April 15, 2018

WANG | Public Versus Private

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Back when I was in high school, I was friends someone who was incredibly smart, gifted and a good friend. He managed to graduate at the top of of our class, and was a ferociously talented pianist. In all honesty, I thought he would get into every college he applied too.

The problem was, it didn’t matter what I thought. When college decisions came out, he didn’t get into Harvard. He didn’t get into Columbia. He did get into Yale, but it wasn’t his first choice.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to the great rest of us, but it stung a little bit for his parents. They had always heavily admired those college, and for him to not get into all of  them was a little disconcerting (Which shows you the oddly selective pressures parents can sometimes burden on their kids). But despite they all that, they felt they had another chance to “right the ship.” He had a sister who was moving up to high school, and so to ensure that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her, they decided she should move up to a better schooling system; namely, a private one.

In terms of secondary educational options, the distinction between the private school and the public one is well known. Where private schools often selectively admit students while charging higher tuition, but generally producing better test stores and a more “enriching” academic experience through a customized curriculum Meanwhile, public high schools are the cheaper options, but at the expense of larger class sizes and lower educational standards standardized curriculum that leaves a lot to be desired. And because of this selectivity and tuition, private schools only account for 10 percent of the student population from K-12. It’s an elite breed.

And so when it was for her to move up into high school, she applied and got into the famed private school Phillips Exeter Academy.

This was no small feat. Phillips Exeter Academy was established as a feeder school to Harvard University, and it’s famed for having multiple U.S. senators, business tycoons, and world famous leaders as alumni, including Mark Zuckerberg and Gore Vidal. It’s reputation as an outrageously expensive prep school ($46,905 annually) precedes itself: mention it here, and you’ll get an bubbling mix of jealousy, awe and slight disgust.

Click on Exeter’s website, and you might feel like you’re being courted by a prestigious university. There’s glossy pictures of the dorms and the food, of the expansive campus that wouldn’t seem out of place as a college, and the (slightly) forced smiles of the students. One of the things Exter likes to tout on their webpage is the “Exter Difference,” and clicking on those words leads you to a list of their values.

And here, on some levels, is what every private school does to justify its tuition. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a private school is its ability to create a customizable learning experience, free of bureaucratic regulations and oversight. Exeter, for instance, relies on a “Harkness” method that has students take control of classroom discussion by sitting around an oval table and collaborating on ideas and feedbacks. It’s a unique system: “Learning is different here,” the website gloats.

But that’s the gist. To justify a large enrollment fee, private schools such as Exeter have to thrive. They tout a high acceptance rate of their students into Ivy League schools (about 30 percent of their graduating class goes onto to study at the eight Ivies), and the generally higher test scores of their students. To be able to charge a luxury price, they have to provide a luxury service.

But it’s also important to consider there’s also self selecting bias here. Kids who are able to get into prestigious private prep schools are probably more intelligent and prepared than the average public kid school already; the fact this select group of student would do better on national standardized exams should be expected and acknowledged, not lauded and glorified.

Still, I don’t doubt the private school is concretely better than public schools, if you ignore the tuition differences for a moment. In private schools, the selectivity leads to lower enrollment, which means smaller classes and more breathing room, while a higher tuition and alumni endowment gives them a larger fund to draw them. Contrast that with public high schools, which can suffer from underfunding and overcrowded classrooms. Furthermore, the standards could be lower, and the budgetary and regulation limitations often left us with a substandard educational process. For instance, in my senior year of high school, the A.P. Macroeconomics teacher quit right before the school year, leaving the faculty board to scramble and assign our A.P. Government teacher to teach the subject, even though he had a grand total of 0 years of experience in teaching Macro. A lack of resources hamstrung the school board from hiring a replacement in time. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well!

Which isn’t to say it was a bad high school at all. It was a well respected school that provided a well rounded education. The graduation rate was above the state average at around 88 percent, and many of its sports and music teams won award both on the state and national level. It was a good school, but the gaps were there.

In the end, I think the student who goes to the private school will find their education to be a higher quality. At the same time, if getting into an Ivy League school is your end goal, it’s no guarantee of success. Prestige is useful only if you can take charge of your education, which is something I’ve learned during my time at Cornell. The greatest things I can say about a school like Cornell is that it introduces you to a lot of incredibly bright and motivated people, which I find is important as you begin to take steps to establishing your career. The worst thing I can say is that a person who doesn’t perform particularly well here will find that even the name of the college won’t save them. In the end, employers hire the students, not the universities, to do their jobs.

The same can be said for private schools. There’s no doubt it helps. I feel students who go to private schools can expect a greater degree of preparement as they ship off to college. Is it worth the money to go? I think that’s for the family to decide if it’s worth the investment, but perhaps more importantly, it’s up to the student to make it worthwhile.
William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.