Public or Private High School: Does It Matter for College?
In affluent Washington area neighborhoods where the public schools suffer from mixed reputations (or worse), parents endlessly debate not only whether public or private education is best for their kids, but which path would lead to the precious puppies attending a top university.
While most such driven parents merely talk about this, Leonard Jewler of the District decided to do some genuine research. A healthcare analyst, he focused on the D.C. public school his own child attended, Lafayette Elementary in the Chevy Chase section of the city. Taking advantage of a survey taken for a reunion of the school's class of 2000 that was held last spring, Jewler crunched the numbers and found that the Lafayette class divided rather neatly into thirds--one third went on to public high school (mainly Wilson High in Tenleytown), one third to independent schools in the District, and one third's path was not known.
An imperfect universe for a study, but nonetheless interesting. So, the results:
Using the always-controversial U.S. News college rankings, Jewler mapped the Lafayette kids' high school decisions against the colleges they eventually went to.
The list of colleges the Lafayette kids ended up at is no surprise: It's a list of some of the finest schools in the nation, reflecting both the high-achieving nature of many upper Northwest D.C. families and the economics of the neighborhood. And when you bore down into the list, you see almost no meaningful distinctions between the public and private school kids. The kids who ended up at Smith, Bryn Mawr, Oberlin and Kenyon were all public school kids; the ones who went to Williams, Bowdoin and Sarah Lawrence were all private school kids. Same deal.
The pool is way too small to make any statistically valid conclusions, but the kids who went to the top state universities--places such as Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia--seemed just as likely to be graduates of public high school as private high school. Turn to the top-ranked private universities and the survey reaches the same conclusion: An equal number of Lafayette kids who went to public high school and Lafayette kids who chose private high school ended up at universities in the top 10 percent on the U.S. News list--Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Georgetown among them.
"There is no significant difference in rankings of colleges where students were admitted based on public versus private high school attendance," Jewler concludes.
Jewler found an interesting difference in the high school choices families made: Boys were much more likely to stay in the D.C. public system, while girls tended to go to private school after elementary school--a reflection, perhaps, of the social difficulties and perceived dangers of D.C. public middle and high schools. (Though it's also interesting to note that the city's private schools have no trouble maintaining a balance between boys and girls--are more private school boys therefore coming from suburban jurisdictions?)
But the bottom line--which matches the anecdotal truths that parents bandy about--is that where you go to high school, at least given the choices available to Northwest Washington families, has little or no bearing on where you get into college. Which may help free some of the area's more college-obsessive parents to put more energy and attention into what actually does matter: Where their kids are most likely to fall in love with learning and enjoy a thriving and challenging adolescence. That study wouldn't be quite as easy to do, but it would be a lot of fun to put together and then watch the parents argue about the results.
By Marc Fisher |
March 30, 2007; 8:19 AM ET
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