Editor's Note: NAM intern Erik Fowle weighs in on the lack of diverse representation in higher education private schooling. This is the second blog post in our series covering education issues. Fowle writes: 

Recently, I was shocked to learn from my mom that a family friend of ours had decided to send her son to a private high school because she didn’t want him going to a school in the kind of environment, with “the kind of people” at my public high school. The kinds of people she was no doubt referring to were those of color, of varying ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. To her, the type of learning environment these students presented to her son seemed hostile.


I attended public schools up until college and I, for one, can’t understand some parents’ desire to sacrifice diversity in their children’s education by sending them to private high school. There is much more to an education that what one learns in the classroom, and I believe we can attribute some of these less measurable factors to the diversity of public schools.

But diversity isn’t just a measure of how many nonwhite students attend a school. Today, we are judged less by the color of our skin as by the contents of our wallets. And I’m a firm believer in the whole money-is-the-root-of-all-evil idea but let’s be honest: our society is measured and categorized by how much money we have. One brief look at how our society is broken down – into classes by income, income that is taxed already to provide funding for public schools – tells us that money is the true measure of diversity. For this brief look one need search no farther than nytimes.com’s Class Matters special section, in which a self-proclaimed working class man is quoted as saying the “gap between rich and poor will never close,” and that “it’s hard to get wealthy if your family isn’t.” This is unfortunate, but it’s true.

My college was small (just shy of 3000 students) and in many ways felt like high school. But one difference I noticed on a daily basis – walking to class, attending parties or athletic contests – was that the campus lacked the diversity, lacked the slice-of-life flavor my Bay Area high school so proudly boasted as one of its core values. I had stepped out of the Tongan lunch areas, Hispanic hallways and African-American football fields onto a campus of what seemed like one big Caucasian student body. I felt as if someone had forced a rainbow backward through a prism and held it so that only the white light shined on our campus.

But so what? School is about learning, about grades and the knowledge necessary to find a job and make it on your own. And in high school specifically it’s about getting into a good college, scoring higher on the SATs or cramming as many AP classes – steroids for GPAs – into your schedule as possible. So who cares what the makeup of the student body is so long as you’re learning, so long as you’re getting the kind of education that achieves those goals?

I do. I might be young and I might lack a paying job but I’ve experienced enough to know that education, that life, isn’t measured in letters on a transcript or numbers on a paycheck. In one regard, I view education as a kind of modification of behavior through practice, training or experience. So how are we to modify our mind’s behavior, to learn new ideas, if the dance partner with whom we practice is practicing the same step; if the teammates with whom we train offer us no insight into new techniques; if the friends with whom we share our experiences are no different from ourselves? If school is supposed to prepare us for life outside of school – where we cannot choose the racial composition of a company’s office or that of a restaurant’s patrons – what can we really learn from a school whose student population excludes diversity?

Because our society is based so much upon wealth, the true measure of diversity lies in the wide array of incomes and financial situations in which American families, and their high school students, find themselves. Which is not to say that people of color have no right to consider themselves a part of our society, or school system’s, diversity. It’s just that something tells me that even if the private school our neighbor was considering had the same percentage of minority students, (and it doesn’t – 19% compared to my public school’s 55%, according to privateschoolreview.com and schoolmatters.com) she still would not have hesitated to pay, what may seem to some an exorbitant price, for her son’s high school education.

And herein lies my problem with private high schools. Well, I suppose I should say problems. To begin with, public high schools in the U.S. offer, on average (according to publicschoolreview.com), new enrollees nearly 15% more diverse student bodies than private schools. And private schools are doing more to up the ante. According to Tom Van Riper’s article on Forbes.com about the most expensive private high schools, they are recruiting a wider array of ethnic students and offering more financial aid.

But I can’t help but feel that private schools’ claims of diversity are a bit of a façade. On the one hand, the drive to obtain more students of ethnic backgrounds is valuable. We learn the most from those who are different from us and who can offer us new insights because of their different backgrounds. On the other hand, simply recruiting more students of color is a bit of a ploy. Private schools seem to be using a strict head count as a measure of diversity in order to compete with the overwhelming competition they face from their public counterparts. My problem is that the issue at hand should be not how many students of color are present but where those students come from, because simply adding nonwhite faces to the crowd doesn’t guarantee socioeconomic diversity.

So even if private high schools are showing increasing numbers of minority students and in some cases even financial aid, it is hard to imagine that an African-American or Hispanic family living on the upper edge of society’s third quintile ($43,005 and $48,000 respectively – from US Census Bureau) can afford to send their children to private schools with a median cost of nearly $17,000 a year. In case you’re not too inclined with numbers, and I’m not, the 3rd quintile translates roughly to middle class. These price tags clearly indicate the problems households of ethnic minorities in the lowest quintile of American household income ($12,524 for African Americans and $17,500 for Hispanics) might have with paying for a private school education. And I pass no judgment here. As purely a numbers game, it would be fiscally impossible for any of these families, ostensibly for any family with a similar income, to spend one third to nearly all, of their yearly earnings on tuition.

Of course, if you happen to be able to afford a private school education (and I couldn’t), go ahead – take it. It will instill in you such important values as knowing that someday, a public school student will be pumping your gas. Don’t believe me? Check out the description of one of Facebook’s “I went to private school…bitch” groups and see what those kids are really learning with their $17,000-a-year education. And maybe more of them are getting into Ivies and Stanfords. But maybe my graduating class will lead a much more tolerant, enriched, you name it, life for simply having spent four years admiring and learning from real diversity. Just maybe.

This is important because, as I walk down 4th street on my way to work; up Folsom toward 9th; past the coffee shops and car repair garages; through an entire city yawning itself awake under the fog that seeps in from the Bay between buildings and Muni buses; I take solace in knowing that every morning presents itself to me in the form of new faces, clothing styles and ideas and never, never makes me feel as if I am looking in a mirror. And that was something I never felt as I walked across my college campus, wading through a sea of North Faces and Polos. So I ask you to consider whether the price of a private high school education really reflects the true value of what those students are learning. Because I don’t think it does.