Given its long history of embracing private religious education, the New Orleans area is something of a natural environment for non-public schools. The Archdiocese of New Orleans is one of the oldest archdioceses in the U.S., and the origins of many local Catholic schools date back more than a century.  Some local schools affiliated with other religious denominations also reach far back in the city’s history.

This deep foundation helped give rise in the 20th century to a number of non-religiously affiliated schools that today form a complementary core of local private education. Typically, these schools exist because wealthy benefactors wished to establish alternatives to both the public and parochial schools available in the local area.

In New Orleans, as elsewhere, private institutions are sometimes criticized as having abetted an exodus of students from taxpayer-financed elementary, middle and high schools. It’s an argument that likely will arise among people who champion the need for high-quality public education. But many educators believe the existence of solid private schools helps to raise the bar for teachers and pupils throughout the area.
The importance of making a good education available to all, regardless of financial status, seems indisputable. However, it’s difficult to challenge the theory that having quality private schools available as an option can also mean a great deal to the quality of local education overall.

In any case, many local parents – like millions of their peers around the country – are committed to equipping their children with every available tool to get into the world’s best colleges and, ultimately, to help ensure their successful careers. Many families believe that this goal requires getting their kids into private high schools.
A measure of just how stiff the competition is to get into the nation’s top colleges and universities appeared recently in a Wall Street Journal article about prepping kids for college. The number of high school seniors who are going on to college has reached an all-time high in the U.S. Harvard University reported receiving a record 23,000 admission applications last year. The university accepted less than 10 percent of applicants into classes – a record low.

Among other factors contributing to the squeeze are students from abroad who are taking increasing numbers of seats in U.S. colleges. Also, many schools, including Ivy League institutions, are recruiting students from lower-income families in an effort to broaden their reach and extend the benefits of a top-flight post-secondary education to young people who might otherwise not have considered applying.

Not even a Harvard or Yale degree, of course, is a guarantee of future career success.  
But most families who have the wherewithal to finance such degrees aren’t likely to risk sending Junior to just any university. Thus, competition to get into top-flight college preparatory schools is becoming stiffer and extraordinarily costly.

In researching the path to eight of the top colleges in the U.S., the Journal identified some 70 high schools that send the largest number of seniors into those colleges.

While annual tuition at a few of the feeder high schools runs as low as a few thousand dollars, an annual tab above $20,000 is much more typical and tuition at a few of the prep schools runs close to $40,000.

Fortunately for local families, some excellent private schools are available at far lower prices. At Isidore Newman School in New Orleans – long one of the most expensive private schools in the local area – high school tuition for 2008 is listed at just over $15,000. Tuition at the highly respected Metairie Park Country Day School, meanwhile, will stop just short of that mark for 2008, as will the tab at Louise S. McGehee School.

High schoolers who choose somewhat more modest local institutions will find excellent education available at tuition prices in the $5,000 to $7,000 range, with some in the vicinity of $2,000 a year. Various fees at all these schools typically push overall costs higher. But many schools today offer creative forms of financial assistance and flexible payment plans that help to make quality private education more accessible for the average-income family.

Parents who send their children to private schools generally expect that students will receive more attention from teachers in classrooms with strict limits on the students-to-teacher ratio. In some cases, the students also will have access to specialized training and education.

However, when it comes to comparing outcomes among private, parochial and public schools, many educators say the real key is parental involvement. Students who have abundant support and encouragement from their parents throughout their school years are far likelier to achieve their full potential than are students who lack parental attention, no matter what type of school they attend. For parents who are committed to ensuring the best possible education for their kids, even in the face of limited financial assets, the good news is that a high quality education today, as always, still begins at home.