Private versus Public: Which type of education is best for you?
Whether you’re looking at going to a public school or a private school or you have school-age kids, it’s important to do your homework before pursuing an educational path that could benefit—or curse you—for the rest of your life. According to the Council for American Private Education, more than 33,000 schools (K-12) in the United States are private and account for 25% of all the schools in the nation. The widespread assumption about preliminary and high school education is that public schools are mediocre, underfunded and for the kids who can’t afford to go to private schools. These students will have to “suffer” the perceived average or below-average teaching that city funding will allow. Private schools, on the other hand, are automatically recognized as gentrified, higher-level institutions where wealthy students are shuttled through their courses and guaranteed spots at Ivy League schools with CEO jobs awaiting them upon graduation.
Screeechhh. Hold on. I’m here to tell you what’s real.
When I was in high school, my first, third and fourth years were in public school and they were the best experiences of my life. Kids were accepting of my mixed-race background; it wasn’t even an issue. I know, I know, you’re probably asking “Why should it be?” I’m getting to that.
In my sophomore year, my parents moved to a different state—a much larger state—with 12 million people in its main city. My parents thought it was safest for me to go to a private Catholic high school. They assumed that because it was private and religious-based, I would be safe from the harm that they feared I’d face in a regular public high school. Uh, no. What I was met with at this expensive private school was rampant cheating, drug, and alcohol abuse. The JV quarterback traded pot from a Ziploc bag stuck in his jeans with our hippie art teacher so he’d get a passing grade. Girls in their thigh-high black watch plaid uniform skirts were chomping on uppers to stay skinny and awake. Now I’m not saying that every private school suffers these problems, but they certainly exist. Don’t let the fancy halls and kids in uniform fool you. I left after one year to return to a public high school, where I keep in touch with the friends I made all these years later. One of them introduced me to my husband.
College was a mixed bag, too. The first two years were awesome – I attended a local junior college to save money for university. People were friendly and ranged in ages between 18 and 80. It was an open, happy, healthy campus and fostered a great atmosphere where you could really take as much time as you needed to learn. But then came time for me to transfer to a four-year university. My parents were older and kind of ailing and I was an only child with no other family around. I picked a private, religious, liberal arts college just two miles from our house.
It would haunt me for the rest of my life.
The college counselor had me believing this expensive, “dry,” private, 2,500-head campus was the baby sister to prestigious—and also private—Pepperdine University. My parents and I were truly impressed. But what I found once I started classes was that this college was crawling with exchange students who’d never been to the U.S. before and the entire campus—or at least it seemed that way—were drunken, bed-hopping, class-ditching miscreants for whom university was basically just one long spring break. In spite of the debauchery that surrounded me, which would make you think that everything was hippie-happy in Kibbutz-land, I was discriminated against because (1) I was not the religion the school was founded upon, (2) I did not live on campus, and (3) I was not a blue-eyed blonde. There. I said it. Only after I graduated did I realize the true negative underbelly of attending there. A few years into my career, I was promoted into management. The CEO’s secretary took me into his office for an introduction. She looked at my resume and made a face in the nanosecond before she unsuccessfully tried to hide it. “You went there for your degree?” She tried to smile. “Are you…religious?” Yes, I did and no, I’m not.
She sighed with relief. I never asked her why. But it shocked me into realizing that private doesn’t ever guarantee a smooth career path and can, in some cases, work against you. It could be your boss went to a rival school or a peer’s ex-wife was Lutheran or Catholic or Portuguese or has a nose piercing that somehow ties into your alma mater and you become hated by association. You’ll probably never know.
So, if you’re still wondering how to see if a school’s right for you, ask around. Don’t go to the counselors. They’re body counters. They’re employed by the school and they’re waiting to retire. Audit a couple of classes if you can. Tell some students you’re interviewing them for a research project. Do whatever you legally can do to find out what’s really happening on campus and why students love or hate their school. Then figure out what resonates with you. Is art your life? Can you not live without music? Literature? Math? Science? Then find the schools that support your interests and keep an open mind. And most of all, don’t judge! Public schools don’t automatically mean the students are underprivileged and missing a few brain cells, just as private schools certainly do not guarantee you’ll have a smooth path in life. Do your homework and do what’s right for you.
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