There is always a lot of speculation about what helps a college application most. Is it four years at a prestigious prep school? A hard-won success story from a troubled inner-city campus? A standout application from a regular public school?
The truth is that all of the above can get you into Harvard. It's not the school, it's the student. The question parents should be asking, as they look down the windy road of college prep, is where will their child perform the best?
I was a product of public schools - private was not an option - but we lived in a nice enough neighborhood, and I remember picking my high school (out of a set of four options) based on the number of AP courses they offered. In talking to a mom of a friend - who had scrimped and saved to send both her daughters to a prestigious all girl academy from 8th grade onward - I discovered she thought quite the opposite.
"I don't think my girls would have done as well at public schools," she said. "They really needed the individual attention and were able to thrive and develop there." They both ended up with multiple ivy-league acceptances and graduated from Stanford and Brown, respectively.
The net is that there is no "best" alternative, and it is never one-size-fits all. In order to make the decision, you need to understand who your child is, ultimately what it is they want.
Here's how you win at a public school:
Your child is self-motivated. He is able to make the most of any situation and does NOT need a competitive environment in order to succeed. He is more motivated by being the top student than by having a cohort of equally talented peers. He is able to create opportunities where they don't exist and stands out as someone teachers would be attracted to and want to help.
If this describes your child - or, alternately, if you are willing to put in the time to help your child fit this mold - then a normal public school may be a good fit. He would make his application stronger by demonstrating excellence even in an environment that does not naturally foster it. He would need to be proactive about creating the same types of opportunities that may exist naturally at private schools - summer internships, advanced courses, etc.
Here's how to win at a private school:
Your child thrives in competitive environments and performs best when she sees her peers setting a good example for her. She needs individual attention from educators. She does not naturally think of creating opportunties for herself, but if they are put in front of her she puts forth considerable effort towards performing well.
If this describes your child, she may get lost at a public school. A private school with an involved staff that encourages excellence and gives individual attention may help her perform better than she would otherwise.
Is it easier to get into Harvard (or some other Ivy) from a private or public school? At the end of the day it's a hard question to ask because your child will be different based on his experiences at one or the other. All things being equal, if you have the exact same track record, it is probably easier coming from an underperforming public school than a stellar private school. But the thing is, all things will never be equal.