If you have children, it goes without saying that you want the best for them. But providing the best for your children, doesn’t always mean spending the most money. Are things that cost more, better? Private school is expensive and feels even more so because public school is free. But when it comes to spending, we are continually prioritizing and making choices. We balance the needs and desires of today with our goals for the future. It’s no different with private school.
And when it comes to private school, cost may not be the only criteria. The environment, activities offered, even your child’s friends all may impact your decision about whether to send your kids to private school. Similar to health care spending, decisions about your child’s education often have an emotional element in addition to the factual elements.
If you have read much on this site, you probably realize that I am a big believer that education is the key to success. A strong education creates the most options for moving from one economic level to another. I have written an article discussing the correlation between more education and higher wages. And even though money doesn’t buy happiness, financial security certainly doesn’t hurt. I can’t say it enough, get as high a quality education as you can as early in life as you can.
Public School System
One of the great things about the United States is that it is a union of states. And in general, each state has discretion over the services provided within their borders. And while it’s true that over the past few years, the Federal government has injected more and more of its footprint into the state-run educational systems (“No Child Left Behind”, “Every Student Succeeds”, “Common Core”) according to the U.S. Department of Education, over 87% of funds for elementary and secondary schooling is provided by non-Federal sources.
While this is the American way, it does open the door to vast discrepancies in the public school systems between states and even within states. Wherever you live, you probably have some of the same problems – hiring challenges, overworked teachers, not enough funds, disagreements over standardized testing. The list can go on and on. Running a large public school system is difficult. There are a vast array of rules and regulations. And the constituents have greatly diverse backgrounds and goals.
Within the public school systems, there are also choices – charter schools, magnet schools, gifted programs. These programs can provide an education equal to or sometimes better than private schools in the area, usually at no cost.
Factors to Evaluate Private School Worth
Cost: This will vary from just a few thousand dollars to upwards of $40,000 or more. Boarding schools will be even more expensive. Something to consider is spending more on private school rather than saving for college. Graduates of private schools often qualify for significant scholarships and grants (see below). Additionally, there are more options available for funding college than private elementary and secondary school.
Financial aid: Again, schools will vary in the amount of financial aid available for students. Even if you feel you make too much money to qualify, I would recommend applying for financial aid. It’s not unreasonable that a household of four making $100,000 per year or more might be eligible for assistance. Eligibility is also impacted by the number of kids in private school.
Academic programs: Typically, the core emphasis at private schools tends to be math and science. Private schools also often have very strong music, drama, and art programs. A school may also provide a wide range of foreign languages.
Class sizes: Just as important as the variety of academic programs offered, class size is often a significant decision factor for parents deciding whether to send their children to private schools.
Quality of the faculty: I don’t want to imply that there aren’t plenty of highly qualified teachers in the public school system, because that’s certainly not the case. I do know that at my children’s school, the majority of the teachers have Masters degrees with many also having a Ph.D.
Level of parental involvement: Typically, private schools request and receive significant involvement and support from the parent community.
Test scores: Although colleges have started moving away from using test scores to eliminate applicants, they are still a primary criteria used for college admissions.
College acceptances: Look at what colleges are accepting students. The college admissions community is a relatively close-knit group. The college guidance departments within good private schools cultivate relationships with college admissions offices and can give you an indication as to which schools your child has a good chance of getting accepted.
College scholarships and grants: This benefit alone may make private school worth it. I recall a statistic quoted by the head of school where our children attend that on average each graduating senior received scholarship and grants averaging nearly $150,000 per student. There is money available to help pay for college and often the beneficiaries of this money are private school students.
Culture: Lastly, make sure you understand the culture of the school. Private schools each have their own unique identity and that comes out in the community. You will be spending a significant amount of time, money, and effort at the school. You should feel comfortable.
Final Word – Is Private School Worth It?
You can learn all sorts of wonderful facts in school, but one of the greatest skills I learned in school was the ability to get to the next level. Another way to say this, I learned how to succeed.
It sounds simple, but it’s vitality important that our kids learn how to be successful and get to the next step. I’ll give you an example. In 9th grade, I had an English teacher that made life difficult for everyone. After turning in a few assignments and scoring poorly, my parents had a heart-to-heart discussion with me. “We aren’t paying for private school so you can get bad grades” was the tone. My typical teenager response, “It’s not my fault. He has it out for me!”
But rather than my parents going in to speak to the teacher and deal with it, they forced me to do it. And when I was in his classroom, he had me sit down and we worked through the assignments together. He wanted things done in a very specific way and I wasn’t going to know how he wanted them done unless I was sitting right there with him. So that’s what I did. And sure enough, I got a decent enough grade to move on to the next class.
The same thing happened to me in college. I found myself buried and not doing well in a certain class. I went to the teacher and asked, “what can I do to pass this class?” He gave me some options, and sure enough, once again, I was able to get through it and move on to the next thing.
The next step after high school is college. So instead of looking at high school graduation as an end, look at it as a beginning of the next phase. While you are in high school, get the best grades you can. Learn as much as you can. Have fun. But make sure you know that the end goal for high school is getting into college.
Same goes with college. Learn. Live the life. But know what you are aiming for when you graduate. Will you get a job or go to graduate school?
One of the big advantages of a private school is the individualized attention. It’s difficult for public schools to provide that one-on-one direction. Typically, there are just too many students.
Everyone will not need private school to be successful. There are plenty of highly successful people coming from the public school system. But as my father-in-law told me, by sending our kids to private school, we are buying them an insurance policy. It’s just one more thing we can do to prepare them for the future.
What are your thoughts? Is private school worth it? Is it too expensive for what you get? Besides the cost, are there downsides to sending your kids to private school?
Full disclosure – my children attend private school and I also attended private school. And even though Ms. Financial Slacker did not, we both believe that private school worth is pretty high. So I may not be entirely unbiased in this discussion.
Stefan - The Millennial Budget says
Having gone to private school myself and seen us after college compared to people in the public system I can say private school was worth the cost to my parents. One thing to note is that I am from the Caribbean so there is no comparison like the US education system. Speaking from experience, public school was all about book knowledge. They could not present properly nor write properly as it was all remembering facts. I will personally make every effort to send my kids to private school. Remember everything I said there is from a Caribbean perspective not American.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
Talking about being able to write well reminds me of when I taught a college level class on mergers and acquisitions. It was amazing how few people could write well. In fact, some of the writing was so poor that I had dificulty getting through their work and couldn’t tell whether they knew anything about the material or not.View Comment
Get FIRE'd asap says
Would you not also agree that an individual’s success within the education system is 95% application rather than whether they go to a private or public school? I know plenty of people who have been to private schools and still ended up no better off than us plebs who went through the public system. It’s the same right throughout life isn’t it. You get out what you put in. I do understand that the more expensive and upmarket schools can afford to pay teachers more, and provide the best facilities and resources, but perhaps it also sets a false expectation to many students that everything, in life, is going to be handed to them on a silver platter. What do you think?View Comment
Financial Slacker says
I do agree that what you put into school or work or life is usually what you get out. As the expression goes, “showing up is half the battle.” But the other half is execution.
I think the concern about elitism is valid and is one of the reasons parents opt not to send their children to private schools. I have had this conversation with other parents. As you asked, how do we make sure our kids don’t grow up expecting life will be handed to them on a silver platter?
What I have seen in the private schools is the setting of a very high expectations bar. There’s positive peer pressure to be successful academically. And that means putting in hard work. Long hours of homework in addition to any extracurricular activities or sports.
At least where we are, I don’t sense that same expectation within the public schools. And while there are academically high performing students within the public schools, there are also many students (and parents) who don’t see much value in education – and in fact sometimes ridicule those who do well academically.
One other note. I can’t say this with absolute certainty, but in many cases, my understanding is that private schools actually pay their teachers less than public schools. The teachers are willing to accept lower pay because it’s a more supportive environment. The kids want to learn. The parents are involved. Teachers don’t get into teaching to make money; and, in their minds, the financial sacrifice is worth it. Some of the teachers at my children’s school have been there for 25, 30, 40 years. Last year, a teacher retired after 50 years at the school. And he actually taught for a few years somewhere else before he came to the school.View Comment
Martin - Get FIRE'd asap says
An excellent well written article. Perhaps one of the benefits of a private school education 😉View Comment
Financial Slacker says
Thank you. But I was really more of a math and science guy. Guess that’s why I went into finance. Love the numbers!View Comment
Hey FS, thanks for the topic, it’s definitely worth thinking about.
I think the first thing to consider is there a major difference between private school and public school?
There are some amazing public schools out there and I’m sure there are some terrible private schools as well. And every level of performance in between. So it is impossible to say that every private school would be better than every public school.
I’d also say a big reason for someone’s success / failure is not just the school they go to, but the drive to succeed. Parents will hopefully teach their child to work hard (and smart), they want to help their child become the best they can. If they didn’t send them to private school, they’d want to help them achieve in other ways.
I went to a private primary school but then a public secondary school, both were good for me. Everything that I’d say is good for my future, I learned myself (not from education) and desire to invest/save etc wasn’t from education, parents or anything else.
I think we probably won’t end up sending up our future children to private school. We believe Australia’s public education is great and will give our child everything they need. Of course we would support them going to university if they wish to, that’s the most important stage of education.
Financial Slacker says
I completely agree. Success is mostly about execution. What’s the expression, something about “best laid plans.” Ideas are a dime a dozen, but without execution, that’s all they are.
Ms. Financial Slacker was a product of public school all the way from elementary through college. And she has more drive and a stronger work ethic than anyone I know. And she is more successful professionally than almost everyone I know (although it somewhat depends on how you measure professional success).
Makes me wonder if private school is more for the parents to feel like they are giving their children the best chance for success?View Comment
Private education probably gives you better skills, but perhaps going through public school makes you more of a ‘fighter’. So then I suppose it depends who applies themselves best in the big world.
I think this is quite easy to see in the soccerr and tennis worlds, the best players are usually the ones who have had a tough upbringing and had to fight to where they are.
East Coast Dame says
As a K-12 public school-er in Virginia, I’m not sure how I feel about private school. I had the benefit of going to public schools in a notoriously high-achieving public school system, so my experience was great. I had excellent teachers, received a similar learning experience to the one described above, and all of the schools had decently, if not very well, funded specialty programs, sports teams, and arts activities.
That being said, I remember thinking there were some perks to going to private school. They frequently closed for snow more than my school system, they had cool uniforms, and the nicer ones in my area had extra sports, like swimming or lacrosse, that were not offered in the public schools.
To answer your question, I really think it just depends on the schools in the area. The public schools were far and away better than most of the private schools in my area, if only because most of those private schools were very small (less than 50 kids) and taught more for religious reasons than educational ones. There is also a well-known private school with $40,000/year tuition that I would love to send my kids to in the future, but alas, that’s almost as much as my law school tuition and not something I’m willing to spend compared to the public schools here.
For me, I think it comes down to specific school comparisons and perhaps school size. While class size may be important, I think one of the larger benefits of public school is the sheer number of students who go to them. I graduated in a class of 700, and so there was a great deal of competition for top spots on sports teams, class rank, prized theatre roles, etc. I think that competition was healthy and drove many of us to exceed our own expectations if we wanted to achieve something, and it certainly did away with the issue of “participation trophies” since you were definitely not guaranteed a spot in anything. I was also introduced to a more ethnically diverse community than if I’d gone to the aforementioned private school, which is 99% white and 1% black students on athletic scholarships. My school introduced me to people I probably would not have met otherwise, and for that, I am truly grateful. Some of my best friends ended up being people I was forced to interact with in 9th grade gym class.
Who knows? If I were in a different school system, I might send my kids to private school or wish I had done so myself, but at least in my exact area, I think the private schools tend to be a waste of money.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
This is a great comment. Thank you.
I hear what you’re saying about the quality of public schools in one area vs another. And that’s a big factor. If you can get a quality education without spending $40k per year, go for it.
But I’m not sure I agree that being in a class of 700 is a benefit. I see how the large class size can drive increased competition, but there are students who will get lost in a group that large.
I will also say that at least in my children’s school, they have been aggressively driving diversity for years and the student body is more than 50% minority. There is a strong belief in exposing students to a broad diversity of backgrounds, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.
It really does come down to a personal decision and each situation is unique.View Comment
Elle @ New Graduate Finance says
I find this to be a very interesting topic.
I personally went to public school from Kindergarten all the way through my Bachelor’s.
I think you make great points – I personally have lots of friends who went through Private school, and I would definitely consider putting my kids through private school.
My main concern is just the number of students in Private vs. Public school.
I know that I got sick of people and loved having lots of other potential friends to meet.
I am happy that I had the opportunity to surround myself with lots of other people in Public school, and that I was able to create a huge network as a result.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
That is a good point. My brother attended a very small private school for a few years. At the time, the school had fewer than 20 graduating seniors. My parents and my brother did decide that the school was too small and he transferred to my school which had around 100 graduating seniors.
I guess the question is how many students do you need to get to that sweet spot?View Comment
Rudy SMT says
I think in USA and Europe public school are doing a good job to educate kids. However, I believe if my kid is so potential that in a public school is getting bored because the class is too big to handle for the teacher and the progress is slow, that private school can be the solution.
If you live in Asia, middle east or south America, basically developing countries, the only choice is a private school.View Comment
Financial Slacker says
For me, it’s not just that class sizes are too big, I also think some of the public school districts are too big. I believe the local school district here has a $1.7 billion budget. I have seen repeated problems with hiring, yet there doesn’t appear to be any accountability.
Again, because school quality is so dependent on the specific city/state, if there is a good system in place, it makes sense to go that route. But at least from what I have seen, there is too much political infighting to consistently make good decisions.View Comment