Decision Points: Public or Private High School?

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Deciding whether to send your children to private or public school, especially when they reach high school age, can be difficult. Here are some benefits and drawbacks to both institutions.

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Private School Pros

Students attending private schools may have closer relationships with their teachers and guidance counselors than those in public schools, claims Craig Meister, the president of Tactical College Consulting.

"[This] results in far stronger and more personalized recommendations written on behalf of private school students than on behalf of public school students, who often barely know their counselors and are one of many students to their teachers," he says.

Meister admits this is not the case in all public schools, but says he has found that many private schools favor writing assignments over other forms of assessments, giving their students more writing practice.

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Meister, who is a former admissions officer, says he was shocked at how many students score high on the SAT or ACT, yet are nearly incapable of crafting a thesis in college application essays.

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Private School Cons

Private high schools can be pricey and set you back tens of thousands of dollars in tuition before a child even approaches college. According to the Council For American Private Education (CAPE), the average tuition for private secondary schools for the 2007-08 academic year was about $10,500. However, the average tuition for non-sectarian private secondary school was just above $27,300.

Because they tend to be more academically rigorous, private high schools may wear down students.

"Not only do students apply and compete to be accepted at private schools - which can be as difficult as getting into many colleges - but once there, you are surrounded by many other bright, driven students who are all competing to be 'the best,'" says Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, a college admissions counselor based in La Jolla, Calif., and the founder of adMISSION POSSIBLE.

According to Shaevitz, the small size of many private schools may also make students feel that it is harder to gain social acceptance.

"It is easy to feel like you don't fit in to a narrower definition of what makes someone successful and/or accepted," she says. "Sometimes this perception is something that a student perceives internally or something that the school and/or its students perpetuate by their attitudes and behaviors."

Public School Pros

The price tag is an obvious advantage of public schools, but experts say the perks extend beyond finances. 

Shaevitz says that public schools have greater student body diversity. "Greater diversity among the student body lends itself to the notion that public schools are more of a 'real world' setting than private schools," she says. "As a result, your child may be better prepared to deal with a diverse student body at college and afterwards in the job arena."

Public high schools may also offer more expansive classes and extracurricular activities compared to smaller or specialized private schools. "This advantage bleeds over to when they are adults who have learned and grown from high school experience that included a breadth of different experiences and learning opportunities," Shaevitz says.

Public School Cons

Meister says that he has found that many public high schools, generally speaking, are not adequately preparing their students to write the kinds of essays that will help them get accepted at competitive institutions of higher learning.

"While many students have earned high grades in challenging classes and earned great SAT and/or ACT scores, most of these students' persuasive essay-writing skills lag far behind their academic and standardized test achievements," he says.

Then there is the social piece that is so important in high school.

"Private schools tend to be more competitive, academically-rigorous environments where it is often considered 'cool to be smart,'" Shaevitz says. "Being smart may not be thought of as cool at less academically oriented public schools."