When she was a 17-year-old high school senior applying to college, Jessica Assaf wanted more than anything to attend Brown University.
Founded in 1764, the private research university based in Providence, R.I. holds the distinction of being one of the U.S.'s oldest higher learning institutions.
Along with its Ivy League peers, it's also among the most selective colleges in the country. This year, Brown accepted just 9.2 percent of the 28,919 students that applied for the Class of 2017. When Assaf was a senior in high school back in 2007, Brown's acceptance rate stood at 13.5 percent.
Despite a strong résumé that included solid grades and entrance exam scores, and an enviable list of extracurricular activities, Assaf — who attended the private, $29,800-a-year Branson School outside of San Francisco — failed to get accepted to Brown.
At the time, she "felt like a failure," she openly admits.
Now, several years removed from that disappointment, she sees that momentary stumbling block as a precursor to everything she's been able to accomplish since.
"Not getting into Brown was the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Assaf, a vice president of sales at S.W. Basics of Brooklyn who ultimately ended up studying at NYU and has been accepted to the Harvard Business School.
The private school environment, according to Assaf, too often tended to engender in her and her classmates "an entitlement mentality."
"At NYU, in a city like New York, nothing happens for you," she said. "You have to earn every opportunity."
At Branson "you don't think you have to work hard," she added. "You think I'm here, I deserve to be here, and now everything's just going to be handed to me."
Assaf is careful to point out that she's not trying to fault her private school or in any way disparage her former classmates. Yet she also admits to being "frustrated about my high school experience, because it was so expensive and there's so much emphasis on getting into an Ivy League school."
At a time when many Americans see little choice but to tighten their belts in an economy just barely lumbering along, parents are increasingly questioning each and every purchasing decision. That includes what they're willing to pay full price for at the local supermarket, to which schools they send their children.
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Some parents can afford the hefty sticker price attached to schools like Branson. However, the experience of students like Assaf, coupled with comparable data on the success rates of many gifted students who attend free public schools, has called into question the cost-benefit—or the return on investment—of a private school education overall.
Indeed, while many still believe that enrolling their child in a prestigious private school—where the cost of attendance can often exceed that seen at top colleges and universities — is a guarantee of social status, recent evidence suggests that calculus isn't so clear cut.
Worth the Cost of Admission?
At Brooklyn's Poly Prep Country Day School, the yearly tuition is about $32,000. Students excel in the classroom, all while attempting to live up to the standard set by some of the school's notable alumni, such as Kenneth Dubertstein (class of 1961), a White House Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan; Seth Low (1966), a former New York City Mayor; and novelist Joseph McElroy (1947).
Poly Prep's graduating seniors also routinely gain admission to some of the nation's elite colleges and universities.
"In the ever-increasing competitive world of college admissions, Poly Prep students continue to fare quite well," said Poly Prep's dean of college relations, Michael Muska, co-author of "Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age," on the school's site.
In an e-mail to CNBC, Muska said that "over 20 percent of last year's class attended Ivy and Little Ivy schools."
That said, Poly Prep's numbers seem to be in line with the estimated 25 percent of seniors from New York's "specialized science and math [public] high schools," like Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan — raising the question of whether its worth it to shovel money into private schools.
According to InsideSchools.org, an independent guide to the city's public school system, the largest in the country, students that hail from New York's most rigorous and competitive schools also gain entrance to the Ivies and top private colleges at impressive rates.
Other schools, such as the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, where students are admitted in the 10th grade based on their junior high and 9th grade performance, rank among the top schools in the nation in sending students on to Ivy League schools.
Both IMSA and Stuyvesant edged out Branson in a 2007 Wall Street Journal survey of student admissions to a select group of elite colleges and universities. Poly Prep, however, failed to make that list. Meanwhile, the famed Dalton School in Manhattan, which cost families more than $40,000 a year, just barely made the cut.
Some experts are openly skeptical about the merits of a private school education over that of a comparably strong public school, which they argue can offer a good student the same standard of education—and chances of gaining entry to a top university — and are free.
"I used to chuckle at parents who would send their kids off to expensive private schools rather than Oyster Bay," said Gwyeth Smith Jr, an independent college adviser and former high school counselor. "If they're bright kids, they're going to be in the same honors and AP courses that are going to be equivalent to or better than many of the private schools."
Smith said he's concerned that far too many parents and students get caught up in the "college admissions arms race."
"My last six clients have all been 9th and 10th graders," said Smith, who acknowledged that most of students he works with come from middle- to upper-income families. "That scares me."
A Competitive Advantage?
While a supporter of public schools, Smith nonetheless admits that many private schools do have some advantages, such as better student-to-counselor ratios that allow them to put a greater emphasis on the college counseling process.
Smith often advises his students to make nontraditional college choices — such as one student he encouraged to attend USC over an Ivy League school. However, he says he's concerned with the dejection that students like Assaf experience, when the substantial investment in a high-priced secondary school education doesn't yield the return they expected.
"Those are the kids I [worry about] more and more," he said. It's "terribly confusing" for them and their parents, "who often believe their children are the 'chosen ones.'"
David L. Marcus, who wrote a book on helping students find the "right college" couches the public-private school debate in terms of institutional shortcomings.
"Increasingly, public schools fail to prepare students for college and beyond," Marcus told CNBC in an e-mail. The 1986 Brown graduate, who has served as an admissions interviewer for the school for the past several years, added that "too many [schools] aren't emphasizing critical thinking, and they're not helping kids see the connections between science and math."
On the flip side, he says that college admissions staffs "do a fantastic job scouring public schools for poor and middle-class students who distinguish themselves," echoing Smith's sentiment that a talented student will stand out to college admissions officers more often than not.
"I look for qualities that don't show up on a high school transcript," he said. "I want someone who has an insatiable desire to learn, and who thinks critically."
So what exactly are parents getting for the hefty sums they shell out each year for a private school education—which costs a family, on average, $15,000 a year, according to the Council for American Private Education?
Part of that answer lies with the superior access and attention to detail that comes with attending private school, says Jennifer Simpson, the director of college advising at the Kent Place School, an all-girls private school in Summit, N.J.
At Kent Place, where the annual tuition is approximately $35,000—more than the cost of attending Rutgers-New Brunswick, which is about $24,000 for 2012-2013—students have access to college counselors like Simpson, who came to the school after spending several years working "on the other side of the able" in college admissions.
She admits that access is "absolutely" a key factor in many parents' decision to send their children to Kent Place. Like many private schools, Kent subsidizes the cost of attendance with generous financial aid awards.
Yet when asked about Kent Place students' admissions rates to the Ivy League and other top colleges, Simpson said she didn't feel comfortable supplying those figures. She said different people had "different interpretations" of what constitutes a top college.
Still, parents like Ginny Dameron, a school nurse in San Antonio, TX whose son attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, showers praise on her son's private school experience, and the perks that came along with its price tag. Dameron's son graduated from Exeter in 2007 and from Dartmouth in 2011, and is now earning a law degree at Yale.
"I think my son went to the best school in the world," she says of Exeter, where the cost of attendance is about $45,000 a year. The school's nearly $1 billion endowment dwarfs that of many liberal arts colleges.
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Dameron says she not only received very generous financial aid from Exeter, but that the school took a genuine interest her son from the outset of the recruitment process, and continued to nurture him on through graduation.
Still, even Dameron questions whether schools like Exeter still remain the "ticket to ride" to the college or university of one's dreams they may have once been.
"I honestly don't know if that's still the case anymore," she said.
A Shifting Perspective
Admissions officers like Jarrid Whitney of the California Institute of Technology—one of the most selective universities in the country alongside peers like Stanford and MIT— downplayed any notion that students attending private schools get special consideration in the admissions process, or had any other clear advantages over their public school counterparts.
"Although private schools may, in some contexts, offer more resources in certain communities than the local public school can," Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Caltech, said in an e-mail to CNBC. "I've never felt as if attending a private school would automatically give a student any type of competitive advantage in the admissions process."
Smith, who spent close to forty years working in public schools, still believes that public schools can and should do far more to help students navigate the vexing gauntlet of college admissions. "My own children went to public schools," said Smith, whose children attended Manhasset High School on Long Island. "I believe very strongly in public education."
For her part, Assaf is enthusiastic about her current career trajectory, even if it wasn't the seamless path she anticipated as an ambitious high school senior. She doesn't mind that her life took a lengthier path to the Ivy League.
"If anything, I give all the credit to NYU," she said, noting the many interesting opportunities she's gotten due to her NYU experience.
Although Assaf said she may have had similar opportunities had she attended Brown, she wondered if she still would have believed that "everything's just going to be handed to me," as she and many of her classmates did while they attended Branson.
"I think it ultimately comes down to the individual," she said. "I think about what's gotten me to where I am now, and it has nothing to do with having gone to private school."
Correction: An early version of this story misspelled the name of S.W. Basics of Brooklyn.
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