your public school class while securing the support needed to navigate the college admissions process, then you may be better off as a giant gerbil in a pint-sized Habitrail.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).