Prior to the 1920s, attendance at a top-flight prep school was nothing less than a prerequisite for admission into an Ivy League college. Absurdly, a diploma from a blue-blood boarding school actually trumped academic superiority in the elitist admissions landscape of early 20th century America. Today, nearly 100 years later, 65% of Harvard students hail from a public high school. For a less Ivy-centric view, consider that fewer than 6% of college students in 2012 had attended private, non-religious high schools. 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 advantages to private schools. For example, counselors in public high schools report spending only 23% of their time on college-related counseling, while their private school counterparts spend a far healthier 53%. 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 post-secondary institutions compared with 49% of public school grads.
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. A staggering 5% (Yes, in this case 5% qualifies as staggering) of Harvard’s 2013 freshman class came from just seven high schools. Considering that there are over 30,000 public and private high schools in the country, that is a shockingly disproportionate number. 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 many offer an equal or even better chance at admission to an Ivy than spending four years at Groton wearing old-fashioned hats.
The argument for public school
Public Schools, of course, 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. 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.
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. 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.