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Private schools shine when it comes to college placement. Here's where to find them.

When the state of Oregon mandated in 1922 that all children should attend public school, they forgot something Catholic school pupils have always known: Don't mess with the nuns. The Society of Sisters, an organization which operated several Catholic schools in the state, filed suit, and in 1925 the Supreme Court ruled in the Sisters' favor, guaranteeing the legal right to a private system of education in the U.S.

As the nation's private schools celebrate the 75th anniversary of this victory, 6 million of their students return to classrooms this month. Besides looking smart in their back-to-school blazers, these kids are an attractive audience to marketers who wish to reach a group of students who continue on to college - especially selective colleges - at a higher rate than their public school counterparts. To uncover the geography of this population, we mapped the concentration of private schools per capita, by county, using information from the National Education Data Resource Center. Suppliers of plaid skirts and knee socks, take note.

There were 27,402 private schools in the U.S. during the 1997-1998 school year, the latest year survey data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), representing 25 percent of all K-12 schools in the U.S. During the same time, private school enrollment reached 5.86 million, equaling 11 percent of all primary and secondary school students. Enrollment this year is estimated at 6 million.

Geographically, private schools tend to be located in urban and suburban districts, with 77.3 percent of schools located in these areas, and 22.8 percent in rural areas or small towns. An even greater percentage of students attend these urban/suburban institutions - 88.5 percent - signaling that these schools tend to be larger than their rural counterparts. Looking at the map, one can see that many of the most highly populated counties have a high per capita number of private schools. In fact, 74 percent of the 107 counties with populations over half a million fall into the category with the highest per capita number of private schools, or less than 10,000 people per school. Conversely, of the 113 counties in the lowest concentration segment, 81 percent have populations under 70,000.

Regionally, 29.6 percent of private schools are located in the South, 27.1 percent in the Midwest, 23.1 percent in the Northeast, and 20.2 percent in the West. In relation to census population counts, there are a greater number of private schools per capita in the Northeast and Midwest than in the South and West. Examining the map, 73 percent of the lowest per capita counties are in the Southern region. "The Northeast has many old, well-established schools," says Mark Mitchell, director of information and research at the National Association of Independent Schools. "States like Massachusetts and Connecticut have heavy concentrations of independent schools," which is reflected on the map.

Private schools are not as ethnically diverse as the population at large, with whites and Asians attending at higher rates than blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. In the 1997-1998 school year, whites (non-Hispanic) accounted for 78.2 percent of all private school students, blacks accounted for 9.0 percent, Hispanics for 7.8 percent, Asian/Pacific Islanders for 4.5 percent, and Native Americans/Native Alaskans for .5 percent. This compares to total U.S. population figures of 72.9 percent, 12.1 percent, 10.7 percent, 3.5 percent, and .7 percent, respectively, for each ethnic group.

However, proponents of private schools point out that this under-representation of minorities can be misleading in determining the diversity of private schools relative to public schools. In a 1998 study, professor Jay Greene of the University of Texas at Austin found that in fact "private schools tend to offer a more racially integrated environment than do public schools." This is because many public schools replicate the racial segregation found in the population of school districts, while private schools attract students from a wider geographic area.

Not surprisingly, wealthier families send their children to private schools in greater percentages than poorer families. The NCES does not keep records of average incomes for families of private and public school students, but Census statistics show that in 1998, among households with school age children and incomes over $75,000 per year, 16.4 percent had at least one child in private school. In comparison, 5.2 percent of households earning less than $40,000 had a child in private school.

One reason parents are willing to spring for tuition is that private schools boast an edge over public schools in college placement, with 87.5 percent of private school students applying to college versus 57.4 percent of public school students. When it comes to the 100 most selective colleges, these institutions enroll one-third of their student body from private schools, despite the fact private schools educate only 11 percent of the population, according to a January study by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States. However, there is conflicting evidence as to whether private education itself improves the likelihood of attending college, or whether the students who attend these schools are already more likely to do so. Either way, this group is an attractive demographic for marketers hoping to burnish their brands with an audience of overwhelmingly likely college-bound consumers.

The number of private school students is on the upswing, as the Baby Boomlet inflates the number of school-age children. The NCES estimates that the number of all K-12 students, public and private, will increase from 53 million this year to 54.4 million in 2006. If private school enrollment remains at the 1997-98 level of 11 percent of the total student population, their numbers will increase to 6.082 million in 2006. The greatest growth will be in the high school sector, with a 10 percent increase in enrollment between now and 2007.

However, if school-choice voucher programs expand, this could increase the percentage of students in private schools, according to Steve Broughman, author of the NCES' Private School Survey. A 1999 study by Public Agenda found that 55 percent of parents who send their children to public school would prefer to send them to private school, if money were no object.

A boom in demand would make a county such as Randall, Texas, with one private school for a population of 100,713, a rather fertile location to open a new school.

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