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Private school students are vastly overrepresented at Brown. What does this mean?

The Wheeler School
Photo: “The Wheeler School, Providence RI” by Kenneth C. Zirkel, licensed under CC 4.0.

By Seth Peiris

Bro, I’ve been using the open curriculum my whole life!” said one first-year who completed BOP’s most recent poll.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, of the 53.9 million students enrolled in public or private schools in Fall 2019, 91% attended public schools while 9% attended private schools.

However, according to the Brown Opinion Project’s March 2023 poll, only 57.71% of Brown undergraduates studied at public high schools, while 40.57% attended private schools. This is consistent with statistics in Brown’s Common Data Set.

While the data from the Brown Opinion Project’s poll includes students who attended schools outside of the U.S., too, it is evident that our student body is not representative of the wider population of high school graduates in the U.S.

But is this high percentage of private school students really that noticeable? To some, it is.

“Vibes” were a common indicator of a classmate’s background, leaving an aura of mystery around the cultural differences between public and private school alumni. One sophomore said, “vibes-wise, I think you can [tell]” and also by “[looking at] what they are wearing.”

But maybe these vibes have some concrete manifestations. After all, we are all products of our environments.

According to the NCES, 96% of public schools reported participation in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, while only 19% of private schools reported participating in the program. Moreover, the Education Data Initiative reported that the average cost of attendance for one year of private high school is $16,040.

These numbers allude to a similar phenomenon internationally. One sophomore international student said, “In India, everyone that comes to Brown… is very high income, coming from private schools only.”

On another plane, only 59% of private schools reported that they have a student with a formally diagnosed disability. This contrasts with the 99% of public schools that serve at least one student with special needs on an Individual Education Plan.

Research shows the benefits of a diverse student population, where students have the opportunity to learn to work with and celebrate people of different backgrounds than their own. While diversity does not always translate to inclusion, it is typically the first step.

In other words, empathy may be developed differently in public schools than in private schools. One sophomore who attended public school noticed a lack of it in some of their private school peers at Brown. “It's not that everyone who went to a private school is mean and pretentious, but if someone is mean and pretentious, they probably went to private school,” they remarked.

So, what leads Brown to accept such a high percentage of private school students?

One junior who described their private high school as a “college prep school” cited the culture of their school as one of the primary factors in their Brown admission. “They always make it like college is the end-all be-all. They’ll give the token ‘oh no it’s not that important!’ but everything in your environment is telling you that you need to get into a really good college.”

And it’s true: resources provided to students in the college application process are much more accessible in private schools than in public schools. Swarthmore College, an institution with similar prestige to Brown, recently stopped receiving calls from high school counselors vouching for their students after discovering that 90% of the calls came from private schools again, despite private school attendees making up only 9% of U.S. high school students.

Private school students also tend to come to Brown more accustomed to the level of academic rigor found here. According to BOP’s March 2023 poll, 58% of private high school graduates agree that classes at their high school were equally or more challenging than their classes at Brown, while only 35% of public high school graduates share this sentiment. One junior who attended a college preparatory private school said that his high school experience provided a “naturally breezy transition.”

That doesn't always mean going to a public school makes your college academics more difficult. One sophomore said, “I feel like I was very well prepared, but I went to a relatively well-funded public school.”

Another sophomore agreed. “My public school was really good. I was able to take linear algebra,” they mentioned.

Maybe there shouldn’t be such a pressure on high school students to take classes comparable in difficulty to an Ivy League institution’s offerings. One junior who attended a rigorous private school said, “You always [ended] up having to sacrifice either sleep, school or social life… I just don’t think that it should be like that.”

With all this talk of public schooling versus private schooling, it’s easy to forget about all the nontraditional routes of secondary education seen in our student body. One first-year who had been homeschooled for grades K-12 shared some ways in which they benefited from learning at home.

For example, they gained a certain confidence in niche fields like computer science. “I was one of 15 people who did Indy [a CSCI0150 final project option typically chosen by those who feel capable of coding with minimal assistance from TAs]. I made a Scratch project… It’s a block coding language, like you code with blocks,” they shared.

Their experience in nontraditional education also enabled them to engage in paths many people at Brown might not always consider.

“Over the summer a lot of people are pursuing internships, but I'm going to work on a programming project with my brother,” they said.

Being homeschooled was also something they emphasized as in line with Brown’s values. “My [application] essay was kind of fire… [because] they’re like, ‘How are you gonna use the open curriculum?’ and I’m like, ‘Bro, I’ve been using the open curriculum my whole life!’”

As all of our distinct educational backgrounds blend together in each classroom interaction and study group session, we find and develop commonalities with our peers.

I asked one junior who attended a public high school if they noticed a divide between public and private high school students. They responded, “There might be, but honestly the fact that I haven’t thought about it that much suggests that maybe it’s not as big of a thing as I think.”

Note: All quoted poll-takers remain anonymous to maintain the integrity of Brown Opinion Project surveys. Brown Opinion Project conducted its March 2023 poll on March 1st, March 2nd, and March 6th, collecting 700 total responses from Brown undergraduate students. The margin of error is 3.84% with 95% confidence.


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