Preparing for Public Life: School Sector and the Educational Context of Lasting Citizen Formation

Author(s): Jeffrey S. Dill

Source: Dill, Jeffrey S. 2009. “Preparing for Public Life: School Sector and the Educational Context of Lasting Citizen Formation.” Social Forces, 87(3): 1265-1290.


Do private schools have a lasting influence on civic participation as graduates age into young adulthood, and if so, what explains this effect? Building on previous literature that describes how essential education is to socialization, Jeffrey Dill uses the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS) to observe differences between graduates of different types of schools on civic participation, and finds several factors that mediate this outcome.

About the Study: NELS surveyed US eighth graders in 1988, and then four subsequent times over the course of the next 12 years, providing a sample of over 8,500 students from 1,160 schools.  He examines differences in civic participation by school sector (public, Catholic, non-Catholic religious, and non-religious private schools).

Findings: Dill finds that there is, in fact, a private school effect on civic participation in young adulthood.  Private school graduates are 38% more likely to volunteer as adults than are public school graduates, even when family background variables are controlled, suggesting that volunteering is not a function of the social class in which ones was raised. Dill finds that social capital factors explain this private school advantage.  That is, social norms that encourage civic participation seem to be encouraged by the presence of network closure – significant relationships between students, teachers, and parents.  This type of social connectedness is characteristic of private schools.  Therefore, this “private school effect” cannot be attributed solely to the schools themselves as parent interaction with schools and students plays a significant role in encouraging voting and volunteering in adulthood.  To the extent that private schools excel at encouraging and integrating family involvement, then, they are becoming incubators of adulthood civic participation.

It is important to note that both non-religious and Catholic schools had a positive, significant influence on volunteering behavior for students while they were in school, but this effect was greatly diminished for Catholic school graduates in adulthood.  That is, individuals who graduated from private non-religious schools are the most likely to be civically-engaged as adults.

Evaluation: The findings pointed to significance in individual family and community background effects, rather than school level effects alone. One primary question left unanswered by Dill’s study is the influence of college experiences on civic engagement. Dill suggests that college attendance could mask the private school effect for individuals later in life.   It’s also possible that private high school experiences prompt choice of colleges in such a way that creates an interaction between private high school attendance and college experiences.  For instance, it could be that private school graduates who attend small private colleges will be highly likely to become engaged in community service opportunities, more so than public school graduates at the same types of colleges or private school graduates at larger schools.

Finally, it is important to note that this study focuses on adults who were in high school a generation ago.  Given the changing structure of public and private school funding and curriculum design, it’s entirely possible that graduates of today’s schools will have different outcomes once they become adults.  Changes over time in private school effects on civic engagement was outside the scope of Dill’s paper, but will be an interesting focus of research as newer data become available.

Keywords: civic participation, school type

Sector: Catholic,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Civil and Political

Date Posted: 2016-11-18