Tip for Parents: Want Harvard? Try a Dakota

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 20, 2002

It’s a tired old cry. College officials are quick to denounce the yearly rankings done by U.S. News & World Report — although they are also among the first to sprint to newsstands to grab the annual issue. The methodology is usually attacked in one way or another, and, indeed, it does seem odd, given how slowly institutions change, that the list manages to be different each year.

But those magazines do sell. And the rankings, for better or worse, are attended to by all sorts of readers, from college presidents, trustees, and alumni to applicants and their families. So, particularly with the intense — at times psychotic — interest that many parents have in getting their kids into the “best” colleges, it was only a matter of time until the next obvious list of rankings appeared: the best high schools for preparing teenagers.

Of course, that’s a bit of a different story, since most parents send their children to high schools relatively near where they live. True, people do make moving decisions based on school districts. (For truly obsessed parents, I would recommend relocating to a Dakota — not the one John Lennon lived in — to increase a child’s Ivy chances.) Still, you can bet some folks were heading to the kiosk when the September issue of Worth magazine hit the stands.

The magazine has a banner special report: “Getting Inside the Ivy Gates.” It includes a ranking of high schools, public and private, throughout the country, the top-100 “feeder schools.” What were the criteria used to determine the best? Simple. The percentage of the graduating class that went on to attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

Indeed, in the same magazine that gives stock tips (buy Tootsie Roll, don’t buy United Airlines), and lists the ne plus ultra in luxuries (why get a pair of Manolo Blahnik spiky heels at $445 when you can own Walter Steiger pumps, for a mere $1,095?), we have a story on college admissions that quotes no higher-ups in college admissions. The reporter spoke with two former admissions officers (I was one), and a bunch of students. No one else in the colleges, she indicated to me, would talk with her. With reportorial ingenuity, she began by going through four years of “face books” from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the guides to their freshman classes published by each of the three schools, and counted the high schools that students came from (then confirming the numbers by other means). Is this too easy a target?

The list is unsurprising. Age of institution would be one sure way to start such a “ranking”: Those schools with legions of legacies, families that had trod a path from the same high school to the same college, would no doubt be up there on top. Sure enough, the No. 1 “feeder school” is Roxbury Latin, a Boston high school older (founded in 1645) than either Yale or Princeton. Since the story was looking at percentages, rather than raw numbers, the smaller schools had an advantage. No mention of either factor.

Money talks in college admissions (oh no, say it ain’t so!), so the most likely schools for inclusion would also be the ones with high densities of extremely wealthy, philanthropic families. That would argue for day schools in the New York area and the fanciest of the boarding schools. Yup, there they are. Schools that provide scholarships for traditionally disadvantaged minority students — always a hot commodity around selection-committee tables — would also do well. The public schools on the list are the ones that resemble private schools — particularly those that require an admissions test. As I said, the list is unsurprising.

It remains only to be pointed out that there are places that send 100 percent of their graduating class to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Each time a homeschooler gets into one of the big three, that “school” should be on the very top of the list. Hmmm, that didn’t make it in.

What is, of course, extremely interesting is the definition of the holy grail: Harvard, Yale, Princeton. It’s not just that it was only admission to those three that counted; it’s also that the reporter looked only at those students who matriculated, rather than were admitted. That means that all those extraordinary students who got full rides elsewhere and — gasp — turned down HYP (the reporter writes: “the term HYP has come to signify the elite-college standard”) do not go to the “best” high schools. Indeed, even those who, for reasons other than financial, turned down HYP do not raise their schools to the “best” standard. The myth of the meritocracy is alive and well.

The reporter even quotes the head of St. Ann’s School, in Brooklyn, as saying, “I may have occasionally sent a dud to college but never one to Princeton.” Are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton at the top of the undergraduate heap? Clearly, for wearers of Walter Steiger pumps and owners of Tootsie Roll stock, they are.

But if you can’t exactly buy your way in, what do you do? The list implies that if you send your son to Roxbury Latin, he may well get into Harvard, since 21 percent of the class (average size, 50 boys) gets into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Or does this feeder system make it harder for kids not at the tippy top of the class at these excellent high schools to get into HYP?

No great university is going to want a larger portion of its student body to come from one region of the country, let alone from one school (reminder to status-seeking parents: Move to a Dakota). Does that mean that public high schools are not getting their kids into HYP and other fancy colleges? Of course not. Just not as big a percentage. Indeed, the reporter includes a list of public schools, kind of an add-on, since on the original list, only 6 of the top 100 are public.

What, if anything, does this list tell us? Does it say anything about the quality of the education offered at these high schools? What do you get when you pay college-level tuition for high school? In many cases, you get extraordinary facilities. And you get some great teachers and a cohort of students not unlike what you’d find at HYP. That is, some are incredibly talented academically, some are wonderful athletes, and others were fortunate enough to have been born into families of fortune.

As an admissions officer, I sat in on classes at a handful of the schools on Worth’s list, including several near the top. Each was vastly different from the others, both in quality and kind of instruction, quality and kind of student. Rankings or no rankings, parents still need to consider the best “fit.”

But as long as parents (and students) remain focused on what happens after high school, the high-school experience will be seen as nothing so much as preparatory.

It’s no surprise that many of the schools here have “Prep” in their titles. That was their original intention. But does that mean prepping to be a better lacrosse player? Are the schools not on the list failures because they are not prepping their students for Harvard, Princeton, and Yale but are sending them off to Swarthmore, Oberlin, and Reed? Or to Berkeley, Chicago, and Caltech? Are there other parts of the country where higher education flourishes? Or is it only in the Northeast (heavily represented in Worth’s rankings) that a person can get an education of substance? On the other hand, does the fact that there are some non-Northeastern high schools on the list tell us that education flourishes in those areas? No, it underscores the fact that universities are committed to the idea of diversity in their classes.

The Worth list is silly. But it does raise some serious questions about how people think when they think about education. The eyes-on-the-prize attitude is wide-spread and, perhaps surprisingly, still prevalent after a period of substantial democratization of education. A list like this 50 years ago would not have looked much different. It tells us something about the lingering class bias of selective admissions. It forces us to ask, With the intense focus on getting into college, are parents missing the educational boat during the important, formative high-school years? Is coaching (for SAT’s, AP exams, etc.) replacing teaching? Is understanding the relationship between college counselors and admissions deans more important than learning, say, calculus?

The Worth reporter ends her story with a surprising remark: “The hard part might be accepting that sometimes the right college isn’t Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.” Oh really? Then why this list?

What would it take for this picture to change? Guerrilla tactics in admissions marketing might raise the U.S. News rankings of some colleges; just as marketing by the next tier of list-not high schools might change the Worth rankings. But those are, well, marketing strategies. Perhaps we need, instead, to think about raising public awareness of the quality of education to be had at places other than those encrusted with Ivy. And perhaps we need to think a little more deeply about what constitutes a good high-school education.