Every American high schooler knows the supposed secret to a lifetime of success: admission to an elite university. Competition for coveted spots is so fierce that while an admission victory can’t be guaranteed, it can be gamed, if you know how to play.
It worked for me: I attend a prestigious university, Stanford, which accepted fewer than 4 percent of applicants last year. There, over a quarter of the current undergraduate population came from private schools, even though only 14 percent of U.S. high schoolers attend one. The numbers are reportedly similar at most Ivy League universities. Harvard is one of the worst of them: A survey of its class of 2019 saw 35 percent of respondents hail from private schools.
Some of these students presumably attended parochial schools. However, many of my peers and I attended elite private schools: nationally ranked overachiever factories designed to churn out catnip for college admission offices.
These schools are so effective at influencing the admission process that they further advantage our society’s privileged few and leave everyone else free to believe that only the most accomplished, most brilliant students get into prestigious universities. The idea that admission to the most selective colleges and universities is based on merit presumes that a fast track to comfort, status and wealth doesn’t exist. But that’s just an illusion.
I grew up in the Bay Area, where, according to an analysis by Niche, a school rating database, private high schools outrank even the state’s most competitive public schools. Niche compiles data from the Department of Education, the Census Bureau and reviews from students, parents and teachers to determine school rankings. Access to the high schools it puts at the top of its list often comes with a college-size price tag. In the United States, the average private high school costs $16,040 a year, and tuition at the best ones often exceeds $50,000.
(There is no federal student aid program for high school; schools can offer financial aid, but many families pay sticker price.)
Given rising tuition costs, the number of middle-income families that send their children to private schools has declined since the 1960s, while the number of students from high-income families has stayed relatively constant.
States like Massachusetts and New York, which have high-ranking private schools, also offer top-notch public options; private schools operating there must prove their value in a competitive market. But in California, some of the best private high schools in the country compete in a state where public ones rank in the bottom half of the nation. Private high schools help the rich insulate their children and provide them with the best secondary education possible — while everyone else struggles to keep up.
Pursuing the best secondary education available has an obvious purpose: getting into a prestigious university. Private high schools openly market themselves on this goal; many top schools’ websites boast college matriculation lists that show dozens of alumni at the best universities in the country. I’m certain that my high school’s obsessive focus on academic success derived, on some level, from the need to tell prospective parents that one more senior got into Stanford that year.
Even the structure of these schools seems designed to service the college admission process. They often bestow access to more advanced classes than a typical school and offer a wealth of extracurriculars. At my high school, a club period was even built into our class schedule so that robotics or model United Nations could meet during the school day, presumably to help burnish the activities section of our Common Application. After school, we had time to tack on even more activities, like sports practice and theater rehearsal.
Where I grew up, attending a private school was likely to facilitate a significant bump in test scores. Students at private schools in my area will likely score 33 or 34 on their ACTs (out of a possible 36), as opposed to top public school students’ 31 or 32. At the top of the pecking order, that slight increase can help snag an acceptance from a school like Stanford or Harvard. After all, elite universities are supposed to look for perfection — or three points from it.
But looking good on paper is but one drop in the inscrutable bucket we call college admissions.
Counselors at elite private high schools have behind-the-scenes access to demystify admissions for their students. When I was deferred from a school I applied to early action, I was told that my high school counselor called the admission officer at the college to ask why, and the person simply responded that I should keep my A in honors calculus, implying that if I did, I would get in during regular decision.
These counselors frequently ring elite universities’ admission offices to make the case for their favorite students. In 2020, Swarthmore College ended this practice after it found that over 90 percent of counselors calling represented private high schools. Students at private schools have personal connections with their counselors, who often in turn have the ears of admission officers at elite universities across the country.
Private high schools systematize the creation of the consummate college applicant. When the American educational landscape is so obviously a pay-to-win game, how can we dare to call it a meritocracy?
Admitting a high proportion of private school students serves elite universities’ interests. During and after college, graduates from private schools are likely to outperform their public school peers. For example, in 2020, The Daily Princetonian reported, two-thirds of Princeton’s American Rhodes scholars attended private high schools, and the Association of Boarding Schools bragged in 2010 that its alumni are “3,000 percent more likely” to become Rhodes scholars than the average student. Prestigious postgraduate scholarships — or fancy postgraduation jobs — can help make a college more attractive to its deep-pocketed alumni and the next crop of prospective students.
On top of that, these exceptional students are often more likely to pay full tuition. When colleges see private school students, they surely see high-performing bags of money with test scores that will bump those sweet, sweet U.S. News and World Report rankings.
Private high schools function to perpetuate cycles of privilege. They also work. If you had the financial resources, would you deny your kids the education and opportunities that private high schools can give them?
“Don’t complain; you got into Stanford” resounds in my head any time I reflect on my high school experience. I am, after all, an example of the student these private schools strive to create: a high achiever at an elite university with a paralyzing fear of failure.
But when I look back, my high school’s culture of achievement was really more a never-ending competition created by the prestigious universities that reap the rewards from it, the administrators who facilitate it and the parents who fund it.
The pursuit of prestige — in high school, college and beyond, forever and always — makes students like me willfully ignore the mental and physical toll that each step of our “meritocracy” exacts. After all, we’ve earned it.
Sophie Callcott is a junior at Stanford University, where she studies history. She has written about education for The Stanford Daily, a student newspaper there.
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