Private Schooling Doesn’t Pay Off In The Long Term

Private Schooling Doesn’t Pay Off In The Long Term

Parents often invest huge sums in private education for their children. But as University of Canberra research fellow Jennifer Chesters explains, the evidence for benefits at university or later in life is lacking.

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In a recent article for The Conversation, Barbara Preston examined the link between type of school attended and progress at university. Barbara concluded that after controlling for tertiary entrance score, university students from government schools outperformed students from private schools.

This finding suggests that paying for an expensive private school education might not be the best preparation for university study. If this is the case, perhaps parents paying private school fees are looking for longer term pay-offs for their investment.

So who has more success after university?

I analysed data from the 12th wave of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) project to examine the longer-term outcomes of attending private schools. For the analysis, I selected one respondent aged between 25 and 34 years per household. The majority of young people have completed their education by the age of 25 and are settled in their careers by the age of 34.

Preliminary analysis shows that individuals who attended Catholic or independent schools were more likely to have completed Year 12 and to have graduated from university, after controlling for the effects of parents’ education, age and sex.

But are there differences in labour market outcomes? Here the type of private school is important. Although those who attended a Catholic school were, on average, 1.3 times more likely to be employed on a full-time basis compared to those who attended a government school, 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.

This result seems to suggest that paying private school fees is no guarantee of securing full-time employment. Given that women in this age cohort are in their prime child-bearing years, I also looked at the effect of interactions between sex and type of school attended; sex and age; and sex and level of education to determine whether there are differences between men and women. As expected, women were less likely than men to be employed full-time.

Next, I examined the earnings of those employed full-time according to type of school attended, controlling for the effects of sex, age and level of education. When it comes to weekly earnings, having attended a private school rather than a government school has no effect.

So there would seem to be no return on the parents’ investment in terms of the earnings of their offspring.

Perhaps parents were seeking to ensure that their offspring secured jobs with high levels of prestige in order to maintain their social status. After taking into account the effects of level of education, sex and age, having attended a Catholic school is associated with higher, on average, levels of occupational prestige than having attended a government school. On average, attendance at an independent school is not associated with higher levels of occupational prestige.

So why choose a private school?

A closer examination of university graduates may shed some light on this paradox. Of the individuals who had completed a university-level qualification, those who had attended an independent school were more likely to have graduated from a Group of Eight (Go8) university compared to those who attended a government school. However, individuals who had attended a Catholic school were no more likely to have graduated from a Go8 university. Perhaps parents expect that graduation from an elite university would provide a pathway into a higher-paying career.

For university graduates employed on a full-time basis, graduation from a Go8 university had no effect on occupational prestige after taking into consideration the effects of sex, age and type of school attended. There was no pay-off for graduation from a Go8 university in the form of increased earnings, nor did type of school attended have any effect, after controlling for the effects of age, sex and field of study.

These results must call into question the wisdom of paying private school fees, particularly for independent schools whose fees can be anywhere from $20,000 to $34,000 a year. The massive growth in the number of private schools since the 1990s may be having the effect of diluting the advantages perceived to be attached to private schooling.

If, as these results suggest, there is no long-term advantage to be gained from paying to attend an independent school, why do parents stretch their family budgets to pay private school fees? In a climate where university fees are set to rise, parents across the country may start asking themselves this very question.The Conversation

Jennifer Chesters is a Research Fellow at University of Canberra. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • When you say controlling for extrance score and other factors, doesn’t that create a bias in your study. If private schools result in a higher extrance score but same level of progress at uni, it still justifies going to a private school. Just curious as to what you meant exactly?

    • Private school students don’t get higher entrance scores than public educated students. It just appears that way because private students are vetted and the public system accepts everyone

        • They mean a lot if you , say wanted to become a surgeon and end up in some other occupation and regretting it for the rest of your life.

          • end up in some other occupation
            Unless they’ve changed things, mature age students aren’t subject to the same requirements ie. entrance scores. So changing careers isn’t such a problem, they usually just have other requirements that show dedication/determination. Uni’s don’t care who gets in as long as they get their money, the scores are just there to filter out applications. Not only that, but every course is required to accept a certain amount of students that are below the required score to a certain margin, as well as a certain amount of mature age students.
            The score is still meaningless to anyone and anything beyond that initial entry to uni, straight out of high school.
            Unless of course, they have changed things since back in my not so distant days.

          • The problem is by the time you’ve finished your first degree, got a job, established a career, possibly had a kid and a mortgage can you really afford to go back to uni to do a 4 year bachelor of medicine/bachelor of surgery, then do a 1 year placement at a hospital, then another 3-8 years training to specialise until you get a fellowship at a specialist professional college.

            Sure its possible.. but its a much easier path to take straight out of school. I agree that entrance scores aren’t the be all and end all that you think they are at school, but they do open easier paths to particular end goals.

  • I went to a public school, but when I was in Uni, there were plenty of private school students that simply couldn’t cope with how Uni was structured. They were used to having everything handed to them on a silver platter at school, then they get to Uni where NOTHING is handed to you, and they couldn’t adjust. A large portion of them dropped out within the first year of Uni. Hell I considered dropping out myself at one stage, but stuck with it.

    I’d like to see the statistics of University dropouts between public and private school students.

    • I experienced the same thing. My private schooled classmates at uni really struggled to cope without having their hand held throughout the course. They seemed to have to work a lot harder just to get the same grades as the others, it was like they’d never learned to study.

    • Common misconception. I went to a private (catholic) school and never had anything handed to me. If you wanted to pass you had to study and work hard. You don’t get good marks otherwise. Private schools are very competitive – many likely burned out.

    • I agree with mortal on this one
      Private schools don’t just “hand us” everything. I’m not entirely sure where this myth came from. I went from year 12 to uni along with dozens of my school mates. None of us had any issues. What I do see happen is many private school people will take a year off before hitting uni though.

      • This is why I want to see statistics. Maybe my experience at University was not the norm, or maybe it was, but it was definitely what happened in my case. But this is exactly why I want to see statistics on this, to see what the norm actually is.

    • This seems like a massive generalisation. I’m not sure how you could just assume that any privately schooled student has had everything handed to them on a silver platter. I went to a private school and i certainly don’t believe everything was handed to me, nor do i have that expectation.

    • I don’t think its possible to have learning handed to you on a silver platter. You can have teachers who are experts in their fields (have degrees in mathematics or science or law), have risen to the peak of their profession and and know their material and can teach it. Or you can have kids in over-stuffed classes run by under-qualified teachers with poor attitudes and peer groups that don’t care about education. In either case ultimately a child who wants to get a top entrance score has to work their butt off, just in the latter they may not have the resources to realistically achieve the same result, regardless of how hard they work.

      Having completed one of the most highly demanded university courses, I can tell you that public school graduates made up a small minority of entrants. More so if you discount the selective entry public schools, or those that got some concession for entry because they were from a rural area. To me it was very clear that unfortunately public schools don’t create the same opportunities for their students that private schools do (fortunately for me I was able to attend a private school on scholarship).

      My experience makes me think that some of the controls in this study make the implications of its results somewhat narrower than people may assume.

      • I’m sorry to see that your highly demanded university course has taught you little of statistics. The plural of anecdote is not data.

        In short – your experience may be interesting, but it doesn’t mean much unless you gather a lot more data.

        • I’m sorry my post upset you to the point of resorting to passive-aggressive snark in your first sentence. It was not my intention to offend.

          In relation to the substance of your statement..

          I refer you to this quote from the article: “Barbara concluded that *after controlling for tertiary entrance score*, university students from government schools outperformed students from private schools”. My comment related specifically to the bit between the *s. Barbara’s study (and I have no doubt that she understands this) did not cover which schools provide you with a better entrance score, and therefore a greater range of University courses to choose from. This was not the point of her study (however is likely to be missed by your average Herald Sun reader). Hence my statement “…some of the controls in this study make the implications of its results somewhat narrower than people may assume.”

          Now you picked on the fact that I used my personal experience to conclude that most law/med programs are packed with graduates of private schools and some selective entry public schools. I could instead have relied on some easily accessible data – namely the tables that appears in the paper every year when year 12 results are published and schools are ranked by entrance score. I’m sure you have seen these tables yourself and don’t need me to google this for you.

          The first para of my post was entirely in reply to the completely anecdotal post by @whitepointer (ie that private school grads are used to getting everything on a silver platter and don’t know how to work hard at uni). My anecdote to counter his is that in my experience if you want to get in the 99th percentile of entrance scores you have to work bloody hard regardless of which school you attend.

  • I think a lot of the reasons for private schooling is enabling a child to enter the ‘boys club’ (and to a lesser extent ‘girls club’). For example my sister who was publicly educated got a TE score of 990 (the highest possible then) went on to join a prestigious law firm and was one of the only non Grammar school educated solicitors on the staff…They basically only employed her because she is brilliant, otherwise mediocre Grammar boys got first dibs for all positions.

  • The biggest difference besides access to facilities is class time and teacher time. On average in public there are many more distractions including kids who can’t sit still, drugs, teen pregnancy, and violence. While I’m not saying this doesn’t exist in private colleges it is lower than average. Apart from this I’ve never thought that spending upwards of $10,000 a year for a high school education is ever a wise investment, I’d rather spend the money on trips and resources for my child’s own hobbies.

    What I want to know is, of the kids that did pass high school and did succeed at university how many came from well-off families? Is the conclusion that it is up to the parents to give a toss about their kids and their education for their kids to succeed, and not at how much money you throw at the problem.

    • Most of the major drug users at my school (public) were ex-private school kids who had been expelled. Most of the kids at our school couldn’t afford drugs and booze and didn’t have the network.
      The teen sex was good tho and I don’t remember any pregnancies at my school, I guess our sex ed classes were decent.
      Also, having coed high schooling really helps with socializing imo. At uni a lot of the Girls School girls were boy crazy and got into lots of trouble, where the girls from public schools had the whole thing sorted out. That said there are studies that suggest that boys do better academically in a co-ed environment while girls do better in an all female environment.

    • There are some really interesting data-sets discussed in the article, but I believe @pointing fingers has asked a hugely relevant question: “Of the kids that did pass high school and did succeed at University, how many came from well-off families?” (Whilst ‘well off’ may not actually be the ideal measure, it is one that might closely correlate with “parents who give a toss about their kids and education”). And therefore if it can be proven that statistically those parents who don’t just rely on the school system to provide the education but contribute significantly themselves have the greatest impact on the success of children, then there is a recipe for many parents to follow that isn’t only available to those with money.

      As an aside, I believe there is another advantage that private schooling often provides to children that is not available through public schools, and that is the amount of facilities and resources and extra curricular activities available to the students. All of which can contribute to providing a more rounded education, and someone coming out of school that has a broader education than just academic output.

      I also feel that another of the deciding factors of a parent choosing a private education over public for their kids is the socio-economic group of the other students. People feel most comfortable with other similar minded and similar ‘cultured’ people, and irrespective of the outcome of the grades, they wish their kids to be happy and comfortable throughout their schooling life and believe paying for this is worth the money, even if the grades aren’t there to support it.

      • I also feel that another of the deciding factors of a parent choosing a private education over public for their kids is the socio-economic group of the other students. This. If for some reason I find myself with kids and living in an area where the local public school was full of bogan feral kids, then I would either (a) move house, or (b) fork out for a private education. I’m not saying that all, or even most, public schools are like this, but there are definitely a few. I wouldn’t want my kids being influenced by a peer group of losers. There, I said it.

  • The biggest misconception everyone seems to have around here and irl, is that private schools are all rich, have better facilities and better education, while public schools are poor/average and feature nothing but basic education.
    Private school by no means relates to financial standing, and purely means that the school is privately funded, set their own fees and can turn non-payers away.
    All schools whether private or public are all independently run, and can not be judged solely on their financial source, especially given that some public schools will hold social events to gather additional funds, or even receive donations or income from advertisements etc.
    Many public schools are in fact significantly better off than private schools, as is the case in my area.
    Parents need to judge the school on what it has to offer, not what its financial status is.

  • I think it needs to be examined from the opposite end. Instead of looking into the outcomes of students educated in public vs. private schools, look at prestigious fields of employment and see where they came from. Look at our politicians, how likely are you to reach the top level of politics if you’re been publicly schooled vs privately schooled. Same for law or medicine, look at the ultra-elite in these fields, see where they came from. Entrepreneurs, how many “old boys” form new businesses together, vs how many publicly schooled friends make it?

    It’s the areas that have such a small percentage of the overall population where the hidden benefits lie.

  • We shouldn’t judge how good or bad a school is based solely the chance of employment/income from going there. Private schools have the ability & funds to teach students more than just the curriculum & it is often the co-curricular activities (compulsory sport, community service, keynote speakers) which you can’t put a price on which really set private schools apart.

  • This is flawed in many ways.

    (1) Private Schools give kids a higher chance of getting into top universities. Look at the VCE rankings and tell me that the top 30 isn’t dominated by private schools (and a couple selective government schools).

    (2) Given that their schools give them a higher chance of entrance, kids who are less naturally talented will find themselves in the same degrees, with the same entrance scores as kids who achieved those scores and entered the degrees from public schools.
    Basically, because the private school kids had their grades boosted through their schooling and they loose this boost when they get to university, and this will result in a natural decrease in performance of kids with the same grades from private and public schools. However, these kids may have never gained entrance from a government school, so their private schooling was hugely advantageous.

    (3) The top students from private schools go to American and English universities like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, UCB, Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, whereas the top government school kids don’t. This is a bias on your study.

    I could go on, but it’s 1:30am and I’m tired.

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