Published January 13, 2015
Just because you pay top dollar doesn't mean your kid's school makes the grade.
1. "We're not as exclusive as you think."
With it becoming harder for kids to get into the college of their choice, what's a parent to do? You could cut your child off from TV or trips to the mall — or you could try something more radical, like switching your kid from a public school to a private school. Increasingly, parents seem to think that's an answer. Over the past 10 years, the number of students enrolled in K-12 schools affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools has increased 19.4%.
But just because private schools are becoming more popular, don't assume they've become more selective. While most screen out applicants who can't hack the work or fit in, the bad economy has led a handful of the more desperate institutions to accept just about any kid who can fork over the tuition. The result: Your fast-tracking 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 and acting out. Two weeks into the school year, however, 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. "Okay, we have money problems. What startup 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, 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 then had to close for financial reasons. The surprised parents managed to save the school this past spring only by forming their own board and raising money to keep the institution going until the next round of tuition checks came in.
Before enrolling your child in a new school, find out its expenses compared with its revenue, whether the board is composed of competent business leaders and if it's supported by donations; few schools can survive on tuition alone. Also, take a close look at the curriculum. Pamela Burnett, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley, says she's seen a rash of new schools opening in California that don't offer courses the state university system demands. "For a new high school, the process for developing those courses can take some time, while other schools might not even be aware of it," she says.
3. "Don't expect much guidance from our guidance counselors."
Just because your kid gets into a tony private school, he's no shoo-in for Harvard or Stanford. Says Christopher Covert, a Carefree, Ariz., educational consultant, "I've seen some pretty inexperienced counselors who just didn't know what they were doing." Consider the one at a top private school in Washington state who squeezed 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.
Exceptional college counseling at private schools doesn't always come with the price of tuition. In choosing a private school, ask about the counselor's credentials. He should have at least five years' experience and spend time visiting college campuses — "at least 25 schools a year," says Covert. Beware of counselors who discourage students from applying to "reach" colleges. "Some high schools don't want a student to reach simply because they want to advertise that 100% 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."
Many private schools make college placements a pillar of their marketing campaign. Their brochures feature a long list of the prestigious schools to which their grads have been accepted. But don't be dazzled by the highfalutin names. To get a more realistic picture, ask for a list of colleges in which graduates have actually enrolled within the past three years.
And if the main reason you're enrolling your kid in a private school is to get him into a top university, think twice. While many selective colleges do admit private school students at higher rates, the gap is not wide. At Duke University, for instance, 27% of private school applicants are accepted, versus 25% of public school applicants. Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke, says private school students are likely accepted at a slightly higher rate not because they went to better schools but because, on average, they have more environmental advantages than public school students. "It's more of an economic factor than an education factor," he says.
5. "Your kid will get abused."
Bullying and verbal teasing have plagued schools since the world's first day of class. But at some boarding schools, rigid hierarchies can develop that are devastating for those at the bottom of the pack. "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., education consultant who helps families with boarding school and college placements.
One 15-year-old recently had to transfer out of a pricey New England boarding school after he became the object of endless cruel jokes in the dorm showers. On a nightly basis his classmates would pelt him with soap and steal his clothes. "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 student. If your child typically winds up the outcast, he might do better in a smaller boarding school with a nurturing environment that folds lessons on peer respect into the curriculum. And to get the real scoop on a school's social personality, don't rely on the official student guides during your campus visit — chat with as many students as possible.
6. "Our credentials are bogus."
The international Learning Academy, a private high school based in Naples, Fla., boasts on its Web site that it's "fully accredited" by the National Private Schools Accreditation Alliance and the Board of Private Education. Sounds impressive, right? Well, it turns out that the latter accreditor's commissioner, Valaree Maxwell, also owns 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," she 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 tell 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. Many nonreligious schools are accredited by associations affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools.
7. "Beware of our boards. They can be pretty pushy."
One of the most common reasons schools lose their accreditation is board of director shenanigans — 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 Maryland private school who is now a Washington, D.C., education consultant, cautions against schools where boards have 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. You need educators at the center of the decision making, not the board."
Also, know this: Boards can get pushed as much as they push. Last fall 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 preschool around the time his company was making a million-dollar donation to the institution. The school later said donations do not influence admissions. Still, "sometimes the wealthiest have more influence over the school than they should," says Mark Elgart, executive director of the Commission on Secondary and Middle Schools for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
8. "Our 'tough love' methods are, well, tough."
When Karen Burnett, a Shepherdsville, Ky., homemaker, discovered her son Nathan was taking drugs, she paid nearly $20,000 to send him to The Academy at Dundee Ranch, a private boarding school in Costa Rica affiliated with the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS). "I thought it was a normal school with a behavior modification program," she 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 stopped taking students following an investigation this spring of human rights violations conducted by PANI, Costa Rica's child welfare agency, but WWASPS continues to service 10 boarding schools, including seven in the U.S. WWASPS's president, Ken Kay, says parents are made aware of school methods before they enroll their children and says there has never been a substantiated claim of abuse at one of these schools. "We have 98% customer satisfaction," he adds. "But some children lie and manipulate the truth, and their parents buy into this." Loi Eberle, editor in chief of The Woodbury Reports, a newsletter covering boarding schools that deal with problem children, 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 are extra-imaginary."
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 his college application. But before you get mesmerized by a school's frills, take a closer look. Boston education consultant Michael Spence contends that some boarding schools that offer a postgraduate year for students use it 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, 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. "We're rewriting the handbook," says Pastor Robert McQueary, the school's president, "to make sure events like that don't reoccur."
But even if a school has a genuinely rich assortment of activities, don't assume it will enhance your kid's chances of getting into a swanky 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 won't cut it, folks."
It's no news that private schools are expensive. But the actual costs are sometimes much higher than you 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. Somewhere along the year you'll be asked as part of the fundraising effort," says Houston educational consultant Lindy Kahn. To avoid nasty surprises, ask the school for an itemized list of fees before you enroll your child.
Another financial jab: rising tuition rates. The cost of attending a private school is far outpacing inflation, with the median annual tuition for a sixth-grade student rising 79% in the past 10 years, to $12,556, 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 education consultant Nancy Coulbourn Ike.