The Price of Education: A Question for You

Derrick recently posed a question in the comments section that I feel is worthy of a post, and insights from the tribe.

He asks which might be a better investment: to send a child to private prep school, or to pay for their college education so they graduate debt free?

The assumption is that, as the parent, we can commit funds to only one phase of the child’s education. I appreciate this scenario, as more than a few parents might be facing this choice as their child enters high school or considers prep school, before going off to college.

(In this post, I’ll be using the American term ‘private’ for prep schools, meaning a school that is not a part of the state or local public school system, and is funded by the parents whose children attend the school, or by private donations. A ‘public’ school is a part of the state or local government, funded by taxpayers.)

The dilemma is obvious: as a parent, how do you determine the greater benefit? A private school education from 9th to 12th grades can be life-changing. The rigor of the curriculum, often smaller teacher-to-pupil ratios, and the bonding with fellow students can shape and inspire a student on to great things in college and in life. But then, saddling on student debt in college can create a financial burden. Will that financial burden discount or cancel out completely the advantages gained with the prep school experience?

The second option presents its own perplexing considerations. Does a parent ‘settle for’ a public school education for their child, suspecting that it might not always challenge the student as much as a private school education, in order to provide money for college tuition? This second option sees their college graduate happily free and clear of student debt when they enter the working world. That is a privileged start, indeed, but will the public school student be ready for the demands of college studies?

Of course, every student is different, but this ‘Sophie’s Choice’ carries weight regardless.

Thank you, Derrick, for the great question. I’m looking forward to hearing comments, insights, and experiences from everyone about this.  Thanks.

  • BGT



30 thoughts on “The Price of Education: A Question for You

  1. Education is parent driven. If parents take an active role in their child’s education, make a point of communicating with teachers consistently and hold them AND their child accountable you don’t have to “settle” for a public education. The debts that our young people graduate with are absolutely criminal, as are some of the majors they’re encouraged to study. Recreation management? I’ve seen many students graduate from neighboring substandard public schools who have excelled in college and beyond. Stay out of debt.

  2. All things being equal, if I had to choose I would pay for college on the theory that I wouldn’t want to create any disincentive for the child to get a college education. But a lot depends on the quality of the public school and how well the student is doing there. If it was a poor quality high school and the student was not doing well, it would probably be worth it send send them to prep school.
    I have seen many people who went to public school do very well at excellent colleges. The most important thing is to get a good college education. Private schools do have certain advantages, but I think attending a good college is even more important.

  3. It’s been my experience, as well as those I’ve seen of numerous friends from college, that prep school is the more important of the two. Very few met at university will ever compare to those with whom one has shared his most formative development; and the overlapping of one’s prep school friends with those of his college chums is a residual benefit to building a foundational network for life.

  4. This is a little more nuanced I believe. It depends on the student. I went to a rural public high school in Oklahoma and attended a private university in Boston. My brother however, who is a little antisocial and has trouble focusing also went to the same public school but struggled enormously and didn’t end up attending college. Private schools allow that extra focus and resources on the student. Learn how your children interact and how much attention they need. It might make sense for some while others can be successful at public schools. Also, my wife is public school high school and college educated, and was just accepted into an Ivy League for her master’s. So once again, it very much depends on the student

    1. Good call, Bryce. A lot of choices are wisely based on the questions “What kind of child do I have? What challenges do they face? What’s going to work best for them?” and then answering those honestly. Thank you, sir. – BGT

  5. I agree with James Hinsch’s comments.

    The days when going to a private school and then swanning into a career with a big corporation without gaining a tertiary education are long over. If a parent can afford a private school and then a university education for their child, wonderful. However a ‘child’ should not be saddled with money-based education debts after university whether they attended a private school or a public one, beforehand.

    In my view they owe only one debt: Noblesse oblige.

    They need to do the same for someone else during their lives. Be it a week after graduation, a year, or twenty five years. Be it their own child or someone else’s ‘child’. This is the debt that is owed. And it should be made clear to them.

    This is the way we keep the wheel turning.

  6. Love the comments everyone! Thanks for the post Byron!

    I went to public school grades 1-8 and private catholic school for high school. I personally greatly benefited from both, but I definitely do not think I would have been prepared for college if I went to my public high school. My public high school was a good school but I think at that time I liked school for the wrong reasons (socializing with friends) and when I went to my new high school I had zero friends at first, so it kind of made adapt and get more focused which benefited me in the long run.

    I did however graduate with college debt like 35k I paid it off in like 2 years (thanks to living at home with my parents).

    So in my opinion generally speaking I would lean private high school. However if your kid is already a good student, and has good friends who are similar I think public school is defiantly fine.

  7. There seems to be the assumption, just about everywhere, that borrowing money, for post-secondary education, is required. There was a time before “student aid”. How did that work?

    Looking only at tuition: The price had remained stable for many years. Then, in the USA, government introduced borrowing programs. Tuition rose immediately. Universities charged more when the cost could be financed. and backed by government

    Now there is the assumption that the student will borrow. There is pressure to borrow.
    About ten years ago, I contacted some universities to ask what their tuition was then. Every one said that the information would not be available until I had filled out a financial aid form. It seems that applying for a loan was mandatory. Yes, this did happen. .

    Someone here has already exposed borrowing for absurd majors. Yes, education for the purpose of being educated was lost about fifty years ago, and education for a career became assumed. However,what career.?

    This has allowed “proprietary schools” to thrive by enabling borrowing for study of poorly paid and perhaps faked and silly jobs such as fashion illustration or architectural technology . Kids from less than knowledgeable backgrounds were encouraged to borrow for degrees that were useless to them. Then financial aid payments became due.
    So we might ask:” Financial aid aided whom?” Go to

    Well my rant is not really on-topic, but “what are you going to do with that degree” has become the question at institutions both respectable and not. Does graduation, from well-respected prep, assure admission to a more respected university? Are the prepping social-contacts worth money post-graduation? If so, how many dollars is that worth?

    Pay for prep or university? Yes, it remains a messy question.

  8. Very good comments already, I’ll try to add my own $0.02 worth.

    The education “system” now in the US is just not comparable to anything in the past. Personally I went to a prep (not boarding) HS, which required a lot of sacrifice from my parents, but without question it was an excellent education and well worth it. Then I attended a (public) state school for undergraduate, where I worked 2 jobs, got some support from the parents, as well as some small loans, and received a fine education. I came out with minimal debt that I paid off in 5 years.

    However, my story can’t be used as a template in the US anymore. As others have mentioned, student debt is utterly absurd these days, and as J Kennedy says, the “chef / graphic design / other dream job you’ll never get but we’ll saddle you with debt” schools are a damn racket.

    Which is a long way of saying: these days there are far more variables to consider about this question than there used to be. But I’d advise all parents to solve for minimizing their kids’ college loan debt upon graduation.

    1. Thanks, Expat. You’re right to point out the very individual nature of this issue and it’s subsequent ‘solutions’, if you can call them that. Much appreciated. – BGT

  9. Yes, an intriguing topic especially since i have just started a new job at a private midwestern college. I am learning much about the nuances of what tuition really is. It starts with a high number, and amounts are subtracted from that for various, individual reasons. An overhaul of this system is in development at this particular school. It is interesting to listen, at this point. All schools were tremendously affected in the last two years.

    To respond to the question, I believe it might be difficult for a student who was not challenged in high school academically, and so was top of the class without much effort, to find themselves among a group comprised of those who were ALL the best in their class. I also don’t think the price comparison is equal. In my area, parents who fund private school education pre-univ. are also able to contribute some to the next phase, but not all. ( See also: the ridiculous world of parents angling for sports scholarships)

  10. I believe this decision depends on multiple factors – the student, the available pool of schools at both the high school and college level, the community ties the student and family have, etc. In my family’s case, the public high school options leave quite a lot to be desired. However, there are many well-regarded public colleges nearby (or near their grandparents, who live in another part of our rather large US state), so we are prioritizing private education at lower levels and then deciding from there.

    We chose a private boarding school for my son, and he did fairly well there but struggled in his first semester of college with the lessened structure. For the time being, he and a friend in a similar situation have returned home and are working through general core curriculum classes at the local community college, drawing on each other and on family for support in regrouping.

    My daughter is headed to the same boarding school next year, mindful of the struggles her brother experienced and also determined to get her money’s worth out of her education. In her school search she prioritized the potential for advanced-standing coursework, and her school-to-be (Bard Academy) certainly offers that!

  11. I think many factors come into play here. I would certainly not assume that private is always better. I went to a very good public grammar school and now have four degrees and am an academic. I got my degrees in the UK and Australia so luckily was not saddled with the kind of debt that is typical in the US. For my own children, one went public and one private (for various reasons I won’t go into here). We agreed that they would pay for their own college as here is Australia we have fixed rate University fees in public universities – few universities are private institutions here – and a tertiary tax system by which fees can be repaid over several years once you hit a minimum wage threshold (very civilised!)). I note others have reported that removing barriers to college is desirable but I also think young adults might not value the opportunity of college if they don’t at least have some “skin in the game”. Finally, I have observed that students at my institution from private schools do seem to struggle more with the college transition, as they are so used to high levels of support through high school, whereas public school kids seem to be more seasoned independent learners.

    1. Dr Claire’s last point deserves special attention.. The support, as in structuring the student’s day, in detail, does ensure that what is expected is done without the students’ need to discipline themselves.. Then, after graduation, there is no transition to the next year when there is no one to demand that things be done well and on time.

      Another idea addresses adolescent transition. The change from child to adult may be both welcomed as well as unwillingly entered. The student may cling to some aspect of childhood. It isn’t uncommon for the adolescent to become unpleasant and unreasonably argumentative with parents.. In this way, the adolescent can see good reason to leave the security of childhood and move onto adulthood. “Going away to school” just might enable that transition to adulthood.

      Of course if that were the only reason for private education, that would be an extremely costly lesson.
      I do recall seeing classmates not transitioning easily .They didn’t handle sudden freedom well .when the scheduling was missing.

      Many respondents here have witnessed really good education from public high schools. Perhaps the deciding factor, in either case, is parental guidance, support, plus the parental expectation that their offspring perform well..

  12. I am a single mother who receives no child support. My daughter has attended private school since the year I quit homeschooling her to complete my graduate studies internship. I applied for a scholarship through the private school (who charges $900 / mo) and I only pay $275 a month. To me there is nothing more valuable than my daughter’s education.

    I will soon purchase a house and that cost of $275 to me is MORE important than my mortgage. Why? Because of all the things you believe about private school. The curriculum, the focus on academics (every Friday isn’t taken off for pep rallies and football parades before the big game), there is no teaching to the test, and let’s be completely honest, it has elevated myself and my daughter socially.

    I never take advantage of the parents I meet at the school, however, it does put my daughter and myself in a much higher social circle, one that I want her to aspire to. She is shown beautiful homes while at classmates birthday parties, she is shown what it is like to live a life of higher income though better career choice, which comes from education choices. So, a very long answer to the question, I will do whatever it takes for my daughter to attend private school.

    I live in a high income area, where I have been fortunate to rent, so the public schools here are among the best of the best and have been nationally recognized as such. They still do not beat the private school education, the connections, the way of thinking that my daughter is achieving attending private school.

    I will graduate with student debt and I plan to tackle it through the Dave Ramsey system, I am already saving for my daughter’s college education (she wants to be a veterinarian) and go to her grandfathers alma mater. It’s all a matter of choice. I know at the university she wants to attend, high preference is giving to children and grandchildren of alumni…check, higher preference is given to students who attended private schools…check. So I feel as if I’m setting her up for her future.

    1. Good for you, Teresa. Congratulations. It seems you’ve taken a very systematic approach to your daughter’s education. This is a sterling example of what’s possible when Education is prioriitzed. She is lucky, indeed. Please keep us posted on her progress. Thank you for sharing. Inspirational. – BGT

  13. Different perspective here: As a University educator, I recognize the importance of high quality K-12 education. One can always work, live at home, get scholarships, and find many other creative ways to pay for college without taking on masses of debt. But there is no way to compensate for a poor foundation. I can usually tell what kind of foundation my students have. However, my non-privileged students, particularly my students from inner city or other economically disadvantaged areas, are often easier to work with. They seem to have far better life and coping skills which may be more valuable in life than academics. (Bonus: They also have less entitlement and complain less) They also usually work jobs during school which build character and gives them professional experience. I see the fallout of the privileged students that come to university and struggle to cope with life, competing priorities, expectations, and hardship in general which are all things that life is full of. They often don’t make it. So… work ethic and coping- please just find a way to get your children these skills, however you do it. Not sure of the role of money in either of these essential skills. My thoughts.

    1. Thank you very much, MM. What great insights from the ‘trenches’, i.e., the classroom on a daily basis. Sadly, spoiling their children is the first thing that newly-affluent parents often do. Older families tend to be harder on their kids when it comes to academics and exposure. (My experience and opinion.) An old saying I’ve heard goes something like…Don’t forget that, as you’re giving your children everything you didn’t have as a child, that you give them a few of the things you did have. Mainly referring to challenges, struggle, discipline, and accomplishment.

      I think you’ve made the case for a rigorous K-12 experience over a ‘paid for’ college experience quite well. And good for those students of yours. If one or two of them is particularly gifted and needs assistance with prep school or college fees/tuition, please let me know. My wife and I–and perhaps some of the members of the tribe here–might be able to assist. I couldn’t think of a better investment.

      Thanks again. – BGT

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  15. I’m late to the game, but if it helps we sent our boys to a private, catholic, all boy high school and it was the best thing we ever did. The traditional uniforms, the formality, the classic literature and the rigorous curriculum served them well. They are both thriving in college/university now and yes, we are helping as much as we can. I believe that if you can’t help your children, who can you help? I believe it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who once said: “If you bungle raising your children, nothing else you accomplish matters very much.” -Heidi

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