Do Top Colleges Favor Applicants Who Are Extremely Wealthy?

Article reports that 29 percent of students at Brown and Dartmouth are from private high schools. Other Ivies are also high. Is this the way colleges should admit students?

March 22, 2021
 
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The ostensible topic of the article in The Atlantic is summed up in its headline: "Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene: Elite Schools Breed Entitlement, Entrench Inequality -- and Then Pretend to Be Engines of Social Change."

But the article also has a message for higher education. Beyond the obnoxious parents and wealth (there are private high schools with $1 billion-plus in their endowments), there is the question of whether top colleges and universities should be admitting students from these schools in the numbers that they are.

"These schools surround kids who have every possible advantage with a literal embarrassment of riches --- and then their graduates hoover up spots in the best colleges," writes Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. "Less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend so-called independent schools. But 24 percent of Yale’s class of 2024 attended an independent school. At Princeton, that figure is 25 percent. At Brown and Dartmouth, it is higher still: 29 percent."

Part of the way those percentages are so high is that the leading private schools send a large share of their classes to the Ivies or similar institutions. "In the past five years, Dalton has sent about a third of its graduates to the Ivy League. Ditto the Spence School. Harvard-Westlake, in Los Angeles, sent 45 kids to Harvard alone. Noble and Greenough School, in Massachusetts, did even better: 50 kids went on to Harvard," the article states.

Flanagan continues, "However unintentionally, these schools pass on the values of our ruling class -- chiefly, that a certain cutthroat approach to life is rewarded. True, they salve their consciences with generous financial aid. Like Lord and Lady Bountiful, the administrators page through the applications of the nonwealthy, deciding whom to favor with an opportunity to slip through the golden doors and have their life change forever. But what makes these schools truly ludicrous is their recent insistence that they are engines of equity and even 'inclusivity.' A $50,000-a-year school can’t be anything but a very expensive consumer product for the rich. If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop."

Later in the article, it said, "If you went to Lawrenceville, a boarding school not far from Princeton and the university’s top sending school, your chances of going to Princeton were almost seven times greater than if you went to Stuyvesant High School, an ultra-selective public school in New York City and itself a top Princeton feeder, where 45 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But compared with an average American public school? You don’t want to know."

In the world of college admissions, the article was something of a Rorschach test. Some see colleges making natural decisions on applicants, factoring in a variety of factors, legitimately. Others are appalled at the percentages of private high school graduates getting into highly competitive colleges.

Defending Private Schools

Myra McGovern, vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools, said it's certainly true that graduates of NAIS schools go to excellent colleges. "They are students with significant accolades and high SAT scores," she said.

"Many independent schools offer high-level course work that prepares students well for college," she said. "They also participate in extracurricular activities at much higher rates than students from other types of schools. All of these things make them very attractive to college admissions committees."

She noted a Gallup survey of the public that found that 10 percent of NAIS school graduates and another 2 percent of non-NAIS private school graduates were graduates of Ivy League colleges. This compares to 1 percent of graduates of public high schools.

But she said that the Atlantic article was "sensationalistic" in its depiction of parents of private high schoolers. "It painted the parents as focused just on college admission, when the vast majority of parents are focused on their children's well-being."

McGovern acknowledged that "it's not a level playing field" when high school graduates apply to college. But she said that graduates of private high schools are getting in on merit.

One key part of McGovern's defense of her members is that she is looking at the individual graduates of private high schools, not at the graduates taken as a whole. Critics of the current system don't deny that those graduates have excellent credentials and that each student admitted will likely graduate from a top college. Their criticism is of all those individuals collectively taking spots from others, who also would graduate from top colleges. And who would bring more diversity.

Of the four colleges named for their percentages of private school graduates, one -- Yale University -- didn't comment.

At Dartmouth, Diana Lawrence, associate vice president for communications, said via email, "There are a few aspects I would highlight regarding Dartmouth’s 'independent school' cohort: It includes most of our students from international schools around the world, it includes many of the college’s enrolling athletes and many students whose parents are alumni, and it encompasses a growing number of students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college (related to the increase in student diversity at many independent schools)."

A spokesman for Brown University, Brian E. Clark, said via email, "First, I’d note that not every student who attends a private high school comes from the same background. Among undergraduates at Brown who come from private schools are a number of first-generation students, others from low-income families and many who identify as students of color. Of the total 1,756 first-year students in our Class of 2024, 45 percent are students of color, 14 percent are first-generation college students and nearly half receive need-based financial aid. Those students come from public, private and parochial schools as Brown is increasingly home to a socioeconomically diverse mix of students. We also continue to implement measures to make Brown more accessible and affordable for students and families -- from replacing loans with scholarships in university aid packages, to waiving admission fees and covering textbook and course material costs for low-income students, to new rural student outreach programs and expanded support for military veterans."

Ben Chang, a spokesman for Princeton, said: "The Atlantic article you cite advances a narrative about the admission process through selective use of data that ignores our significant ongoing efforts and progress in attracting and supporting talented students from throughout society, including students from groups that have been underrepresented in higher education and denied the opportunities they need to flourish. We strive to find students who would not only benefit from a Princeton education but who will use this educational experience to go on to impact and change the communities and world around them. Among our most recent incoming class (Class of 2024), 62.8 percent attended a public secondary school, 16 percent are the first in their family to go to college, and 19.3 percent qualify for a Pell grant. As a measure of our progress in increasing the socioeconomic diversity of the student body over the past 10+ years, just 7 prercent of the Class of 2008 qualified for a Pell grant. And thanks to our financial aid program, which provides grants instead of loans, more than 80 percent of recent graduates have left the university debt-free."

Within the admissions associations, officials favored questioning colleges with high percentages of students from private schools.

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he found the article "fascinating" and that he was "struck by the percentage of students in highly selective colleges and universities who came from independent high schools."

The reality, he said, is that "students attending these particular independent schools have financial resources unavailable to most families -- the average annual outlay when you include both tuition and other annual giving was staggering."

Reilly said that "as we in the admissions profession examine whether our practices hinder or advance access and equity, I would encourage colleges and universities who have large numbers of students from a small number of elite private high schools to ask whether they have created an 'advantage' in the admissions process that is justifiable."

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, "Look, I will keep it real. I believe in institutional autonomy," so colleges themselves have choices about whom to admit.

"The reality is institutions can admit who they want, but what I hope this article does is help institutions ask themselves the question: Is this who we want to be?" Pérez said. "Do these high percentages of students from private high schools limit our potential to become more diverse and inclusive environments?"

‘Truly Disgusting and Gross’

Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT (Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today), said her entire education was in private schools (and private colleges). "I'm a private school person," she said.

But she called the statistics in the article "truly disgusting and gross," adding, "I was horrified when I saw the numbers. Here's a structure of white supremacy in a systemic way."

Bigham said that the article made her question one of the key rules for college admissions: "protect your relationships with high schools."

"It's very damaging," she said, adding that the private high schools doing so well are obviously protected.

She also said the statistics made her think about the debate over affirmative action. Rather than focusing on the small numbers of Black and Latinx students getting into top colleges, she said, what about all these private school graduates, who are mostly white and very wealthy, and benefiting from their circumstance?

"As a profession, we are talking about the wrong things."

Bruce Poch is dean of admission and executive director of college counseling at the Chadwick School, in California. Formerly, he led the admissions team at Pomona College.

Via email, he said, "From the perspective of an independent school college counselor, I see some of the really awful, craven decisions being made at colleges now. I am fully appreciative of those admission deans and officers doing really good work. And, I am pretty disgusted by some of the practices that may serve the institutions well but that completely shove aside notions of a public good."

He added, "As I watch the celebrations of test-optional or test-blind, I am at the same time delighted for some of my students, yet also terrified that the advantage independent school students already have in essay reviews with counselors and lengthy references from teachers who know them well and can write brilliantly supportive recommendations, will be hugely amplified in the process without standardized markers (with the possible exception of AP results -- which opens another long tale of access and availability. Wealthy kids will, once again, come out ahead. Look even at the grade inflation curves at independent schools, according to NAIS data. Rather shocking that the average grades and grade point averages nationally at independent schools are just a hair below A. That's happening at upscale public schools, as well. Not at most public schools. We have become Lake Wobegon."

Though he is at a private high school, he said, "Give me two kids with equal scores of 700s on the SAT -- one at a school where few went on to college and the parents of the applicant were non-college, and test prep was whatever a kid could find online, and the other at a high powered independent school with professional, highly educated parents, and who has the same scores, and I am pretty sure who is the go-getter with likely more raw ability. And, probably more resilience."

And the problems are getting worse, he said.

Added Poch, "For the upcoming class of first-year students who had grossly interrupted educations, the disparities between public and independent school were even greater. We maintained instruction, teacher-student engagement time, etc., even if it was through Zoom. But the attention was there. Pretty much every school suffered at least some diminishment of academic programs. Course materials were reduced. At independent schools it seemed 'social-emotional' issues trumped academic concerns. The balancing points could certainly be argued, but I'm betting a lot fewer of those conversations took place at public schools. I think it will be worth watching carefully as colleges absorb their new freshman classes this fall and in fall 2022. How prepared are they? I expect the head start of independent school grads may push them even farther ahead relative to many of their peers, but, they all will be coming in with a more awkward, likely weaker preparation academically than their predecessor classes. I've been watching these multiple issues twist and spin for most of my career, but never before have the have and have-not questions seemed so stark."

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