The Price of Private Education

Sweeping courtyards. Small classes. Uniform-clad students with Ivy League futures. The term private school evokes many idyllic images of education and privilege. However, underneath its glossy exterior, this culture of affluence has a dark underbelly.

The Elite Student Epidemic

Student mental health among private institutions is on the decline. These elite students exhibit higher rates of drinking, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression than other teenagers their age. While there are many factors involved, their problems seem to primarily be symptoms of circumstance.

“There is a U-shaped curve in pathologies among children, by class. At each extreme—poor and rich—kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction.”

Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company,
    20 Nov. 2015, Web.

Why Care?

Pembroke Hill Campus, KCMO

My connection to this topic is deeply personal. I am a senior at a private, college-preparatory high school called Pembroke Hill. It is the quintessential model of the “private school experience.” I have attended Pembroke since I was two years old and thus have experienced every side of elite education firsthand––from its wonderful advantages to the crippling mental health consequences.

I do not pursue this project out of spite towards my school. In fact, my intention is the opposite. I love learning, I love my teachers, and I have great respect for the education system I have been fortunate enough to attend since I was a toddler. It is a shame that so many teenagers, including myself at times, associate a sense of dread with the institutions that give us every tool for success. It is because I love my school that I am taking on this project.

Private education is important. However, it is in dire need of reform. Student mental health can no longer be an afterthought, or accepted as a compromise in the process of securing prestigious college acceptance.

In my project I will:

1. Examine the causes of mental heath issues surrounding elite institutions through the microcosm of Pembroke Hill.

2. Present an original school curriculum designed for student wellbeing and success.

Essential Question

What are the causes of the mental health epidemic among affluent, private schools, and what systemic changes can be made to prevent or mitigate the spread of mental illness?

1. Causes

Grading System

What’s wrong with letter-grade systems?

  1. Students equate their sense of self-worth with the grades they receive.
  2. Letter grades hinder creativity and discourage intellectual risk-taking.
  3. They promote “cram” culture. Students only remember information long enough to reproduce it on a test––they do not retain it long-term.
  4. They result in a mindset of unhealthy perfectionism, that which causes students to neglect their mental health needs, cheat, and abuse drugs in order to maintain their GPA.
  5. Students are less likely to be curious and interested in the class material, and therefore, they lose the motivation to learn for the sake of learning.

Class Curriculum and Daily Schedule

Shortcomings of Curriculum: At Pembroke Hill

  1. 4+ hours of homework per night Junior Year.
  2. AP classes (some of which could be taken without prerequisites) are not offered until Junior Year. This means that high-achieving students have no other option but to to take all of their AP classes at once.
  3. 25-minute lunch periods (where 10 of those 25 are spent waiting in the food line). Having such a small window of time to eat encourages unhealthy eating habits––e.g. over-eating when you do not have ample time to digest––that hinder your performance/make you feel sluggish for the rest of the day.
  4. 8am start-time. Studies show that schools in session from 9am-4pm are more beneficial to student performance as well as physical and mental health.

“Delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”

Williams, James. “School Start Times for Adolescents.” Pediatrics,
American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Sept. 2014, Web.

“Pressure Cooker” Environment

An Inside Look: Student Perspectives

Three students at Pembroke Hill share their perspectives on the “pressure cooker” environment within the school.

Adrianna G., Senior

“Regarding mental health resources, one problem is that the counselor’s office is in a very public location on campus. People rarely feel comfortable going in because they know everyone will see them and make an assumption immediately. The counselor is also the first person students see when they’ve gotten in trouble. So they already associate her office with the negative encounters they’ve had in the past when they got punished. None of that encourages students to seek help when they need it.”

Chloe Y, Senior

“Since Pembroke is so small, there are more cliques and everyone knows everything about everyone. Rumors spread fast. It also means that your academic successes and failures are public information. The pressure to succeed is much greater when everyone is constantly comparing themselves to you. It’s like they’re waiting for you to mess up.”

“Wealthy families also have a lot of influence at the school. Often, kids with last names that carry a lot of power face less severe disciplinary consequences than those who don’t have the same status. It contributes to an atmosphere of power dynamics that was particularly tense during the college-admissions process.”

Emma S. (me), Senior

“The pressure really begins to hit end of sophomore year when everyone is realizing at the same time that college admissions are right around the corner. There’s a tangible shift that occurs. It goes from a supportive environment to something more competitive and isolating. It feels like everyone is racing towards the same thing, and when you’re at a school as tight-knit as Pembroke, you begin to develop the mindset that your greatest competition is not the thousands of other high schoolers around the nation and globe applying, but primarily those in your immediate circle––those whose immense talent and potential you’ve witnessed firsthand.

That kind of pressure makes you think things, do things, and say things that you regret forever. I think the grading system is one flaw in Pembroke’s structure. For one, it’s not a weighted system, so cum-laude awards are granted by GPA regardless of the rigor of the class. Getting As becomes an actual sport, so much so that many find it embarrassing to admit they received a B on a final grade card. The idea was brought up in Student Government to abolish the A- this year, so that 90-92% would just show up as ‘A’ on the transcript––a small change that would help ease student stress. The change has yet to be implemented.

“You can sleep when you’re dead” is a popular mantra uttered Junior Year. At times, students wear their stress with pride––complaining loudly of only getting two hours of sleep the night before. I know I am guilty of doing this. It’s both a coping mechanism and a way to subtly let people know how hard you’re ‘grinding.’ Grind culture is a thing. It’s unhealthy, yet inescapable. And that’s because pressure at Pembroke makes you feel that if you aren’t overworked to the point of misery and fatigue, you aren’t doing enough.”

2. Road To Reform

Model Curriculum: Mastery Learning

My Curriculum Plan:

Works Cited

“Khan Academy View of Mastery Learning.” Khan Academy. YouTube, YouTube, 17 Oct. 2017, Web.

Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Nov. 2015, Web.

“Why Perfect Grades Don’t Matter.” The Atlantic. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Nov. 2017, Web.

Williams, James. “School Start Times for Adolescents.” Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Sept. 2014, Web.

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Madi

    Hey Emma! I love all your ideas! I come from a private high school myself and I can attest to the “grind” mentality and the lack of sleep. Not to mention that to add on varsity sports like I did, or other activities shortens the day and sometimes I don’t get home until after 8pm. I really like how you mentioned having mandatory test corrections. I just hide or throw away tests/quizzes I don’t do so well on, but it would really help me to go back over the material and see what I did wrong. I had one math class during my junior year where we did regular test corrections and it helped me so much to really see where I needed to improve! I fully support this!!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Eugenie.Park

    Hi Emma!
    I am also a student at a private high school and I definitely agree with the “pressure cooker” environment and the quotes you got really resonated with me. That being said, I think that we should recognize that private schools are independent in terms of funding/curriculum, and thus I’m not sure how we would be able to reform “private school culture”.Also, I’m sure that a lot of your points apply to public school students too; in fact, I think that the things that you talked about in this presentation could be applied to high school culture in general.

  3. April 26, 2019 by Jaren.Manivong

    Hey Emma, I really like this project and can relate especially since we both go to the same school which happens to be private. I love your idea of reforming the letter grades. Do you think that Pembroke or private schools anywhere would be amenable to this change?

  4. April 26, 2019 by Genevieve.Tomita

    Hi Emma! I am also a fellow private school attendee, and I completely agree with what you are saying here: in fact, a lot of my project relates to yours! As soon as I saw your hook, I was in fact, hooked. However, I was wondering – if you were to take away the letter grade system, what would you replace it with? A pass-fail system? Something else?

  5. April 26, 2019 by Addie Anderson

    This is a great presentation, one I resinate with greatly as I go to a very competitive private school myself. Junior hear, especially now towards the end, is certainly taking its toll on many around me, given the high value on grades and future college decisions looming nearby, Thanks for your presentation – it was not only insightful but this page is very well done, your wording eloquent and layout nice.

    • April 30, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      Thanks Addie! I remember how mentally drained I was at the end of Junior year, last year. You can do it, you’re almost there!

  6. April 27, 2019 by Vivian.Fong

    Emma, I love this! It definitely applies to me too, as my school is like yours. I love how you said that at times we tend to associate a sense of dread with the institutions that give us every tool for success. I see this almost everyday, when students tend to blame our school for making the tiniest mistake, when in the big picture they have actually prepared us for our future success. And I totally agree with the grading system, since everyone is so competitive, it can get very hectic and make people feel less about themselves. Very nice layout as well!

  7. April 27, 2019 by Anika Stenberg

    I was immediately drawn to your project, since I’ve been in private school most of my life. I can definitely relate to the cliquey feeling of small classes. This is something I struggled with for some of my time especially in high school. I would love to hear more about how this could change, and how privilege currently plays a role in disciplinary actions.

  8. April 27, 2019 by Rachel.Dulski

    Emma, your presentation was incredibly interesting especially because I go to a private high school myself. I had no idea that private schools exhibit higher rates of drinking, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression than other teenagers their age. I would love to read more about this data point, which source did you use to get this information from?

  9. April 27, 2019 by Riley.Weinstein

    This was such a cool presentation to read! I currently attend a private high school and I have gone to private schools my whole life. In Albuquerque, New Mexico it is always thought that kids attending public schools have more trouble with addiction, but being on the inside of a private school I know about all the struggles we have as well. I would love to do more research on this topic! Thank you so much for sharing!

  10. April 27, 2019 by Sarah.Eichler

    Hey Emma! I really love your project! I go to a private high school and can relate to almost everything you’ve mentioned here from a “pressure cooker environment” to those coming from wealthy families carrying powerful last names. I never knew that all of this actually led to higher rates of substance abuse among private school teens. I think that a change would be difficult, but I really like the curriculum you created.

  11. April 27, 2019 by sophia.Beardsley

    Hey Emma,
    I really loved your project. I go to school at a small private school and feel the exact same. Grades and personal information are public and there are many pressures. The one thing about my school is that it has become normal for people to see the guidance counselor which has helped everyone who struggles. I liked how you added other people from your schools perspective besides your own. Do you have any ideas how you can solve the problem with the guidance counselor in your school and create less of a stigma towards them?

  12. April 27, 2019 by Logan.Tyler

    Wow! This is such a great presentation. I go to private school too, and it’s actually a boarding school so we spend so much more time together than “regular” school. I think your take on privately educated kids turning to drugs and alcohol is really interesting and really accurate. I can definitely attest to that, unfortunately, happening at my school, and it’s one of the best boarding schools in the country. I really liked your proposed plan, I think all your ideas were spot on. Great work!

  13. April 27, 2019 by Jane

    Emma, I think you did a really great job on this project! I go to a private school as well and I have definitely heard the phrase “you can sleep when you are dead” many times as well. The more I think about that saying, the more I realize how messed up it is in regards to physical and mental health. I absolutely love all of the proposals you made in your curriculum plan, and I definitely think many of those changes would have a very positive impact in schools. I wonder how hard it would be to actually carry out all of those changes. I would think that if it would greatly improve the mental health of the students that the administration would be on board, but I’m sure there would be some difficulties. Overall, I think your presentation was very well researched and organized and you did a great job presenting a solution to your issue!

    • April 30, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      Thanks so much Jane:) Even knowing how bad it is to say it I still find myself doing it sometimes. Lol. Highschool

  14. April 27, 2019 by bryent.takayama

    Hello Emma! Thank you for teaching us about the pitfalls of the stereotypical private education system. I go to a private school in Seattle, WA, and also experience much of what your interviewees cited as a hypercompetitive work environment, where mental health is suppressed and often overlooked. However, I was a bit curious as to why you believe getting rid of the “A-” is one solution? Here at my school, we do not have A+, and only A and A-. Therefore, students don’t feel pressured to put enormous amounts of effort to achieve that top A+ (related are the 80-20 rule and the law of diminishing returns). I would appreciate if you could tell me more about why you think we should uphold giving A+s. Private education is such a fascinating topic–great work!

    • April 30, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      Hi Bryent. That’s a really good question and I’m glad you asked it. I think for a lot of kids at my school, getting an A feels like an accomplishment, and an A+ is the cherry on top. However, many equate the A- with missing success by an inch. Something about being that close, but not getting a “real A” makes them feel like a failure. Although A- and A+ are the same distance apart from a normal A grade, I believe the disappointment of getting an A- far outweighs the satisfaction of getting an A+ (at least at my school). Whereas an A+ gives us positive psychological reinforcement, A- does the opposite. So in my mind, if given the choice I’d eliminate the one that provokes negative feelings of self-worth.

  15. April 27, 2019 by Jay.Mehta

    This is really incredible. As a Pembroke Hill student myself (you know that, others may not:), I am tempted to send the Sheldon Method straight to Founders Hall. I know you and I have definitely compared grind-levels many times in the past, and I always kind of forget how unhealthy that is. I really do think the all-block schedule would be incredibly effective, as well as the longer lunch and the shifted day. But the part that really got me was the Peer Tutor Center! That’s a wonderful idea. A way for us all to be okay with being a little more vulnerable around each other and learn all at the same time. Not to mention it’s written beautifully.
    I look forward to seeing you change the world.

    • April 29, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      I love you Jay. You’re the best

  16. April 27, 2019 by Orly.Richter

    Hi Emma! I’ve also been attending a small private school since I was a toddler, so I can relate to many of the things you mention here. Our school just recently got a counselor, but he is only available once a week, so the resource is rarely utilized by students. The comment about everyone knowing everything about everyone else really resonated with me. My junior class is about 75 kids, so there isn’t much privacy, and rumors spread through our whole 300 person high school very quickly. I think that the combination of social factors and academic pressure leads to high levels of anxiety and depression in our student body, which is something that could be addressed using your curriculum plan.

  17. April 28, 2019 by Taylor.Hurt

    Hi Emma! I’ve also been in the private school system since the age of two, and I can definitely relate to the stress and “grind culture” I’ve been through. I really like the resources you used in this presentation to show why stress builds so fast in elite schools. I also really like “The Sheldon Method” and its emphasis on physical health, since I feel like my school never thinks about how much homework we get a night and how little sleep we get. Great Presentation!

  18. April 28, 2019 by Minea.Hill

    I think your ideas are super interesting and a great way to bring about change in the way you mentioned. I personally have attended pretty much every type of school, I went to a Catholic school for primary, a public school for elementary, and a private school for the remaining 6 years. I definitely noticed an increased pressure that attending the private school brought about, however, I often attributed it to being in higher school level than my previous experiences. I only became truly aware of the difference in the difficulty of schooling compared to other school systems while applying for university this fall. Yes, my schooling had been rigorous, however, I was accepted into every program and school I applied into and therefore got my choice of wherever I wanted to go. Do you think it is possible to maintain the benefits, like options for secondary school, while protecting the mental health of the students in these institutions?

  19. April 28, 2019 by Levith Andrade Cuellar

    Hi Emma!

    I loved your analysis and break down of the traditional and mastery learning educational methods, it really puts it all into perspective. I have a pretty good understanding of this because I attend a school that uses a sort of mastery learning educational method, where learning is personalized and we self evaluate our work. I study at THINK Global School (TGS), the world’s first traveling high school and alongside an alternative educational method, my school travels, we study in four different countries each year. I am currently in Spain for my fourth term of my first year enjoying of beautiful Bilbao as our host city.

    I love and commend your efforts at seeking to understand education, specially the one that has been given to you. It certainly is something that can be hard to pick apart and critique. Before coming to TGS I didn’t really understand what methods my previous school was using to help me learn, neither did I question them. Now that I am in TGS I’ve reflected much more about this and now have gained a much different perspective on educational methods as a whole. If you would like to chat about TGS or about my experience learning in both educational methods please do not hesitate to contact me.

    • April 29, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      Hi Levith! First of all, thank you. Second, that’s so cool that your school learns that way. I’m very curious to know more about it. My email is We should talk!

  20. April 29, 2019 by Caroline Jacobs

    Hey Emma! I also go to a very competitive private high school and can totally relate to the “pressure cooker environment” and “cram culture” that you mention. I really like your idea of having a personalized learning pace for each student to maximize healthy learning, but I was just wondering how a private high school would go about implementing this and what personalized curriculum would actually look like in the classroom?

    • April 29, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

      Hey Caroline, thanks so much! I get that the personalized learning pace is a bit of a reach if we’re being honest, especially in private schools. I think first, we’d have to renounce the AP curriculum. If teachers did not have to cater to an AP test, they and their students would have much more freedom and space to learn. The reason I include this idea in my project is because I am actually in a math class right now that’s experimenting with this personalized curriculum plan. I’m in differential equations, so there is no AP to prepare for. Therefore, my teacher lets us learn in a super lax classroom environment. He gives us problem sets every two weeks. We work in groups on them at our own pace in those two weeks. During class he’s available for questions. It sort of ends up being half the time him teaching whatever group the material they need help with, and the other half of the time us teaching ourselves the material together from a textbook. The trust he gives us as well as the way that we are set up in groups actually makes us way more accountable to the material and to our classmates. Most of us strive to finish the set by the two week mark, but he allows us to keep working beyond that deadline if we aren’t finished or fully grasping it yet. We also don’t receive grades. We have four-problem quizzes after each set, but instead of points, he’ll score each question on a smiley-face scale. Frowny faces for wrong answers, straight-mouth faces for almost there answers, and happy faces for correct answers. We must turn in corrections for all the faces that aren’t happy. But his system is awesome. No one is afraid of taking tests anymore. It encourages people to take intellectual risks without being punished on their GPA.

  21. April 29, 2019 by Bella Kemp

    Hi Emma! I personally go to a very small and secluded private school. While they provide an amazing education, I have to agree that it comes at a cost. Along with kids with notoriously wealthy families, I have noticed that their punishment is less severe compared to others. I think that part of why private schools boast about their success is the pressure cooker environment, because if they create a more stress environment, perhaps the results of the school will b e better. Great work!

  22. April 29, 2019 by Kaili Nakanishi

    Hi Emma! It wasn’t until this year that I transferred out of pubic school to a private school for my junior year. It still shocks me that these private school kids go through so much pressure and that isn’t as prevalent in public schools. Good job on your project. i really liked the interview portions; it gave a good insight as to what the school life is really about.

  23. April 29, 2019 by Sierra Erdman-Luntz

    Hey Emma! I really appreciated your project, especially because I am graduating from a private, preparatory school next month. How can students effectively begin to change their school’s culture?

  24. April 30, 2019 by Ashli.Jain

    Emma, this was a fantastic project! As someone who goes to private school, I could truly relate to many of the pressures you discussed.

  25. April 30, 2019 by Ellie Pearson

    Emma, this is amazing! I definitely think students the school system will benefit from following this curriculum and way of learning. Nowadays students come to school to get As, not to learn. How do you think students can encourage their schools to implement these ideas into the system without being turned down and dismissed?

  26. April 30, 2019 by Ellie Pearson

    Emma, this is amazing! I definitely think students the school system will benefit from following this curriculum and way of learning. Nowadays students come to school to get As, not to learn. I know I can definitely relate to the living-on-2-hours-of-sleep thing, and I’m not even a senior yet! I especially loved your interview and thought it really helped to make your project more personal. The Curriculum Plan was awesome too! How do you think students can encourage their schools to implement these ideas into the system without being turned down and dismissed?

  27. April 30, 2019 by Olivia Reichl

    Wow, this was an amazing presentation you made. It is so organized and clear, I love it! Thank you for sharing your voice in this presentation and also quoting your fellow classmates. It’s always helpful to hear from multiple people. I also attend a small private school and I think that stress is super high especially regarding grades, so this topic really applies to my life. Great job!

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