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Many private high schools boast in recruitment materials about the success of their graduates in gaining admission to top colleges. After all, many parents who can afford to do so pay private school tuition in part because they want their children to have success after high school.

But a private, for-profit high school in Orange County, Calif., may be taking this to a new level -- with a guarantee.

"Fairmont Private Schools, Orange County’s largest and oldest nonsectarian private school, is boosting the return on investment in education with the Fairmont College Promise, which guarantees that Fairmont Preparatory Academy graduates will be accepted to and receive scholarships for tuition at the Top 100 U.S. colleges or universities. The school also says it will convert up to 100 percent of tuition paid to attend its high school into a scholarship to the college of choice if the promise is not met," says a press release issued last week.

The guarantee is provided on a sliding scale based on students' grades and also how long they are enrolled at Fairmont. Those who start in seventh grade get the greatest guarantee. The "top 100" colleges are those so designated in various rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The scholarships promised are non-need-based awards, even though many of the country's most prestigious colleges award aid based only on financial need. (Details on the program may be found here on the Fairmont website.)

Press materials sent out by Fairmont to Inside Higher Ed and others boasted of the commitment being unprecedented. And it may well be.

But some experts on both private high schools and college admissions said that no high school should be guaranteeing college admission and financial aid. A college counselor, they said, should always be focused on finding the best college fit for every student seeking a higher education. For some students, that will not be a college that does well in U.S. News rankings, and a counselor should never have a financial incentive (by a high school that has pledged to help students get into "top 100" college) to steer students in one direction or another.

The only guarantees that educators seem to applaud are those of state systems that pledge that all students who achieve certain grades in high school are assured admission to certain public universities -- but those promises are seen as encouraging academic achievement, not enrollment in a particular private high school. At Fairmont, tuition for those in grades seven to 12 ranges from $20,780 to $23,870. (By comparison, University of California tuition for state residents is just under $14,000.)

Myra A. McGovern, vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools, said she had never heard of one of the association's members making such a guarantee. (The association is only open to nonprofit, private high schools.)

McGovern said she was troubled by any high school designating only a certain kind of college as appropriate.

"Does that serve students well?" she asked. "The idea of a school isn't that it produces one outcome exclusively, but that it helps a student develop into an adult." Defining success as being admitted to a college praised by U.S. News "is a relatively narrow outcome."

She pointed to her association's code of ethics, which has a provision that warns against any relationships that would have school officials favoring some colleges over others in admissions advising. The provision states, "The school ensures that all representatives, internal processes, and external recruitment arrangements support the best interests of the student and do not result in a conflict of interest on the part of the school, individual, or firms representing the school."

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that his association's Principles of Good Practice don't explicitly address tuition refund guarantees. But he noted two provisions that may be relevant. One says that "members neither guarantee placement nor outcomes." The other says that "agents must not guarantee admission to any postsecondary institution nor guarantee or offer a financial aid or scholarship award."

Hawkins also said that guarantees would appear to run counter to values that NACAC and its members promote.

NACAC members encourage students and parents "to consider that the point of a high school education is to obtain an education" and that getting admitted to college should not be "considered an end unto itself, but a means to multiple ends, not least of which is preparation for economic and personal success."

Hawkins said that admissions professionals "would be likely to question whether it is educationally sound to reduce the educational value of a school to student placement into a list of exclusive colleges, even if just for marketing purposes."

Inside Higher Ed learned of Fairmont's guarantee from Bolt PR, an outside company hired by the school to promote its offer. Officials at Bolt PR expressed surprise that anyone was raising questions about the program. One representative of Bolt emailed Inside Higher Ed to say, "As I’m sure you understand, we do not want any bad press." She asked, "Is there any way we can work with you on the angle of the story?"

Bobby Mendoza, president of the Preparatory Academy at Fairmont, said in an interview that the guarantee wasn't really a money-back guarantee because the refunds go to tuition payments at various colleges, and are not refunded directly to the tuition-paying parents. But he acknowledged that the families would in essence be receiving their money back in that they would not face tuition bills at colleges that were not designated as top institutions by U.S. News.

As to the ethics concerns raised about a possible conflict of interest for counselors, Mendoza said he understood the worry but disagreed. He said that when Fairmont officials presented the idea to the school's counselors, they raised the conflict of interest issue. But he said they were reassured when officials shared data showing that the vast majority of Fairmont graduates already go to colleges covered by the guarantee. He said counselors were reassured that they didn't need to do anything differently from what they have done in the past.

So why offer a guarantee if students already have high levels of academic success? Mendoza said that the market for high school students "is incredibly competitive." The program is designed to encourage families to enroll their children at younger ages "and to show them that this is the outcome they can expect."

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