NYC Admissions Solutions on Private vs. Public High School in NYC


While the notion of private school may conjure up images of elite, ivy-covered buildings and polished students in uniforms, the truth is there’s a lot more variety among New York City area private schools-arguably something for every taste. At the same time, many of family each year either immediately dismiss the idea of applying to private high schools for fear of going bankrupt-or simply get boggled down in the private versus public high school debate.

There is no right or wrong answer, as often it comes down to personal fit and obviously financial resources. Ideological questions also arise: ‘Do I wish to send my child to public school and support the idea of great public schools as something everyone deserves as a right, knowing not every public school is deemed desirable; or am I willing and capable to potentially shell out tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, take my chances on generous or even partial financial aid, to make sure my kids get exactly what I demand in a school – assuming my child even secures a seat?’

Not with standing the aforementioned debate, some choice generalities can be made when comparing private versus public schools. Let’s take a brief look at some of them.

Quality and variety: In a city like New York, you can find both in private or public schools. While there is a vast array of hundreds of public high schools, for example, not all are necessarily deemed desirable or appropriate for each and every child’s talents, interests, skills, or learning style. But the same can be said for private schools across the city. There is wide variety, albeit among the fewer number of private schools, and they represent big and small, progressive and traditional, highly rigorous and not as much so. Whatever your tastes, however, don’t assume that only private equals quality, or only public equals variety. And by all means, don’t assume a seat in a highly coveted school-public or private-offers a one-way ticket to the best university. It merely represents an opportunity.

Class size: Private school budgets, while not always limitless as many may think, often can mean smaller class size. But do your homework; low adult to student ratio does not necessarily always equate to small class size, and class sizes can vary dramatically from one school to another, and even one grade level to another.

It’s also important to consider what class size represents the best fit for your child and his/her learning style. Is a small class with more personalized attention and fewer distractions best, or does your child thrive in larger, more dynamic and socially diverse class environments?

Admissions criteria/process and enrollment: Public high schools typically have less say over their enrollment, admissions process, criteria and actual offers that are made to their school. In my experience, I have come across many public school principals who, if given the opportunity, would adjust their enrollment and admissions methods and are fed up with overcrowding. Private schools, on the other hand, generally set their own criteria and enrollment figures based on school mission, strengths, space, market conditions, etc. These could change from year to year.

The implications of this are some public schools will represent a more diverse mix of students and families – demographically and otherwise – or simply a population that more closely aligned to the neighborhoods in which they are located. And of course, among the more highly sought-after schools, demand for a small number of open spots is a common problem in both public and private schools, especially in the highly competitive New York City market.

Facilities: Public school facilities are mostly dictated by the city, often with challenging space demands and competing interests. Private schools, on the other hand, may have more latitude when it comes to space policy and often budgets for maintenance, development, etc. Of course, finding, managing and operating a school space in a city such as New York can be particularly daunting, public or private.

Teachers: Arguably, private schools have more leeway when it comes to hiring teachers in terms of qualifications, certification, degrees, etc. In some cases that could mean more teachers with advanced degrees, in other cases in may mean work experience in lieu of classroom experience. Do your homework and understand what teachers in both private and public schools bring to the table.

Accountability: Make no mistake, while private schools have more latitude in terms of following governmental guidelines and accountability, they still have to meet certain guidelines as outlined by the state and accreditation bodies. Simply because they are private does not mean they go by a complete set of their own rules.

Coursework: Notwithstanding above, private schools often have more latitude with coursework, and may also have the budget to offer a more extensive array of classes and coursework, even based on student demand. You will find fewer private schools that are chopping arts courses, for example, due to budgetary pressures. Of course, some public school communities and parents associations step in to help address those deficiencies.

Lifestyle and finances: For some families, especially those who end up getting little to nothing in financial aid, the lifestyle adjustments in attending a private school can be significant if not debilitating. Is it worth spending more time at work and less time with your kids to pay for that expensive private school? How will your family cope with having to move to an entirely new location to manage expenses? Are you willing to sacrifice college savings for high school?

These types of questions can often be the most difficult, harrowing, and time-consuming faced by families. Know that there are quality public options available, and check with an expert to help you navigate the often-confusing public choice process.

Having said that, an important message to families considering private school is this: Don’t assume you won’t get any financial aid. Each school has its own, usually complex formula, and higher income does not necessarily equate to zero aid. You may also wish to consider less expensive parochial schools, or enter the charter school lottery. At the end of the day, I advise my clients to give themselves every opportunity, within reason, to have as many viable options on the table as possible.

Undoubtedly, the private versus public debate will continue for decades to come, and these represent just a few of the questions families face. It is also important to note the information above is fairly generic in nature, and each school and school community will be unique. In fact, some private schools will appear more like public schools, and vice versa. For many families in New York City, for example, the differences between the elite public specialized high schools and other private schools can often appear minimal.

My advice to families engaged in this debate? Do what’s best for you and your on family, do your homework and avoid comparing yourself to others. Consult with an expert who can help you sift through all the factors involved. And remember, the right answer is what’s right for you and no one else.