“It was basically like going to college as a fourteen-year-old," said Sam Ax, a Wharton sophomore.
The fall before his first year of high school, Sam opted for the “clean–cut” look on the 2,300 mile flight from Phoenix to Boston. Button–down shirt, trim sweater, khakis: he had perfected the dress code for the three boarding school interviews. Soon after, he found a home at Phillips Andover Academy, an elite boarding school consistently lauded by Forbes, Business Insider and other publications as the “best high school in America.”
Andover’s campus drapes suburban Massachusetts in spires, cream–colored columns and rows of grey stone steps. A walk through campus features red–brick halls and arched glass windows. Above a circle of bushes stands a curved, steel statue—an artistic representation of the school’s motto, loosely translated to “The end hangs upon the beginning,” but known to students, Sam said, as “the catboner statue.”
“We would often get made fun of it by the public school kids. Kids from Andover High would drive by us on Main Street and yell, ‘Catboner!’”
“It was pretty funny,” he said. “But sometimes they threw stuff at us. I’m sure they thought we were pretentious nerds or something like that.”
But in the year he attended Andover before opting to finish high school closer to home, Sam’s friends spent more time watching Sports Center in the hall lounge and playing pranks than comparing grades.
Still, Andover funnels a third of each graduating class students to the Ivies, according to Forbes. This year alone, the school graduated fifteen future Quakers, making Penn the most popular college for Andover’s 2015 class.
Andover and other New England prep schools form a clear pipeline to Penn. But these institutions also function as microcosms of the elite colleges they feed, and in many cases, do a better job at addressing the problems that plague our own campus.
Many students are the one graduate, maybe one of two, from their high school to attend Penn. Maybe the first to attend an elite university in years.
But despite the Penn’s insistence that there is no one path to Ivy League admission, top–performing prep schools continue to invest massive amounts of money and resources toward streaming their students to top colleges. While the Admissions Office, which did not respond to inquiry, states that there’s no formula for getting into Penn, the numbers show otherwise.
Over the past four years, the Trinity School in New York has sent more than 38 out of roughly 530 students to Penn. The Collegiate School, also in New York, has matriculated 19 students at Penn since 2011, despite a class size of roughly 50 students per year. This past year alone, the St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire sent eight out of about 130 students to Penn. And this list is not exhaustive.
According to Shamus Rahman Khan, a sociology professor at Columbia, a privileged, well–off educational elite develops. He comments, “College professors, looking at our classrooms, know this sad truth quite well.”
A year at Andover costs almost as much as a year at Penn. Though nearly half the student body receives financial aid, tuition, room and board cost a cool $50,300. Connecticut’s Rosemary Choate Hall, which has produced eighteen Penn students over the past five years, charges $54,450.
Of course, many of these schools maintain extensive financial aid and scholarship programs, including regional scholarships to increase the diversity among peers. The Dalton School, which in the last four years has sent 27 students to Penn, has a tuition of almost $40,000. Meanwhile approximately 8.6 million dollars is allocated to need–based scholarship funds for 20% of Dalton’s student body every year.
According to Cat Cleveland, a 2014 Penn graduate, her high school friends received better financial aid from Andover than their undergraduate schools.
Prep school kids pay a high price, but in many cases, they receive a better quality of student services than they find at Penn.
Students at these schools are no strangers to stress. The academic competition present at many of these institutions, combined with the intense pressure and expectation to receive admission from an elite college, fosters a strangely social approach to the college process. And while many students believe Penn will constitute the toughest years of their lives, prep school graduates sometimes find a easier time in Philadelphia.
Cat remembers a busy high school schedule during her time at Andover. She explains, “I had much more on my plate at Andover than at Penn. There’s this primary understanding that you need to work really hard to get into college.” She adds that living together at a boarding school increased her sense of community. Together, students could “all commiserate.”
Joy Wang, a sophomore in Engineering who transferred to Andover before her third year of high school from her local school in China, was also used to the pace of a rapid-fire schedule Class from 8am until 3. A free period. Quick lunch. 3 to 5pm, mandatory sports practice. 6 to 8, music rehearsal. Then students could finally begin studying.
What she wasn’t used to was Penn's student body competing for a limited numbers of advisors
“The thing with Andover is when you’re stressed, teachers are more available for you. When I came to Andover as a new international student, I struggled with English a lot. My English teacher would be like, ‘Come to conference hours, come talk to me,’ and we’d talk through it. When it was stressful, I’d talk to her. I felt a lot more personally connected.”
And at Andover, mental health facilities share a space with physical medical care, to lessen stigma and increase student access to psychiatric care. Students also have local hospital and in-town services.
A few weeks ago, Joy tried to schedule an appointment with her pre-major advisor at Penn. Her advisor’s scheduling assistant said September was a hectic month. She could be maybe come sometime in October.
“Penn is more of you being on your own,” she said
It’s possible that the high rate of elite university of matriculation of these high schools is a product of their own selectivity. Many of these schools have lower acceptance rates than Ivies. Andover in its most recent data boasted an acceptance ratio of around 14%; Deerfield Academy accepts roughly 13%. This year, Cornell accepted 18% of applicants.
The clear link between selective secondary schools and elite college admissions inspired the Steppingstone Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at preparing underprivileged Boston youth for competitive high school admissions. Students are frequently placed at schools like Phillips Exeter, Andover, St. Paul’s, Deerfield and the Milton Academy.
And students don’t only flow one way. While Penn students will often justify the university’s high tuition by the quality of education, some of the nation’s top boarding schools get well-paid Ivy-League-educated graduate students delivered straight to their campuses.
Since 2012, nine of the nation’s top boarding schools have participated in the UPenn Fellows program, coordinated by the St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, which places Penn graduate students at institutions like Lawrenceville, Milton, Hotchkiss and Deerfield in a coordinated teaching program. In an email, St. Paul’s Faculty Dean Michael E. Spencer wrote, “The School offers competitive salaries and a generous benefits package including retirement plan, medical insurance, dental insurance, life insurance and long term disability.”
Of a faculty of 228 students, Phillips Exeter’s teachers boast 112 masters, forty-five doctorates, in addition to other extensive graduate work, often from the nation’s highest-ranking institutions. These numbers are similar to other top prep schools. If top teaching professionals are available in their high school education, it’s unclear if Penn offers anything truly new for these students.
“The media portrayed St. Paul’s so negatively,” Wharton sophomore Colby Schofield said. “They were taking it out on the school.” The trial of almost-Harvard bound St. Paul’s Owen Labrie, followed by graduate and now–Wharton–student Hopper Hillegrass’ charge of simple assault and domestic violence, landed the school on the New York Times front page.
Colby watched, horrified, while headline after headline condemned her alma mater.
The school Colby knew seemed like a parallel universe.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about it,” she said. “ I loved St. Paul’s, all my friends loved St. Paul’s, and we cherished our experience there."
The school “very much simulated a college campus”. The wooded New Hampshire campus served as a self-secluded environment, with 100% of students boarding in the dorms. And like a college campus, St. Paul’s tackled many of the issues that catalyze dialogues at Penn.
“We did have a lot of mental health concerns,” Colby said. “It was such a strenuous time for any student.”
Classes at St. Paul’s met six days a week. Students studied until dawn, fulfilled athletic requirements, lived with their days planned out. Students strained to get into top colleges, working themselves into frenzies worrying about whether or not they’d win acceptance. In the New Hampshire winter, campus grew cold and isolating—which was great for building strong communities, Colby said, “but there was definitely a lot of mental stress.”
“A majority of my girlfriends went to see a therapist,” said Colby. “Which didn’t mean much to me at the time. It seemed very casual, but I’d say 90 percent of them went. Me and my closest friend were the only ones I knew who didn’t go. It was part of the daily routine.” Colby’s not sure if her guy friends went to therapy— “It was a different dynamic,” she said.
At Penn, she said, “I’ve never heard of anyone going to CAPS.”
The intensity of St. Paul’s was a fact of life.
“You kind of signed up for it,” Colby said. “It’s something you want to do, something you’re passionate about...it’s kind of geared towards college, but that’s kind of the whole point.”
On the website of Phillips Exeter, visitors are invited to watch a contemporary, documentary style video feature on the college admissions process.
An Associate Director of Admissions comments, “Phillips Exeter tries very hard to nurture relationships with our colleagues across the desk.” College admissions staff routinely visit their school’s campus.
The video features a diverse set of students and counselors, impressing the importance of balance and guidance in the admissions process.
Light music plays in the background. A young woman sits in an exposed, blackbox theater under lights, speaking about her strong school pride. An school official smiles and emphasizes the autonomy and discovery; the process, as about marketed, is about introspection and academic curiosity.
Ultimately, the high school’s strategy is one of self–description. The video, posted on vimeo, is captioned, “The journey is as important as the destination.” It’s about “gratitude;” it is an honor to “play a small role in the experience of Exeter alumni.”
But despite her light voice and sweet tone, an associate director speaks more realistically than her peers.
“This is the big leagues.”