I went to an expensive private school. What was the benefit?

I spent six years of my life attending an independent private school – Melbourne Grammar School. It was expensive. I remember fees being around $10,000 a year.

Was it worth it?

There is an article in The Conversation today about private schooling, entitled Private schooling has little long term payoff.

It cites research that shows “after controlling for tertiary entrance score, university students from government schools outperformed students from private schools.”

Which is interesting. There is certainly an argument that private school kids are “spoon-fed” and can’t handle university thereafter. (I also seem to remember research that students who scored less than the cut-off but got into their course tended to do better in first year, so there could be confounding effort effects.)

The new research looks further along the lives of these students and finds “former independent school students were no more likely to be employed full-time than those who attended a government school after controlling for the effects of level of education, sex and age.”

The study also finds that graduates of independent schools are not likely to have higher earnings, nor more “prestigious” employment, after controlling for education.

In a comment thread on the topic, a user called Gabrielle calls out the methodological elephant in the room.

“Yep, ‘controlling’ variables everywhere! E.g. controlling for whether or not people attend a Go8 university when they look at occupational prestige, or controlling for field of study when looking at earnings…what the?! I mean sure, that’s interesting, but it totally bypasses questions about whether your schooling or university help you get into high status or high earning careers.”

If a private school helps you get into university (independent school students had an 80 per cent higher chance of graduating from a G8 university, according to the research), and university helps you get a job, then controlling for university when trying to measure the effect of private school is distracting. Silly even.

It takes just a glance at year 12 results to see that private schools dominate the top scores. I think we can conclude that going to a private school has a real payoff.

But what form does it take?

Second Row, fourth from the left.
Dug this out. I’m second row, fourth from the left.

I’m still close friends with some people I went to school with. But I have other friends who went to other schools, public and private.

As far as networking goes, I’m not aware of any benefit I’ve got from “the old school tie” and quite acutely aware of the benefits that have come from people I’ve met in my professional life. Could seeing my school on my CV have helped me in job applications? It’s not impossible. 

I’ve never worked at Goldman Sachs or a law firm, so maybe it’s different there, but I’ve rarely been aware of the schools my colleagues have gone to. When I have known, they’ve mostly been graduates of government schools. I don’t think my employers have been deeply biased to private schools.

So what was the benefit of my private school education?

You can never know the counter-factual but I think I fit the data perfectly – I suspect got a better year 12 result at the school I went to than at another school chosen at random.

Did the teachers “spoon-feed” me? I don’t know. They taught me, definitely. They were (mostly) highly qualified, diligent and happy to answer questions.

I also worked my arse off in year 12, despite having been rather disinterested in years 9, 10 and 11. By working hard I think I maximised my potential. I got into a good uni course that eventually helped me get a good job.

I wanted to beat the other kids by having a better score, and I knew they wanted to beat me. Even then, I was aware that the level of competition was peculiar.

Would that competitive aspect have been there at another school? It could have been. It might have been stronger at a selective entry school. But the skew of high scores at my school suggests it was acutely competitive.

So I’m not here to say, “I worked hard so I deserve everything I get!”

I’m trying to refute the crazy notion that private schooling is not advantageous, and answer the question of where and how that advantage accrues.

I know the world is unfairly skewed toward people who have the privileges I have. I’d like to see the opportunities of really motivating and rewarding educational environments shared really widely. Denying that private schools have benefits seems unhelpful in pursuing that goal.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

10 thoughts on “I went to an expensive private school. What was the benefit?”

  1. I shall be saving my hard earned cash and send the little ones to public schools.
    I will also save myself the $100-$200 just to put their name down.

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  2. Elite private schools do offer advantages although I think the effect is exaggerated in the minds of the anxious parents who send their kids to these schools. They also have many potential downsides depending on the way you look at it – and not just in spoon-feeding. The bigger question that needs to be tackled is – do these schools offer any advantages to the nation? Plenty of other successful countries run education systems that don’t have the levels of inequality as Australia.

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  3. You identify the benefit of your private school as largely deriving from the competitive motives generated by being around competitive peers. I am inclined to think you are right that that is a very large component of any benefit a student gets at any school. But obviously, it has nothing to do with private schooling per se. If that were the only benefit, then private schools just appear to be a very inefficient way for parents to attempt to sort their children into groups of similarly ambitious and motivated peers.

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    1. You’re entirely right. If the competitive effect was all that mattered we would be best off sorting kids for school like we do sport, and having Leagues A through F.

      But when you look at the data, it’s actually beneficial for low-performing students to be grouped with high-performing students. Grouping by skill comes with the tyrranny of low expectations for some students.

      In fact, that effect could explain my VCE result, which was near the top for the state as a whole, but only perhaps in the top quintile at my school. I did well because I was grouped with students who would do better than me.

      IN summary, this is a complex effect, and it has little to do with whether the government or the parents are primary funders of the school!

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  4. Could it be that the benefit is neither long-term nor mid-term but instant social gratification for the parents?

    From my experience, competition is key to push students to outperform, doesn’t matter if in private or pubic settings. But the consequence of a strong competition among students is that it self-maintains an elitist system and destroy the weaker ones.

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    1. This sort of comment is widely mocked by the private school parents but when you look at all the Porsche Cayennes parked outside these schools, the idea that they are immune to conspicuous consumption is kind of silly.

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  5. Thanks for bringing to my attention that a private school can encourage competing for better academic performance. My son hasn’t really been too interested in academics, but I know he can get pretty competitive. I think it would be good for him to work harder at schooling, so maybe I could send him to a private school.

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  6. I greatly appreciate your honest information in regards to your public school. I went to public school which had the lowest graduation requirements in the state. Naturally, as a result I am biased against public schools. I’d imagine the biggest factor to consider is the individual school, and whether it will give your children the education and skills they need. http://countrydaylargo.com/at-a-glance/

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