- Going to a top-20 college is not really a valid life goal, or a basis for making decisions. A good aspiration for your child would be to have him be happy, well educated, engaged in his studies and in his community, curious, capable, ambitious.
Those are the qualities that will make him a candidate for a top-20 college. Going to a top-20 college may help him along towards those goals as an adult, but it is perfectly possible to achieve them without going to a top-anything college. And he will do better as an adult if he is a person like that who went to East Podunk State than if he is a depressed burnout with a Harvard AB.
So . . . He should go to the school where he has the best chance of being happy, well-educated, engaged in his studies and in his community, curious, capable, ambitious. Where he will have the best chance of growing into a good person. If he’s a good person, college will take care of itself.
- Which high school a student attends probably has some impact on college admissions outcomes, but much less than you may think.
My kids started at a private school famous for its academic excellence, and switched to a selective urban public school in 11th and 9th grade, respectively. (There were a number of reasons we did that, none of which had anything to do with thinking the private school was not a great, great school. It was.)
The schools were very different – classes of 90 vs. classes of 600; limited and carefully curated ethnic diversity vs. multi-ethnic bonanza; almost no cultural/political/economic diversity vs. almost complete cultural/political/economic diversity; humanities orientation vs. STEM orientation; 40% of the graduates attending our definition of “top” colleges vs. 5%; anti-competitive (or pro-suppressed-competition) vs. super-competitive.
However, the public-school students who were demographically similar to the private school students had pretty much the same admissions outcomes as the private school students with equivalent academic credentials and test scores. Because the private school was much more selective than the public school, the bottom of the private-school class was probably equivalent to the average students at the public school. And because the families at the private school were much wealthier, students not at the tippy-top of the class were much more likely to go to private colleges with some prestige at some distance from home, while the academically equivalent students at the public school flocked to second- or third-tier in-state public colleges.
The private school sent a much higher percentage of its class to top liberal arts colleges than the public school, where only a handful of students (mostly those resembling the private school kids) even thought about LACs. That, and a large number of students whose parents were faculty at a local Ivy, accounted for most of the difference between the admissions outcomes for the two schools.
The students for whom the private school made a real difference in college admissions were not the top students – who would have done fine anywhere – but students in the bottom half of the class. They were counseled carefully, and marketed very precisely to colleges, and placed into great fits. Their public school equivalents went to big directional publics.
Bottom line: Even if all you care about is college admissions outcomes, there may not be a whole lot at stake in your decision.