Private K-12 Programs Decline in Popularity. Smart Move?

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The United States Department of Education‘s The Condition of Education 2011 report confirms a trend that anecdotal evidence has suggested for some time: private schools for children from pre-K through high school are declining in popularity.

Between the 2001-2002 and 2009-2010 school years, private school enrollment plunged by 12.7%. But most of that decline was driven by tanking enrollment at Catholic schools; enrollment there fell by 19%. US News & World Report points to data suggesting the rising popularity of charter schools is stealing market share from private schools, and also suggests that rising costs of private schools might be a factor:

Rising tuition fees and a sputtering economy might be reasons for the decline in private school enrollment. During the 1999-2000 school year, the average tuition for a private high school was $6,053. By 2007, it was $10,549, according to government figures. This 74 percent increase far outpaced the inflation rate of about 24 percent between 1999 and 2007. Between 2001 and 2007, the total number of private schools fell 37,000 to 33,700.

That would seem to make sense, given widespread reports that community college enrollment also soared as a result of the recession.
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In my book Debt-Free U, I made my position on private colleges clear: Unless you receive a huge amount of financial aid to attend your dream private college, all the data suggests that you are extremely unlikely to earn any additional return on investment by springing for a more expensive bachelor’s degree.

But in the case of private schools for the pre-college years, the evidence is more challenging. The Council for American Private Education, admittedly a biased source, offers a raft of third-party data extolling the benefits of private schools, including better learning environments, lower dropout rates, and higher college completion rates. For instance, a 2002 report released by the federal government found that 30% of teachers in public schools reported that students’ unwillingness to learn was a serious problem. At private schools, the number was just 5%. It should be noted however, that all of these statistics are likely impacted at least to a large extent by selection bias. The fact that kids are attending private schools suggest that their parents are invested in their futures; that factor alone makes kids more likely to attend college, regardless of where they go to elementary school.
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The question many middle- and upper-middle income families will face is this one: Should I send my kid to a private school now and then a public school for college, or should I save money now so that I can send him to a private college when he’s older?

Having spent a ton of time exploring the issue of the benefits of attending private college, I would come down on the side of sending my kid to a private elementary school. Once he’s old enough to be in college, his path will be mostly determined by his own ability and attitude.