Commentary

“When Schools Compete, You Win”

Not long ago, Phillips Academy’s campus was flooded with 334 prospective students. Accepted students came to campus with their families to take a “second look” at the school. They were greeted with smiles from admissions officers and open arms of PA students, whom the visitors “shadowed” to their classes. Prospective students and their parents were invited to and went through a variety of events. The Admissions Office spent months working hard to attract students to the school by presenting a carefully compiled “snapshot résumé” of pictures, catalogues, videos, personal contacts, letters and lectures. This courting process that we call “admissions” requires equal interest and effort from both parties. It wasn’t always like this, though. In the past 10-20 years, one of the most well-guarded institutions of the American aristocracy has become subject to the same rules of commercialism that drive companies to spend millions marketing their products. Streams of the capitalist spirit have finally washed away the WASP-y walls of the American prep school. The competition is just the latest in a long trend of liberalization in America’s elite schools. Big-name schools like Andover and Exeter used to be the bastions of the white Protestant elite that ruled our country. Sons of alumni grew up knowing where they would graduate from secondary school. But midway through the 20th century, the trend began to change. As described in a Time Magazine article published on October 26, 1962 entitled, “Half Begun Means Well Done,” prep schools began to adapt to America’s democratic dream as they sought out capable boys of lesser means and diverse backgrounds. The move to meritocracy, including an important and necessary increase of financial aid, began in elite college admissions during the late 1950’s and 1960’s and trickled down to their feeder schools. As David Brooks describes in Bobos in Paradise, “The campus gates were thus thrown open on the basis of brains rather than blood, and within a few short years the university landscape was transformed.” Still, even as the student population of prep schools became more diverse, the attitude towards application and acceptance did not change; students who were accepted at Andover matriculated. The competition for spots became tougher with a more talented pool of applicants, and the schools began to seek out boys from meager and otherwise unpromising circumstances. Andover was an opportunity that boys did not pass up. The Time article didn’t mention Andover’s matriculation rate or any measures that the school took to attract students, aside from providing financial aid to those in need. With over half of the class of 1962 at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia in the fall of that year, Andover was clearly the mouth of a river that opened up into the sea of Ivy League colleges and greater societal success. Statistics would suggest that none of this has changed much. The acceptance rate to Andover is at 20%, exactly what it was in October, 1962. Although the percentage of prep school students that get into Ivy League colleges is nowhere near what it was 40 years ago, with less than 20% of Andover’s Class of 2006 matriculating at an Ivy, the number remains far higher than the average public or private high school. But despite the statistics, the history and the reputation, each year Andover spends more money and effort to convince students to come to the school, it is also true of Admissions Offices at America’s top colleges. Just as a company designs its marketing and advertising campaigns to address the values of the target population, Andover addresses the concerns and thoughts of prospective students and parents. According to Jane Fried, parents and students now need more assurance that boarding school is a good idea. Furthermore, religion and families are much more important to these potential students, making the option of staying at home much more attractive. Financial feasibility and diversity are also major considerations for high school and college shoppers in 2007. “We try to show them what Andover is really like,” said Admissions Office Ambassador Abby King ’07. She adds that the ambassadors naturally cast issues in a positive light (the Admission Office’s informal motto is “excellence with a smile”), but that she and the other ambassadors freely admit to the stress and workload that comes with a PA education. Once again, it’s not any twisting of the truth that is noteworthy in the admissions process. Rather, the shock lies in the Admissions Office’s effort to promote a school whose name and reputation has, until recently, spoken for itself. Twenty years ago, the revisit program was created for students who had been accepted to the school but had not yet visited the campus. Since then, the program has expanded tremendously, growing every year for the past 15 years. Just recently, in 1999, 264 families attended the spring visits, while the number rose to 309 last year and reached a new high at 364 during the past couple of weeks. For many of these families, Andover is but one stop on a school-shopping trip. “Today’s teenager tends to go to the school that strongly expresses how much it wants them,” commented Michael Gary, Exeter Dean of Admissions. Apparently Andover does a good job at convincing the spring revisiting students that PA wants them, for 81% of those who came for a revisit matriculated this year, compared to Andover’s overall yield rate, which is 74%. Prep schools are finally forced to compete by the rules that govern our treasured free markets and set the tone of our society. The survival of a business depends on its ability to attract customers better than its competitors can. Politicians spend hours shaking the hands of ordinary citizens when running for office. Since Admissions Offices began opening up the competition of their applicant pool to the natural contest of talent, letting the most capable float to the top instead of reserving spots for the sons of prominent families, American elite schools have been gradually forced to adhere to these rules, which mandate they make themselves attractive to customers. This is good news to all parents and students who plan on going school-shopping in the near future. It’s a buyer’s market. A variation of the LendingTree commercial summarizes the situation, “When schools compete, you win.” Take advantage of it.