Privilege or Problem? The Stigma of Private Education

Justin Ober   undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
s a public school student for my entire academic career 
(up to and including college), I have noticed a trend on the part 
of my classmates and I to regard private school students as 
'privileged' and 'snobbish.'  We have a sort of institutional 
disdain for kids who pay to go to school.  Perhaps it's because 
we went to school for free (at least until we get to college).  Maybe 
it's a subtle, socially imposed inferiority complex.  It could even be 
that we are just a bit jealous.

After all, private schools seem to have it made.  (Having worked at a 
prestigious northeastern private grade school for the past two summers, 
I have experienced the differences firsthand.)  They have beautiful, 
well-maintained campuses.  Bright, motivated teachers gravitate towards 
the generous compensation packages and the prestige that comes with a 
private school's name.  Often, wealthy parents and alumni generate a 
substantial endowment, which the school uses to provide lavish 
accommodations for their students:  building "Performing Arts Centers" 
and computer labs; buying all manner of sports equipment; and, naturally, 
providing a fully-stocked library.  Meanwhile, us public school kids have 
dingy, graffiti-tagged facilities, cramped spaces, teacher strikes, and 
an often unruly student body.

But is that where the differences end?  Consider the case of a student 
from a wealthy family who's sent off to some academy on the other side 
of the country.  She has to live in a dorm from her freshman year of high 
school until she graduates, eating institutional food (albeit the best 
institutional food money can buy), cut off from her family, with little 
opportunity to socialize or indeed have any experiences whatsoever that 
aren't sanctioned and chaperoned by her school.  In such cases, the school 
assumes the role of both parents.  But it's not just Mom and Dad; the 
school is the dormitory students' entire family.  Teachers are surrogate 
Aunts and Uncles, classmates are stand-in cousins while the real family 
is nowhere to be found, except perhaps on "Parents Day" once every month 
or two.  How many public school kids would accept that reality?

When I attended the University of Sydney Australia, I lived at a 
"Residential College."  About 2000 students at the Uni lived on campus in 
a similar arrangement, the rest (all 34,000 of them or so) had to find 
their own accommodations, either with their families or in apartments in 
the Sydney area.  Those of us who "lived at college" were considered to 
be, according to one prominent example of campus graffiti, "Privileged 
Private School Brats."  When I told my Aussie classmates where I lived, 
I could discern their slight change of attitude; the reputation and 
stigma of the 'college man' preceded me.  They expected me to be, as 
they put it, "jumped up."  They figured (incorrectly, I assure you) that 
I hail from a wealthy family and that I would rather tackle the bloke 
with the footy than, say, read about it in the paper.  Their preconceptions 
of me eerily echoed my preconceptions of privately schooled kids back home.

I felt odd on the other side of the line.  For once, I was not in the 
majority.  I became the odd man out - not quite ridiculed, but still not 
quite understood by my peers.  It sounds trite, but if I'd thought it would 
make a difference, I'd have pulled my friends aside and told them that we 
weren't so different, they and I.  Couldn't they see it?  I didn't mean to 
put on airs, I wasn't trying to bring divisiveness - they had me figured 
wrong!  But you cannot try to break a preconception without appearing to 
reinforce it.

I would like to say that it makes no difference whether a student attends 
a private high school or a public one.  I wish that merit were the sole 
means of judging someone's worth or ability.  But truthfully, a prestigious 
name can open quite a few doors, and most of the time one must buy that name 
to earn it.  But I've come to realize that money alone cannot always cover 
the cost.