There is no shortage of evidence that large numbers of students from certain private and public high school end up at elite universities. As noted by others, many students from Boston Latin School go to Harvard and many from Princeton High School go to Princeton. When I got to Dartmouth, I flipped through the Freshman Book — a hardcopy precursor to Facebook — I noted an unusual number of students from both Andover and Exeter.
To me, the question is whether there is causation or just correlation. In other words, does the connection to the high school make it easier for a student to get into the university?
It is important to note that the high school is not the only connection that counts. Sadly, admissions are not a meritocratic; it is well-documented that the children of alumni have an edge. Legacies comprised nearly 30% of Harvard’s most recent freshman class. Since boarding schools and private schools are packed with the children of parents who attended (and donate to) the top colleges, it stands to reason that these connections have a big impact on the admissions results of the high schools.
What about the prospects for the non-legacy student who attends a “feeder school”?
I see two factors to consider. One is the quality of education. Top high schools offer a great education. They attract many of the best students and then help them become even better students. This is not to say that private schools or great public schools have a monopoly on brainpower. But it is true that they have a lot of students who are great applicants. Colleges considering them know what they are getting.
It is also true that top private schools have long-term relationships with admissions offices. I talk with a number of former admissions deans, all of whom are open about the fact that they spoke regularly with the college counselors at the high end private schools in the region they covered. I have no doubt that part of the pitch the schools make to prospective parents is that they use these relationships to “feed” students into Stanford or Yale. Maybe so.
Or maybe not so much. My work as a college essay consultant includes a fair number of students who attend boarding schools and other private schools. These schools have big numbers of students applying to the Ivy League. A senior class might have 20 students applying Penn or 30 applying to Yale. No university can take them all; while there is no quota there is a limit to the number of students who can be accepted from a given school. The result is a micro-competition within the applicants from a “feeder school.” I have also had parents complain that their student received less attention from college counselors who favored the children of parents with more money or power.
What to make of it all?
It seems unwise to attend a high school with an expectation that simply being there will provide an onramp to an elite university. On the other hand, I am confident that by keeping the focus on the education — the top quality curriculum, teaching, and other resources — that good things will happen come admissions season.