As the college admissions game gets more competitive every year, what s a parent to do to help their child get into the school of his choice? You could try cutting back on your kid s TV time or trips to the mall or you could make a more drastic move, like transferring him from a public school to a private school. If you opt for the latter, you ll be a part of an increasing trend over 561,000 students were enrolled in K 12 schools affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools in 2006, up from about 485,000 in 2001.
But just because private schools are becoming more popular, it doesn t mean they ve become more selective. While most screen out applicants who can t hack the work, for example, the current economy has led a handful of the more desperate institutions to accept just about any student who can fork over the tuition. The result: Your fast-track child may get slowed down by a bunch of academic laggards.
Or you may run into a situation like that of a Colorado couple who were thrilled when a boarding school for mainstream students in Pennsylvania accepted their daughter despite her history of emotional instability. Two weeks into the school year, the school had second thoughts. She was asked to leave, and the school wouldn t refund the $30,000 tuition, says Diane Arnold, a Lafayette, Colo., education consultant who helped the parents place their daughter. It was a very nasty situation.
2. So we have money problems. What start-up doesn t?
If you re thinking of sending your child to a private school that s been open only a couple of years, be careful. They re often fairly dicey, says Gordon Bingham, former executive director of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. Parents should check out the head of school and see if they have experience and standing in the community.
Even the best new schools lack cushy endowments to help them survive the lean times. After being open just three years, Solon Academy in Houston enjoyed a loyal base of parents and a growing enrollment, but was forced to close for financial reasons. The surprised parents managed to save the school in 2003 by forming their own board and raising money to keep the institution from going under until the next round of tuition checks came in. Even still, the school has since shut its doors for good.
Before enrolling your child in a new school, do your homework: Check to see how its expenses compare with its revenue; see if the board is composed of competent business leaders; and find out if it s supported by donations, since few schools can survive on tuition alone.
So your kid got into a tony private school that means she s a shoo-in for Harvard or Stanford, right? Not necessarily. A lot can depend on the quality of guidance students get from the school s college counseling staff. I ve seen some pretty inexperienced counselors who just didn t know what they were doing, says Christopher Covert, a Carefree, Ariz., educational consultant. Consider the guidance counselor at a top private school in Washington State who was squeezing in college counseling between teaching history classes and coaching athletics. The distractions nearly cost one student acceptance at his favorite school the counselor wasn t familiar with the student and discouraged him from applying to competitive colleges. Fortunately, the student ignored the advice and was accepted at the school of his choice, Carnegie Mellon. When it came time for college applications, the school dropped the ball, says the student s father.
Sure, there are plenty of good school counselors out there too. But don t assume that exceptional college counseling at private schools comes with the price of tuition. In choosing a private school, ask about the counselors credentials. They should have at least five years experience and spend time visiting college campuses at least 25 schools a year, Covert says. And beware of counselors who discourage students from applying to reach colleges, those that may be out of the student s range. Some high schools don t want a student to reach simply because they want to advertise that 100 percent of their students got into their first-choice college, says one education consultant based in Louisiana.
4. Sure, we ve had students get into Yale just not lately.
Indeed, many private schools make college placement a pillar of their marketing campaign. Their brochures feature a long list of the prestigious schools at which their grads have been accepted. But don t be dazzled by a laundry list of top-tier institutions. To get a more realistic picture, ask for names of colleges where graduates have actually enrolled within the past three years.
If the main reason you re sending your kid to private school is to better his chances of getting into an elite university, you should know that while many selective colleges do admit private school students at higher rates than their public school counterparts, the gap isn t all that wide. At Duke University, for instance, 25 percent of private school applicants are accepted, versus 23 percent of public school applicants. And the reason for higher admissions of private school students isn t always based on their academic chops. Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, says that private school students are likely to be accepted at a slightly higher rate not because they went to better schools academically speaking, but because, on average, they have more environmental advantages than public school students. It s more of an economic factor than an education factor, Guttentag says.
5. Our bullies are as bad as at any public school.
Bullying and verbal teasing have plagued schools since the world s first day of class. But at some boarding schools in particular, rigid social hierarchies can develop that are devastating for those at the bottom of the pecking order. There are more kids from broken homes with emotional vulnerability attending boarding schools these days, and that vulnerability can be a red flag for other students to start harassing them, says Marcia Brown Rubinstien, a West Hartford, Conn., educational consultant who helps families with boarding school and college placements.
One 15-year-old had to transfer out of a pricey New England boarding school after he became the object of endless cruel jokes in the dorm showers his classmates would pelt him with soap and steal his clothes on a nightly basis. Even the resident assistant was laughing at him, says Rubinstien, who helped his parents find a new school after the administration ignored requests to keep an eye on the troubled student.
If your child is acutely sensitive to social slights or typically winds up in the role of outcast, he might do better at a smaller boarding school with a nurturing environment ideally, one that folds lessons on peer respect into the curriculum. To get the real scoop on a given school s social personality, don t rely on the official student guides offered up at your campus visit chat with as many students as possible.
6. You might want to double-check our credentials.
The International Learning Academy, a private high school based in Naples, Fla., once boasted that it was fully accredited by the National Private Schools Accreditation Alliance and the Board of Private Education. Sounds impressive, right? Well, as it turned out, the latter accreditor s then commissioner and current president, Valaree Maxwell, also owned the school. Maxwell says she bought the accrediting association only as a favor to its previous owner and that her school was already accredited at the time of purchase. It s a totally separate business entity, Maxwell says of the association.
In some states, private schools aren t government regulated, but private accrediting associations ensure that schools meet basic standards and live up to their marketing promises. But how can you identify a reputable accreditor? The nation s six major regional accrediting associations are a safe bet: Most schools affiliated with five of these associations are listed at www.accreditedschools.org, while those in New England are listed at www.neasc.org. Also, many nonreligious schools are accredited by associations affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools.
One of the most common reasons schools lose their accreditation is board-of-director shenanigans, such as backdoor deals in which major donors receive favors a construction contract, for example, or special treatment for a student. Peter Sturtevant, formerly the head of a private school in Maryland who is now a Washington, D.C., education consultant, cautions against schools whose board has too much power over day-to-day affairs. If the board gets into micromanaging whom to admit and whom to expel, what teachers to hire and to fire, you ve got a problem, Sturtevant says. You need educators at the center of the decision-making, not the board. How to tell whether a board of directors yields too much power? There are a couple of warning signs, says Sturtevant: high turnover for the head of school position; schools that operate like a business, putting too much emphasis on appearances and fund-raising rather than education; and boards made up mostly of parents, who tend to be too subjective.
But the interference can go both ways: Boards can get pushed as much as they push. In the fall of 2002, Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill admitted that he had talked to a board director at Manhattan s 92nd Street Y about accepting analyst Jack Grubman s kids into its private preschool right around the time that his company was making a million-dollar donation to the institution. The school later said donations do not influence its admissions; still, sometimes the wealthiest have more influence over the school than they should, says Mark Elgart, CEO of the Council on Accreditation and School Improvement for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
8. Sometimes our tough love methods are a little too tough.
When Karen Burnett, a Shepherdsville, Ky., homemaker, discovered that her son Nathan was taking drugs, she paid nearly $20,000 to send him to the Academy at the Dundee Ranch, a private boarding school in Costa Rica affiliated with WWASPS, the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. I thought it was a normal school with a behavior-modification program, Burnett says. What I got instead was a program that used brutality and neglect to break the kids down. According to Burnett, the school employed food deprivation, solitary confinement, and physical restraints to punish students. When she pulled her son out four months into the year, Nathan had dropped almost 25 pounds from his 148-pound frame.
Dundee closed its doors following a 2003 investigation of human-rights violations conducted by PANI, Costa Rica s child welfare agency. But WWASPS continues to service boarding schools, through its Cross Creek programs in Utah. WWASPS s president, Ken Kay, says that parents are made aware of school methods before they enroll their children. We have 98 percent customer satisfaction, he adds. But some children lie and manipulate the truth, and their parents buy into this. Loi Eberle, an educational consultant in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, says, There are some programs that use physical discipline including a number that have lawsuits filed against them. It s important for parents to find out in advance how a school deals with misbehavior.
9. Our extracurriculars aren t exactly extraordinary.
All too often parents assume that when a school hosts a large number of clubs and teams, their kid is almost guaranteed a leadership spot that will beef up her college application. But before you get mesmerized by a school s frills, take a closer look. Boston education consultant Michael Spence contends, for example, that some boarding schools offering a postgraduate year for students use it primarily to pump up their athletic programs. The schools will admit top athletes looking for a little seasoning before heading off to college and those recruits could ace your kid out of his spot on a team, says Spence. In one of the more outrageous examples, in 2002 Florida s Heritage Christian Academy was reportedly recruiting and paying the tuition for a number of foreign students in an effort to improve its soccer team, a violation of Florida High School Athletic Association rules. A spokesperson for the school acknowledged the situation, saying they planned to rewrite the handbook to make sure events like that don t reoccur.
But even if a school offers a rich and accessible assortment of activities for its students, don t assume that participation will necessarily enhance your kid s chances of getting into a top college. We call that big fish, small pond syndrome, says Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College. There may be some truth that you can do more at private schools, [but] it is put in context.
10. That five-figure tuition check is just the tip of the iceberg.
It s no news that private schools are expensive. But the actual costs are sometimes much higher than you d budget for. Many schools saddle parents with burdensome expenses $500 for books, say, or $2,500 for a laptop then commence with the donation squeeze. At many schools there may be an inherent or unwritten understanding that parents are to donate to the school, says Houston educational consultant Lindy Kahn. Somewhere along the year you ll be asked as part of the fund-raising effort. To avoid nasty surprises, request an itemized list of fees and expenses before you enroll your child in a private school.
Another financial jab: rising tuition rates. The median annual tuition for a sixth-grade private school student reached $15,716 in 2007, compared with $12,318 in 2001, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Parents hit with an increase they can t afford should explain their situation to the school. When the school knows your student and wants to keep him, they ll look harder at giving you aid, says Cincinnati educational consultant Nancy Coulbourn Ike.