Getting In: Who Gets the Fat Envelope

Public v. Private Schools – A look at whether or not those tuition checks actually buy more than Ivy League bumper stickers.

By Carol Hall
Photography by John O’Donnell

In Westchester, where the struggle for Ivy League admission is practically a blood sport, one question trumps all others: Do private schools deliver a competitive advantage over public?

Eighteen-year-old Brendan McGuire of Riverside, Connecticut, started Princeton University as a freshman this month. He is one of only 10.2 percent of students who this year applied and got accepted to that prestigious Ivy League school. What were Brendan’s credentials?

He scored a total of 2270 out of a possible 2400 on his SATs (730/writing; 740/math; 800—a perfect score—on reading comprehension, the old “verbal”). He carried four Advanced Placement (AP or college-level) courses in both his junior and senior years. And he had an impressive list of extracurricular activities that included community service and student government. He became a leader in all of them. “I learned it’s better to be involved in depth in a few activities, rather than over a breadth of them,” says Brendan, fit, blue-eyed, and smiling. And, oh yes: Brendan graduated last spring from one of Westchester’s most exclusive private schools: Rye Country Day School.

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There’s no doubt Brendan is intelligent and hard-working. And there’s no doubt his family and his school (he began attending Rye Country Day School in seventh grade) helped nurture his natural gifts. Still, you can’t help but wonder: did attending a private school help him get the nod from Princeton?

This fall, Katie Arden, a slim, energetic young woman, also started as a freshman at an Ivy League school: Yale University. Katie is one of the fewer than 9 percent of applicants this year who got into this world-renowned institution, and she got in “early action” no less (early action means she couldn’t apply  to any other school, unless she got rejected or “wait-listed” by Yale). Her creds?

Katie’s grade point average, “un-weighted,” was 97.58; “weighted”—she took seven AP courses, (AP courses earn students credit or standing at most colleges and universities)—it’s 100.61! Like Brendan, her SAT scores totaled 2270, too (710/math; 770/writing; 790/critical reading). And, like him, Katie had a stellar array of extracurricular activities, including intensive involvement with her school’s theater program. That undoubtedly helped when she delivered her speech as class valedictorian—of Pelham Memorial High School.

That’s right, Katie went to a public school. Yet, the youngster got into what for the graduating class of 2006 was the nation’s most competitive Ivy League school, with an acceptance rate of just 8.6 percent. “I’m all for public school,” Katie proclaims. “I’ve been very happy in the Pelham schools and had no reason to switch,” she says.

If you are the parent of a child older than six, it is impossible not to read about these two outstanding kids and wonder if you are doing everything you can to prepare your own child to achieve and get into the very best college. In the eyes of many parents and high school students, these two grabbed the golden ring: admission to an Ivy League school.

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All across America, parents are focused (obsessed?) on their children’s education. But in Westchester, as you no doubt already have discovered, “the school conversation” is particularly intense. The county has some of America’s finest public high schools (there are a total of 44 of them), and is home to or close to a host of top-flight private high schools (28 in Westchester itself, including parochial schools). If you want the best for your child—and can afford the taxes and the school tuition—you are spoiled for educational choice.

Many make that choice with their eyes on a certain kind of prize: entrance to an Ivy League college, i.e., Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”), and Yale—or comparable non-Ivy schools, e.g., Amherst, MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, Williams, etc. The way these parents see it, all the planning, hard work, and money that usually go into getting that big fat envelope are worth it because an Ivy League or other highly selective college diploma yields lifelong advantages—a top-notch education, as well as top-notch connections.

Parents keen on giving their kids a leg up understandably look for ways to increase their odds in what has become an absurdly competitive admissions process. To some that means, if you’ve got the money or can get the aid, you send your child to a private school, at least for grades 9 through 12. In 2003 (the last available year of data), of the 173,141 Westchester County kids attending school, 16 percent were enrolled in private school, 84 percent attended public. But does a private school education give a child an advantage?

At the top colleges, 65 percent of the freshman class hail from the nation’s public schools and 25 percent from private. (The remaining 10 percent are products of home-schooling and other unusual circumstances.) That may seem to put the advantage squarely in the camp of public education but, of course, the vast majority of graduates are public school seniors. The number of high-school graduates has risen steadily since 1988. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, by the end of the decade, the number of new graduates will have grown by approximately 10 percent, reaching 3.32 million, with 2.9 million of them coming from public schools and 333,000 coming from private high schools. (This year, there were 2.8 million high school graduates from the nation’s public schools and 315,000 from private schools.)

But not all private schools are created equal. For instance, some emphasize academics, some religious orientation, and others focus on cultural interests. But year after year, placements in top colleges from top Westchester-area private schools tend to skew higher than average, and often higher than the area’s public schools. It’s essential, when looking to see which schools send more kids to top colleges, to take into account class sizes, parents’ income range (private school kids generally can afford the more expensive colleges), and what colleges a school’s seniors apply to in the first place versus where they actually attend (some kids get accepted to the Ivy League but decline to enroll, often for financial reasons).

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“If you took the top twenty to twenty-five colleges, you’d find them grossly over-represented among their admissions with kids from certain Westchester-area private schools,” says Howard Greene, former Princeton University admissions officer and founder of Howard Greene & Associates, a private educational consulting center—one of a burgeoning industry devoted to helping kids get into the top colleges. “Often, one-third or more of the class [of one of these private schools] gets into a top
college.” Greene, the author of many college-admission advice books, including Making it into a Top College, rattles off the names of some of the area’s most selective private schools, including Hackley in Tarrytown, Horace Mann and Fieldston in the Bronx, and Brunswick in Greenwich, Connecticut. The fact that these students get into top colleges is not because of some historic “feeder-school relationship,” he says. “It’s because the top colleges know these kids have been challenged with a very tough curriculum already. They know that these high-performing kids are well prepared to do well at their college.”

One reason private schools might have such a dominant presence at selective colleges is that they themselves are selective. Most require applicants to pass entrance exams. By the time some private school grads apply to college, they will already have passed through a system designed to polish the most motivated and intelligent students. This process creates a competitive culture that benefits some students and penalizes others.

“Some kids are just more motivated by being around other motivated students,” says Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, another college-consulting firm (cost: as much as $30,000 for two years’ worth of applicant-polishing). That description would fit Princeton student Brendan McGuire. He enrolled in Rye Country Day in the seventh grade. “It made a difference,” he says. “If I’m surrounded by kids who work hard, it’s going to influence me. I’m competitive enough that I’ll make sure I’m sticking with them.”

All agree, however, that a parent doesn’t do a child any favors by sending him or her to a private school where they consistently under-perform. “No Ivy League school wants to fill its freshman class with the bottom half of even the best private school,” says Edward Fiske, editor of The Annual Fiske Guide to Colleges and former education editor at the New York Times.

When choosing a high school, Michele Hernandez, an independent college consultant and former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth, urges parents to ask themselves where their child will thrive most. “It’s not the name of the school that’s important,” she says, “but where the student will succeed more.” Walter C. Johnson, headmaster of the Hackley School in Tarrytown, agrees. “Choose Hackley because it will give your child the kind of education that will help him thrive in a college environment,” he says—not because it will get him into a big-name college. “If I find I have a first-grade parent already talking about wanting their child to go to Harvard, that’s a concern,” he says. “They might not find what they’re looking for at Hackley.”

The debate over whether public or private school is the best path to the country’s most selective colleges goes way beyond your—and your neighbor’s—dinner table. It is a hot topic among education professionals, too. For them, it always comes back to the same question: where does one get the best education? All agree that there are good and bad teachers, good and bad educational experiences to be had at both types of institutions. In Westchester, with so many highly regarded public schools available, the differences may be more finely sliced. “Hands down, a good public school education is the best education,” proclaims Adam Robinson, founder of Rocket Review (www.rocket and co-founder of Princeton Review, both SAT preparation programs, and author of What Smart Students Know. “It is my strong belief that any good Westchester public school is as good as a high-end private school. If your child is motivated, he will find as many good teachers, great after-school activities, and as many advanced placement courses” as in a private school. Penny Oberg, a college counselor at Rye Country Day School, admits: “The best kids in either kind of school will rise to the surface.” And the best way to stack the odds in your child’s favor, all advise, is to put her in a school where she will shine at her maximal wattage.

“Any good Westchester public school is as good as a high-end private school.”

Landing an acceptance letter from one of the top colleges or universities has always been an achievement. But competition for a place has heated up so much, it must be contributing to global warming. There are more and more qualified kids applying for an unchanging number of slots. That’s why there are acceptance rates like these: Harvard University, in 2006,  accepted 9.27 percent of the 22,753 students who applied, down from 10.7 percent in 2001; Yale University accepted 8.64 percent this year, but 13.5 percent in 2001; and Princeton gave the nod to 10.2 percent of its 17,563 applicants, less than the 11.7 percent it welcomed in 2001. And the competition is now international, with foreign students, eager for an American education, taking at least 10 to 15 percent of the places at the most selective institutions.

Many high school seniors apply to several colleges (some to more than a dozen), further tightening the competition. “About thirty percent of students apply to colleges that only about seventeen percent attend,” reports Judy Hingle, director of professional development at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “We have a real shotgun approach to college admissions in this country.” (To reduce the competition for places from the same school, some private schools limit the number of college applications their students maysubmit.)

Still, it’s important to remember that there are some 2,200 four-year colleges in this country, many of which are almost embarrassingly well endowed these days, courtesy of the dance between their fundraising departments and their alumni. If your child is looking at colleges, remember the following statistic and take heart: a whopping 70 percent of all colleges/universities accept more than 50 percent of their applicants. You may want your kid to go to an Ivy or equivalent top-notch college, but you haven’t done your homework if you underestimate the many fine “second-tier” schools that exist in America today.

Parents often forget that things have changed since they attended college. For one thing, the admissions picture is vastly more complicated. The most selective colleges and universities are bending over backward to achieve diversity in their freshman classes.

They want kids from different ethnic, economic, religious, and social backgrounds. “They are paying more attention to the individual student, rather than to which school you came from,” says Kelly Mitchell, a school counselor at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua and a college counselor with Bedford Prep in Bedford. She has also worked as a college counselor at Archbishop Stepinac High School and as an admissions officer at Fordham University. “It’s too simple to say that because you went to a private school, you have a leg up. Some years the top colleges will take students from certain schools, but other years they’ll take none.”

Quite often, there are practical considerations involved, not just grade-point averages. “If a new dorm or a new engineering complex is being built, it can change the numbers,” explains Mitchell, saying that the school may be on the lookout for engineering-oriented candidates in particular. “Next year, I know of one top university that will be renovating its dorms, so there will probably be fewer residential students accepted.” Scarsdale High School counselor Michael Gibbs agrees. “It’s very much a process of the moment,” he says. “Who do we need this year, what’s our count of urban students, for instance.” Or as one college admissions officer put it: “You might be an oboe in the year of the cellist.”

But in the cases of kids who might seem obvious candidates, their acceptances have become more nuanced. Some might say deciding when to do what in the application process has become a bit like reading tea leaves. For instance, having “legacy” relatives in your family—both of Katie Arden’s parents went to Yale—can weigh in your favor. (No one knows how much but it’s hardly an “automatic in.”) Regardless, Katie still would have been a non-starter without a shimmering high-school record. A number of Brendan McGuire’s family members went to Notre Dame. He held that in mind as a possibility but later in the process realized other options and eventually chose Princeton. He applied early decision and got deferred (he could apply again for regular decision). “Not having a hook—I’m not a legacy, I’m not a minority, I’m not an athlete—I knew it was a long shot to get in early decision,” he says. He was accepted regular decision.

Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, says his team looks at every applicant in the context of the school from which they are coming. Like most colleges and universities, Yale has admissions people dedicated to certain geographic areas. They get to know the schools in their catchment areas intimately, often spending years covering the same turf. They look to see if the student has taken the most rigorous coursework their school offers. At Yale, the period between November 1 and March 30 is called “the reading season,” when admissions officers read approximately 1,200 applications each. “We read, with very different eyes, an application from an inner-city Chicago school, a Horace Mann, a school that serves Native Americans in Arizona, and one from an applicant from Scarsdale High School,” says Brenzel.

And things have changed since parents went to college in other ways, too. The top schools no longer want a group of well-rounded kids. They want to put together a well-rounded group of kids. “It’s okay to be interested in a lot of things, but you’ve got to focus, you’ve got to stand out,” says Adam Robinson of Rocket Review. He uses the analogy of a dinner party. Every person invited has to bring something interesting to the table—a keen interest in history, music, economics, etc. “Colleges want to put together a community where there is conversation with a capital C, an environment with good discourse,” he says.

Ivies are so flooded with applicants that you don’t pass “Go” without a superb academic record. That doesn’t eliminate as many applicants as you might think. “A ridiculous percentage of Ivy League applicants is eligible,” says Scarsdale High School counselor Michael Gibbs. So whom do they take? It’s complicated. For starters, they don’t want underachievers—a student with a 1600 SAT and a B-minus average. “They want students who challenge themselves,” says Katherine Cohen of IvyWise. “They want students who make an impact in the classroom and in the community. They also want students who show responsibility, are creative thinkers, and who have nurtured relationships with teachers.”

With fewer students on their rolls, private schools can more closely monitor how their students use their time. Some require extracurricular involvement and many private schools require community service (for instance, Riverdale Country Day School has a community-service requirement for grades 6 to 12). But even at schools with no official requirements, the push to participate in extracurricular activities is there all the same. “Day schools stress total engagement,” says Howard Greene, noting that they offer a sometimes lavish array of activities in which to participate. “If you aren’t involved, these groups will reach out to you.” Rye Country Day School’s Penny Oberg says, “No one falls through the cracks. Whether they like it or not, they are known here.” Some of RCD’s clubs revolve around things like community service, photography, international relations, drama, environmental awareness, and business. Similar opportunities exist at many public schools, but most say less of an effort is made to encourage students to take advantage of them.

It almost doesn’t matter what your outside interests are, as long as you shine in them. One way to ensure that is to stick with something you love. So where does that leave all those baseball-obsessed young boys? “Baseball’s okay,” says Mitchell of Horace Greeley. But something you love that also helps others is even better. “Volunteer your time to go teach or work with an inner-city team,” advises Mitchell.

“We try to suggest ways to think outside the box,” says IvyWise’s Katherine Cohen. Be the first to fill a need in your community, for instance. “We always say, ‘If you can’t find it, found it!’” she declares.

One of IvyWise’s clients started a “sociology club” in his school in 10th grade; its members now serve as academic tutors for grade-schoolers in an underperforming public school nearby. Another student started a French club whose members regularly communicate with kids in French schools. “The top colleges feel that a student who’s been involved in high school will be very involved in college,” consultant Kelly Mitchell says.

Both Brendan McGuire and Katie Arden distinguished themselves in their extracurricular activities. Brendan was “really into tennis” when he entered high school, and even thought about following the recruitment path into college. But his grades started to improve in high school, he says, and, along with that, other interests started to blossom. He got involved in student government in his junior year, going on to become senior class president. A few years ago, to help family friends whose child is autistic, he became involved with the Greenwich Special Olympics. That moved him to join the school’s community-service club, where he helped organize events including a breast-cancer walk; he became co-president of the club. He joined the school newspaper in his sophomore year and became op-ed editor and senior copy editor in his junior year.

Katie is an avid cellist. She not only played in Pelham’s high school orchestra but also with a local symphony orchestra in the Bronx. She has been involved in fencing since fifth grade. She’s run cross-country for the past four years. And all during high school, she threw herself into her school’s theater program, acting and, during the final two years, making costumes and sets. Oh, she sings, too—choral.

When choosing a school, whether public or private, for their children, parents should consider the strength of its college counseling. “If you’re going to get students into the top schools, you have to have the counseling support,” says Edward Fiske, author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. “I judge a guidance counselor by how many different schools the kids are going to. Only a handful of schools suggests a lazy counselor.”

“I judge a guidance counselor by how many different schools the kids are going to. Only a handful of schools suggests a lazy counselor.”

Your local public school may have six or seven guidance counselors—now referred to as “school counselors” or “deans of students”—on staff (Scarsdale has nine). Public schools have much larger enrollments and counselors may have hundreds of students in their caseloads. (According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in 2005 the average college counselor-to-student ratio at a public high school in this country was 383:1. The average ratio at a private parochial school, 273:1; and at a private, non-parochial high school, 188:1.) A public-school counselor is typically with a student for all four years of high school—a plus, in many cases. But these counselors have to deal with every issue their students have—emotional, academic and social, as well as college selection. (That’s why public school counselors must have a master’s degree in a counseling-related field—like educational psychology—and be certified by the state). They also tend to draw higher salaries than their counterparts in private schools.

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