Unwarranted privilege: America’s elite college-prep schools

March 18, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Caitlin Flanagan, who writes about various aspects of education and culture for The Atlantic (check out her article “Meghan Markle Didn’t Do the Work“), used to teach at a ritzy private school in L.A.: the Harvard-Westlake School. (Have a look at their “notable alumni“!) She draws on her experiences there for her latest article, whose title doesn’t pull any punches. Click on the screenshot to read.

The private schools she’s writing about are “college prep” schools, and not just any college prep school, but those who try to provide students with a moving walkway to elite colleges like Harvard and Princeton—and beyond. Her point is that these schools are obscene in just about every way: in their bloated tuition, in their incessant demands for money beyond tuition, in the cowering of the administration to rich parents and donors, to the arrogance and racism of their students, and to the obsessive concentration on getting into the right school and getting the right grades to do that. (An A-minus on an assignment is apparently enough to bring angry parents bulling their way into the teacher’s office.)  And talk about privilege! Attending one of these places (tuition runs abut $50,000 per year, the same as an Ivy League college), puts you on the fast track:

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. 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.

The numbers are even more astonishing when you consider that they’re not distributed evenly across the country’s more than 1,600 independent schools but are concentrated in the most exclusive ones—and these are our focus here. 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.

. . . By the time their kids get to the upper grades, parents want teachers, coaches, and counselors entirely focused on helping them create a transcript that Harvard can’t resist. “This kind of parent has an idea of the outcome they want; in their work life they can get it,” Evans told me. “They’re surrounded by employees; they can delegate things to their staff.” In their eyes, teachers are staff. But the teachers don’t work for them.

And if you go to these places, you have an advantage that persists will beyond college admission:

All of this preparation doesn’t just help private-school kids get into elite colleges; it allows them to dominate once they get there. Over the past decade, O’Connor reported, two-thirds of Princeton’s Rhodes Scholars (excluding international students) came from private schools. So did two-thirds of the winners of the prestigious Sachs Scholarship, which provides two graduating students the opportunity to work, study, or travel abroad. Forty-seven percent of the winners of “class legacy prizes”—academic awards given to students in each class—attended private schools. This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school—because they know that the winners keep winning.

Flanagan recounts some horrific stories of parents badgering teachers, lying in wait for them outside their offices, calling them on the phone repeatedly, and so on.  I suppose they see the massive tuition as an entitlement to ensure that their kids get into the right schools. And if you donate money to the schools (“campaigns” for more bucks are incessant), you get better treatment as a parent, and—the worst part—your kid gets treated better as well. As Flanagan says, “Its not unreasonable for a big donor to expect preferential treatment for his or her child. And it’s not unusual for him to get it.”

Flanagan reviews the situation at a few other elite schools, like the toxic meltdown at The Dalton School in New York City that I’ve described before. She also describes convincing evidence of racism directed at the few black students, examples that make these schools even more obscene.

What’s the cure? Well, you could say “get rid of these schools”, but that would mean getting rid of private schools in general. While that’s an ideal, it’s not gonna fly—not so long as parents have money, local schools are crummy, and parents want their children educated in a religious school. But drastic improvements in public schools would help, for many parents send their kids to these schools because public-school education is not a viable alternative:

We have become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty, or even out of the working class. We’ve allowed the majority of our public schools to founder, while expensive private schools play an outsize role in determining who gets to claim a coveted spot in the winners’ circle. Many schools for the richest American kids have gates and security guards; the message is you are precious to us. Many schools for the poorest kids have metal detectors and police officers; the message is you are a threat to us.

Public-school education—the specific force that has helped generations of Americans transcend the circumstances of their birth—is profoundly, perhaps irreparably, broken. In my own state of California, only half of public-school students are at grade level in reading, and even fewer are in math. When a crisis goes on long enough, it no longer seems like a crisis. It is merely a fact.

Shouldn’t the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?

You betcha!

Although a reader extolled the article as being very well written, I found it so-so. It’s a bit discursive, leaping from topic to topic, and there some attempts to inject flippancy or breeziness into the text that don’t work. Still, if you want an idea how elite (i.e., rich) Americans are educated, this is a good place to start.

27 thoughts on “Unwarranted privilege: America’s elite college-prep schools

  1. What’s the cure?…But drastic improvements in public schools would help

    Another possibility (not mutually exclusive!) is for colleges to start using a ‘satisfice’ type admissions process rather than ‘best of’ process. I.e. set out requirements for admission, and do some sort of lottery or other non-application-based selection between those who satisfy them. This would ‘cut off the top’ of the notion of better HS = better college. It would also greatly reduce the pressure on High Schoolers to do extracurricular after extracurricular because you’d no longer be competing against your classmates (‘on a curve’), you’d be competing against the admissions criteria only. That would, IMO, lead to much freer and less stressful after-school social lives. The huge downside of this idea is, however, that it simply trades one sort of bad psychological stress students have (‘is my application good enough’, ‘have I done enough’, etc.) for another one which might be worse (‘what if I don’t get randomly selected’). To be workable, all the states would have to go to somethnig like Ca’s system, where they guarantee admission to all in-state students above a certain caliber, to prevent the satisfice system from resulting in students who meet all good criteria from experiencing the “bad luck” result of zero acceptances.

  2. What stories of reality in the United States, such as this one tells us is why the decline in American to eventually a useless nation. The Roman Empire all over again. Of course it goes much further than the tip top elite prep schools. As I have mentioned before, the town I live in, Wichita, roughly 25 percent of the kids here are in private schools and never see public school. So who care if public school is getting proper funding or educating the kids….who cares? The republicans sure do not care, they love private religious schools. Kansas had a terrible republican governor here for several years and he reduced taxes so much the schools were damn near in ruin. The State supreme court had to step in and say enough and they stopped the mess he was making. But really, nobody cared. Even the democrats like charter schools and all the private stuff. So why is public education in America going right down the toilet….gee I wonder. That republican governor was named Brownback. Trump made him Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom. I have no idea how much money that pays but whatever it is, it’s too much.

  3. We have such schools in Britain too. Our mendacious buffoon of a Prime Minister is an alumnus of one of them, Eton College. They teach their students to assume that they will be granted unlimited power and privilege. Alas, the British establishment is made up mainly of other Old Etonians, so this expectation is generally realised.

    1. Did you go to Eton, or know anyone who did? If not, how do you know that “they teach their students to assume that they will be granted unlimited power and privilege”? I’d be willing to bet that you couldn’t produce a single corroborated example of any such statement being made at Eton. It’s just a lazy trope you’ve picked up from a yellowing copy of Socialist Worker or some other left-wing rag.

      And if you want to find examples of “unlimited power and privilege”, I suggest you start in places like Cuba, North Korea, Russia or any number of African dictatorships. Because it sure doesn’t exist in the UK.

      1. I have a neighbor who did. He does not have unlimited power and privilege, so if he was told to expect that, it turned out to not be the case.

  4. I have some experience with students and staff of one such school, Lawrenceville School near Princeton. Tuition is about 50k, like the schools mentioned in the post. A good friend of mine is a teacher there, and he brought me to the campus to speak to his class and then to the whole school a few years ago. I also gave a guest lecture remotely this year. Yes, the facilities are outrageous, the food is extraordinary, the setting is gorgeous. But I found a racially diverse student body full of clearly super-intelligent kids. They socialized and ate in well-mixed groups; I saw no sorting by race. Every student I talked with would have been at the top of the class in my own public high school. The faculty was also top-notch, many levels above my old school.

    As a result of the highly-qualified staff and the wonderful facilities, many of the kids are doing real research. My friend’s biology class was sequencing genomes and making phylogenetic trees! He even brought his class to Ecuador to camp and do plant surveys in one of my foundation’s reserves, under very primitive conditions, and the kids did it cheerfully though it would have stretched the comfort levels of nearly any teenager. He got them to climb to the summit of our mountain, something that almost no local person has done. They brought portable solar power systems that they themselves had assembled in one of their classes, to give to groups like us who work in remote areas.

    I wrote about their visit here:
    https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/tag/lawrenceville-school/

    If you want to see what kind of kids these were, look at the pictures and read the little excerpts of the student essays that I quoted in the second post at that link.

    I do not find it surprising that students with this kind of high school education would be disproportionally admitted by top colleges. Yes, the price is very high, so it is necessarily elitist in some sense. But they get what they paid for, a fantastic education that is nothing like that of a typical high school.

    Obviously, the best situation would be for a country’s government to care enough about its young people to give all of them this kind of education, but apparently too many voters are unwilling to pay higher taxes to fund better public schools. They prefer to fund bombs and missiles. I think the blame for educational disparity lies not with the schools who provide high-end education, but with the populace as a whole, which undervalues education and refuses to adequately fund it.

    1. Well if you could spend lip service, we’d have the best funded schools ever known. Children are our most important commodity. Our children are our future. Nothing is more important than raising our kids. That’s what virtually every politician says before the ax falls on spending. Even those willing to spend money on education are willing to spend it on their kids, but not on anybody else’s.

    2. By and large, I agree with everything you said. I went to Lawrenceville from 9th to 12th grade from 1964 to 1968 (that surely dates me). Although my dad was a lawyer and my mother a music teacher, we were not rich by any means, nor were we poor. Yes there were rich kids at the school, like the one whose father owned the Dallas Cowboys, but certainly not all. I came from a rural area high school. My parents sent me there for a better education. I had my eyes opened when I went there about how much I had to work to get good grades, but it was well worth it. When, for example, you go from eighth grade social studies to ninth grade with a full year of Roman history, reading numerous books, such as “I Claudius” and “Hannibal,” in addition to plowing through multiple text books, and with demanding teachers, it could be daunting at times. I would do it all over again in a minute. Because the student body at Lawrenceville, like its counterparts in New England (Exeter, Andover, Choate, Deerfield), comprises students from all over the country and a fair number from other countries, there are few parents that come knocking on the Administration’s door like there are at what I would call the more “local area” private schools, though I suspect some parents wrote angry letters at that time.

      Things have changed quite a bit since then. For one, it was all male when I went there and was probably one of last of the big prep schools to go coed, which I applauded when it happened. So much the better for the school. And the tuition skyrocketed. Back in the sixties it was, as I recall, around $3000 for everything: tuition, room and board (I could be mistaken, but it wouldn’t have been much more than that).

      It was a privilege to be able to go to Lawrenceville. I was lucky.

      An interesting anecdote. When I was in the astronomy club in 9th grade, Hugh Craig was the secretary-treasurer of the club. He went on to become Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News.

      1. Why did Huey change his last name to Lewis? One of my brothers went to Choate at about the same time you went to Lawrenceville. Did you by any chance know my friend David Braucher, whose dad worked for NATO in Paris? I stayed at the American International School in Vienna while my brothers went off to prep school. I got a superb education there, except in science for some reason, and was able to enjoy the many cultural treasures/pleasures that Vienna had to offer. My brothers were mainly sent away to school because as twins, there was not enough room in a grade of <20 for them to develop individually.

        1. Sounds like you and your brothers had great educations as well. I just looked up on Wikipedia and found this: “Hugh Anthony Cregg III (born July 5, 1950), known professionally as Huey Lewis….”. It appears that Lewis was a stage name. What bothers me is that Wikipedia shows the spelling of his last name to be Cregg. I swear that in the 1967 yearbook (he was a year ahead of me) it spelled his last name as Craig (I think I would have remembered a name like Cregg, but maybe not). I’ll have to dig up the yearbook and check. Unfortunately it’s boxed up somewhere.

          No, I don’t recall the name David Braucher. At least he wasn’t in my class of ’68. I may have known who he was at one time, but have forgotten. It’s funny how even in a school where almost everyone boards at the school, that even in the class below and above yours, you don’t know that many students (my class was only about 137). I suppose it was partly because we lived in different houses until senior year.

          1. David would probably have been 2 or 3 years ahead of you. Oh, It just occurred to me that I think David went to The Hill School. SOMEbody I know went to Lawrenceville🙀My Vienna class had only 17 students. We recently had a very international zoom call of three classes. My dog near Toronto barked at a doorbell in Ottawa which set off another dog in the south of France. I am very grateful for my education. I didn’t have to board, and there were none of the usual high school cliques.

  5. Just focusing on the super elite private schools does not get it. If that was all there was it would not be a big hit against public schools. But millions of kids are going to private schools and their parents do not want to pay big funds to public school either. That has a big impact on what the public schools get. Also in this country the funding of public schools is primarily with the state, not the federal government. So we have 50 opinions out there. The religious private, charter schools and all the rest are there for various reasons and getting a better education is not the only goal as we know.

  6. I don’t think it’s the prep schools’ fault. Why is it that to go to college one has to show how “well-rounded” one is? Play sports, do plays, clubs, etc? I went to a prep school (although what was probably a third-rank one at the time), and I objected to the fact that I had to do all of those things just so I had a good transcript for a college admissions officer. It isn’t enough to have good grades, so prep schools have to have facilities to support all of that BS. Sure, there are rich people who want their kids to go to fancy-schmancy schools, but most of the glitz is being pushed down on them from above. Why does it take more than good grades to get into a good college?

  7. More to the point, what is a *good* school these days, if the colleges are teaching nothing but Wokey-Doke reverse racism and techniques of fund-raising? Where are the colleges (or the high schools, for that matter) which teach real-world skills — other things than medicine, law, and business administration? Who’s teaching science, engineering, electronics, mechanics, and modern agriculture? Politics has made a shamble of modern education.

    1. Colorado School of Mines comes to mind. Our oldest went there; majored in math and computer science; earned enough in about 15 years of working that he “retired” and does pretty much what he pleases.

    2. Answer: the land-grant State Universities. They all have fine ag schools, forestry depts., engineering programs, etc. which have little to no truck with wokey social-science BS.

  8. “While that’s an ideal, it’s not gonna fly—not so long as parents have money, local schools are crummy, and parents want their children educated in a religious school. But drastic improvements in public schools would help, for many parents send their kids to these schools because public-school education is not a viable alternative” – just like in the UK, drastic improvements in public schools won’t happen whilst the political elite have other alternatives for the education of their own offspring.

  9. This is why Canada has higher social mobility than the US. The gap between our public school system and our best private schools is not such a chasm.

  10. Although a reader extolled the article as being very well written, I found it so-so. It’s a bit discursive, leaping from topic to topic, and there some attempts to inject flippancy or breeziness into the text that don’t work.

    I’ll second that unnamed reader’s extolment. For my money, Caitlin Flanagan’s one of the sharpest prose stylists in the magazine game today. Discursiveness has been a hallmark of the belletristic essay from Michel de Montaigne to Christopher Hitchens. The “flippancy” and “breeziness” leaven her pieces with good humor, and give them a pleasing interlacing of the formal with the demotic. And, dammit, sometimes she flat makes me laugh out loud — as in the great lede she wrote for another of her pieces in The Atlantic, “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”

  11. This is another result of extreme wealth inequality. Are prep schools any more “obscene” than the fine homes in which the rich live, or their expensive cars and yachts? You could argue they perpetuate inequality I suppose, but lots of things do. Is not extreme wealth inequality the core problem, not a particular manifestation like prep schools? We can do something about wealth inequality with the tax transfer system if we choose to, but we don’t. Redistribution is not popular in the US, even among many of the non-rich.

  12. I’ve heard that a private school in Nevada has ended up in hot water when they told the son of a mixed race couple that (a). He was white. (b). Unless he took part in activities that stated that he was an ‘Oppressor’ (Something only whites can be.) he would be failed.

    With the support of his (Black) mother, he refused and they flunked him.

    Now they are being sued.

    Here is the ‘Daily Wires’ account…

    https://www.dailywire.com/news/biracial-student-receives-failing-grade-at-prep-school-for-refusing-to-confess-his-white-dominance

  13. Caitlyn Flanagan said that she taught in both private and public schools and sent her kids to private school because ”I had seen what’s possible at the secondary school level and I was determined to get that kind of education for my own children” Cryptic – Wish she had expanded on that. I think her main point was, is, that ALL schools should be providing what the best private schools do academically. Not all private schools waste money – lots – on frippery, status stuff, superficial gloss – the good ones spend it on teachers, labs, arts, books. Quality. High standards. I am grateful for my private school education, many years ago, – my mother worked there to make it possible. My grades stayed the approx same at the U of Chicago (b-?) and McGill. Some students with A+ from public schools floundered . Yes, Ms Flanagan, all schools should be as good as very good private schools. How do we get there? It is not as simple as money, though of course that signifies. The US apparently ignores possible models in other countries – Finland, Norway etc public & private schools don’t seem to learn from each other? Teachers need more education, more respect, higher standards and higher pay. More responsibility and freedom. It would be interesting to see a survey of all US parents of school age children asking if the money was provided, would they send their kids to a private non religious school. Something must be done – educational mediocrity or worse is failing too many younger generation Americans. Unless excellent education becomes a priority for all, maybe it is hopeless.

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