College preparatory indicates that a school prepares students for college. In theory, of course, every high school should prepare students for college, but that’s not always the case — even for schools that adopt the college preparatory label. With a national focus on readying students for college and careers, many schools — even elementary schools — are using the college preparatory title in their names and promotional materials, but what does it actually mean?

College prep: elite boarding school or urban charter?

Among the many schools that call themselves college preparatory, you’ll find elite boarding schools that have sent generations of graduates to the Ivy Leagues and other top universities. You’ll also find inner-city charter schools that pledge every graduate will be admitted to a four-year college or university. You’ll also, unfortunately, find schools that do nothing outside the ordinary to ensure that students go to college, but claim the college preparatory label because they know it’s what many parents are looking for.

There are publicprivate, parochial, and charter schools that call themselves college preparatory. And while these schools can be selective — requiring testing and interviews for admission — they could also be open enrollment, accepting anyone who shows up.

With such a range of options — and with so many schools calling themselves college preparatory — parents would do well to look beyond labels and evaluate a school’s actual performance. Before enrolling your child into any self-proclaimed college prep, it helps to know what advocates, and critics, claim about these types of schools.

Preparatory schools: pro and con

Supporters argue that college degrees lead to higher earnings and better prepare students to excel in a career. A school that makes the assumption that everyone is going to college puts more students on a path to succeed in a competitive global workforce.

Detractors contend that the term college prep is so indiscriminantly used that it doesn’t mean much. “In some states, anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a college prep high school,” Nassirian says. “The level of oversight is all over the map.” It’s up to parents to differentiate between a program that actually teaches students what they need to succeed in college and one that merely pays lip service to the task. Most importantly, it’s up to parents to decide if a college prep school – one that genuinely prepares their child for college – is the right fit.

Is college the right path for my child?

Today, few people dispute the value of a college education. In fact, statistics show the higher the level of education a person attains, the higher the income potential. For example, the median earnings in 2011 for an adult with just a high school diploma was $638 a week, while the median earnings for a person with a bachelor’s degree was $1,053 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This doesn’t mean that every student can or should go to college. “You don’t want to push kids where they won’t be successful,” says Jim Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA., and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Still, Jump says every high school should prepare students for post-high school work, whether that’s college or trade school.

Parents should also think beyond the curriculum to the level of assistance their child may need to get into college. For example, a first-generation college student may need more help from counselors and teachers in preparing applications, writing essays, and researching schools if other family members are not able to help. If the student is planning to attend a community college, which usually have fewer admission requirements than their four-year counterparts, parents should make sure the student takes the right classes before graduating high school, so she doesn’t have to take remedial courses at college, which adds time and wastes money.

What to look for in a good college prep school

At a true college preparatory school, the concept of college is front and center. At Gateway High School, a charter school in San Francisco, all freshmen visit a college on their first day of school. Later, students have an entire college counseling course that exposes them to majors, different colleges, and potential careers. At Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis, students can get a head start on their college career by earning up to 18 hours of college credit before they leave high school.

At the Gary Lighthouse Charter School College Preparatory Academy in Indiana, every student is part of an advisory group — named after their teacher’s alma mater — for four years. Here, each person researches colleges and develops a list of reach and safety schools and writes a paper outlining their plan for applying to college. Michael Morgan, 17, has developed his list of schools, which includes Harvard and Northwestern. Morgan speaks in terms of CRS, or college readiness standards, which are the focus of his coursework. To fulfill his school’s community service requirement, which is mandatory for character-building and to support college applications, Morgan volunteered for a local mayoral campaign.

In the weeks leading up to the ACT exam, students wear T-shirts with their goal score emblazoned on the back. By graduation, each student will have gone on dozens of college tours, written college essays in class, and been accepted to a four-year college or university. (In fact, students don’t earn a high school diploma if they aren’t accepted to at least one college). “We try very hard to make it an assumption you are going to college,” says principal Chrissy Hart. “The students here say they are going to college because it’s not a question.”

What to ask when considering a high school

If you have decided a college preparatory school is what your child needs, make sure you can answer the following questions:

  1. Which colleges and universities do graduates attend? Do most graduates go to community colleges, or can the administration produce a list of four-year colleges its graduates attend? It’s also important to find out how many kids graduate from college, which indicates whether students acquire skills necessary to obtain a college diploma. “When schools say they are college prep, is it for admissions or is it for success?” Jump points out. Too many schools, Jump says, focus on getting students into college to make their stats look good, but don’t prepare kids to handle the rigors of college over the long haul.
  2. Are teachers using Common Core Standards in their lesson plans? Nationwide, most states have adopted standards that were designed to clearly spell out for teachers, students, and parents what graduates need to know to be prepared for college. But Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, says it’s important to be sure the college-ready standards are actually being taught — and taught well. “Some research suggests that teachers vary in the degree to which they integrate state or local standards into day-to-day instruction,” she concludes.
  3. How do students do on the SAT and ACT? These are standardized tests typically taken by high school juniors and seniors to measure a students’ knowledge in math, reading, writing, and for the ACT, science. Most colleges require the SAT or the ACT for admission. (The National Association for College Admission Counseling says that most colleges will accept either the ACT or the SAT, but recommends students check in advance with schools on their list to make sure there isn’t a preferred test for admission.)
  4. What percentage of students take the SAT or ACT? This number is an indicator of whether every student has been put on a college track. At successful college prep schools, juniors and seniors are given information about the tests and are encouraged to take them. At many college prep schools, reminders are everywhere and preparation for the tests is even worked into the school day.
  5. Does the school offer honors, AP or IB courses? Many colleges and universities want to know that students have taken challenging courses, so it’s important to find out if the school offers honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate courses. But be sure to do your homework, cautions Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, because the quality of these courses can vary greatly. He says that some schools put an “H” (for honors) or an “AP” (for Advanced Placement) in front of course names, without providing the advanced coursework these terms imply — and since there is no official body monitoring honors curricula, there is no oversight.Parents should verify that an honors or AP course is truly challenging students, and they should ask how many students enrolled in AP courses actually take the corresponding AP exam and how well they do, Nassirian advises. Similarly, many universities want a student’s record to include advanced math and science courses, so check the course offerings to see how far your child can go in these subjects.
  6. Is there proper support for moving onto college? Strong college prep programs should support students, but shouldn’t hold their hands every step of the way, says Dr. Catherine Karl, principal of St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. When students move onto college, “they have to be used to making decisions for themselves,” she says.

Final words on choosing a college prep school

Think about your student’s interests and future goals. Make sure the school offers a curriculum to get her there. “Our advice has always been to seek as academically challenging a curriculum as the student can handle,” Nassirian says — whether that’s at a college preparatory school or not. “We don’t think it’s better to have a 4.0 in an unchallenging curriculum then to have a 3.2 with a much more robust course content.”

Finally, visit any school you are considering for your child and talk to other parents who have children attending the school.