School Choice & Charters

NCES Study Finds Greater Success In College by Private School Grads

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 12, 2002 3 min read
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Students who attend private schools are twice as likely to get a college degree than students who attend public schools, according to data released in an annual analysis of education by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Condition of Education 2002,” is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

And what’s more, students who attend private schools who come from families of the lowest quartile of poverty in the nation are nearly four times more likely to get a higher education degree than comparable students who attend public schools, the federal report released late last month says.

The data are for students who were 8th graders in 1988. For the purposes of the study, those students counted as having finished a bachelor’s degree or other higher education degree had to have done so by 2000.

“We’ve always felt that private schools make the biggest difference for kids who come from inner cities and low- income families,” said Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University. “This evidence confirms past evidence.”

But she and others said that it’s difficult to conclude from current research exactly why private schools made such a difference for this group of students.

Her own research would suggest, Ms. Hoxby said, that parental influence plays a large role. “Private schools disproportionately attract parents who care a lot about education,” she said.

The NCES report, “The Condition of Education 2002,” says that private school students on average take more advanced courses before graduation than students at public schools do. That may explain the difference in educational attainment, noted John Wirt, the editor of the report, though he added that the report didn’t make that conclusion explicitly.

The 340-page report by the Department of Education’s statistics arm, which includes a special section profiling the private school sector, says that private schools have enrolled about the same share of U.S. students throughout the past several decades: 10 percent to 11 percent.

In the 1999-2000 school year, the nation had 27,000 private schools, with 5.3 million students. Seventy-nine percent of all private schools have a religious affiliation; 30 percent of private schools are Roman Catholic.

On average, the report says, private schools have smaller enrollments, smaller average class sizes, and lower student-to-teacher ratios than public schools do. Their average number of students for each teacher, for example, is 13.2, compared with 15.6 at public schools. On the whole, private schools enroll fewer English-language learners, fewer minority students, and fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches than public schools do.

Requiring More

Private schools tend to require more of students academically than public schools do, and their students perform better on standardized tests than do students of public schools, according to the report. Private schools surveyed for the study reported they required an average of 3.1 years of mathematics, while public schools required 2.7 years, for instance.

The new statistics about how students at private schools outperform students at public schools are no surprise, said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the National Education Association.

He said he believes students from low-income families do better in private schools than in public schools because most are not surrounded by other poor students in those schools, as is more likely to be the case at public schools.

At both private and public schools, Mr. Pons said, if a school has only a few students who are disadvantaged, those students are likely to do better than if they attend a school with a very high concentration of disadvantaged students.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as NCES Study Finds Greater Success In College by Private School Grads


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