The Price of Admission
By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
April 2, 2004; Page W1
When Martin Quiñones was starting high school, he and his parents
looked at several Boston-area private schools before settling on Phillips
Academy. It was one of the most expensive schools they considered, with
annual tuition of $23,400, not including room, board and other fees. But
with Martin’s sights on getting into a top college, his family figured it
was worth it.
They’re about to find out if they were right. This weekend, the coveted
fat envelopes — and the dreaded thin ones — for Ivy-League and other top
universities are in the mail. Thousands of families across America are
anxiously waiting to learn whether their huge investments in private
education — or moves to expensive neighborhoods with good public schools
— have paid off with acceptances to elite colleges. Martin Quiñones
hopes for a nod from Harvard and other big names, and his family has made
sacrifices to pay for his high-school education, such as driving older cars
and taking fewer vacations, with that goal in mind. "If you go cheap,
you’re not going to get what you’re hoping for — an Ivy-class school,"
says Martin’s father, Ricardo Quiñones, a computer consultant in
School, Seattle Percent of graduates at selected colleges: 25%
For families dreaming of sending their children to a prestigious
university, the stakes have never been higher. Competition has intensified
as the kids of baby boomers reach college age, and tuition at private
schools — believed by many parents to be the best insurance for college
admission — is soaring to record levels. Now, tuition of $20,000 a year is
routine, with several of the best-known private schools topping $25,000.
But do the most expensive schools really offer more bang for the buck than
cheaper competitors? And just how do these pricey schools compare with
highly successful public high schools?
Curious about the link between money and admissions success, Weekend
Journal studied this year’s freshman classes at 10 of the nation’s most
exclusive colleges — including Harvard and other Ivies, and places like
the University of Chicago and Pomona. We tracked down the alma maters of
each entering student — some 11,000 kids in all — and came up with a list
of high schools that had graduating classes of at least 50 students and
sent at least 20 of them to our chosen colleges. For each high school, we
then calculated what percentage of its graduates went on to those colleges.
Finally, we compared tuition costs.
Though all the high schools in our survey have outstanding reputations,
the success rates at some were astonishing. The best-performing high school
on our list sent a staggering 41% of its senior class to our 10 colleges —
30 kids out of a class of 74. (Hint: It’s the private school where Academy
Award-winner Jennifer Connelly went.) And that high school wasn’t nearly
the most expensive on our list.
Indeed, among private high schools, Weekend Journal found some
surprising bargains. Germantown Friends School, a Philadelphia Quaker
institution dating back to 1845, charges $16,675 in base tuition (plus an
estimated $675 more for books and senior fees). But it did even better in
our review than Buckingham Browne & Nichols of Cambridge, Mass., where
tuition runs nearly $8,000 higher.
|YOUR TUITION DOLLARS AT WORK|
Do costly private high schools have an edge on public schools? See which
schools delivered the most value
in the college-admissions sweepstakes, and see how we ranked the schools
AND THE THIN ENVELOPE WENT TO . . .
For some, the rejection letter may be a blessing in disguise. See some
leaders in business, politics and culture who
received the thin
envelope — and how it shaped their fate.
Determining tuition requires a balance, says Richard Wade, head of
school at Germantown Friends, who adds that schools "struggle not just with
what parents can afford, but also what teachers can afford to live on." In
the case of Germantown, the school made a decision in the 1970s to increase
the number of students per classroom (the average is now about 18) in order
to raise faculty salaries while keeping tuition down. Of course, it doesn’t
hurt to have money in the bank: Germantown has an endowment totaling $27
Costs Add Up
At Buckingham Browne & Nichols, spokesman Woodie Haskins says the
school’s tuition in part reflects its expensive region, and the need to
keep faculty salaries competitive. "The cost of living in the Northeast is
certainly high," Mr. Haskins says. In addition, he says, the school’s
endowment is less than some of its competitors, since the school — founded
in 1974 after a merger of two other schools — is younger than some of
those competitors. Finally, he says, the cost of running Buckingham’s three
campuses adds up, including such expenses as utilities and shuttle buses
Public schools obviously offer the better bang for the buck — assuming
you don’t count the high housing costs generally associated with
better-performing districts. But in our survey, public schools were in the
distinct minority, with the best-performing school sending fewer than a
third of its graduates to our choice colleges. And a number of the
better-performing public schools were small, highly selective "magnet"
schools, meaning that students whose families live and pay taxes in the
area don’t necessarily get to attend. For example, Thomas Jefferson High
School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Va., last year sent 10
graduates to Harvard alone.
Thomas Jefferson, which had a graduating class of 401 last year, draws
students from five counties and two cities in Northern Virginia, based on
their performance on aptitude tests covering both mathematics and verbal
skills. The high school has seven full-time guidance counselors, who are
assigned to students when they enter as freshmen and stay with them for all
four years of high school. Besides Ivy League colleges and the University
of Virginia, engineering schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology
and California Institute of Technology are popular with students, says Nina
Pitkin, who oversees the guidance program. "We’re encouraging students to
broaden their search," she says.
For parents, the calculus can be complicated. A few years ago, when
financial analyst Bruce Marsden was transferred by his company to New
Jersey from California, he and his wife, Leslie, spent months looking at
public and private high schools in their new state before buying a house.
They scoured school rankings, interviewed principals and compared SAT
scores and advanced-placement class offerings. They looked at highly
regarded private schools like Pingry School in Martinsville, N.J., and
nearby Newark Academy, and tried to assess the schools’ college-placement
Milton, Mass. Percent of graduates at selected colleges: 24%
Ultimately the family chose a public school, Millburn High School, even
though they figured houses in the district cost 40% more at the time than
similar homes in neighboring suburbs. "Twenty thousand seemed like a heck
of a lot of money to pay for high school," says Leslie Marsden. Already,
their gamble seems to have paid off: Yale accepted the Marsdens’ daughter,
Jessica, during the "early action" process in December. (Other Yale
hopefuls were able to log on to the college’s Web site beginning last night
to learn their fates; Yale also mailed out letters yesterday. Online
notification by colleges is increasingly common.)
Millburn High School did well in the Weekend Journal survey too. Of its
graduating class of 245 last year, 32 kids — or 13% — went to our college
picks, including six to Princeton, three to the University of Chicago and
two each to Brown and Dartmouth.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and
The cost of a private education has soared to unprecedented levels.
According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the average
tuition at private schools increased an inflation-adjusted 4.2% for the
academic year 2003-2004, to $16,298. That’s up more than a third from a
decade ago (also inflation-adjusted). And tuition figures don’t tell the
entire financial story. Nearly all private schools charge some variety of
extra fee, whether it’s for books, meals, laboratory materials or even
mandatory laptop computers. These inevitably add more to parents’ bills —
sometimes a lot more. At New York’s Trinity School, for instance, parents
paying $23,475 in tuition can expect to spend about $1,250 in fees for
meals, parent-association dues and other services.
The schools attribute the rise in prices to efforts to raise teachers’
salaries and other improvements. Many schools say they spend huge resources
on the college-guidance process, from hiring more counselors to organizing
For example, Saint Ann’s School of Brooklyn, N.Y., the school with the
greatest success rate on the Weekend Journal list, says its annual tuition
of $20,500 is justified in part by the personalized effort the school makes
to help each student get into the best possible college. Headmaster Stanley
Bosworth says he writes a "personal statement" for each of Saint Ann’s
graduating seniors — who numbered 74 last year — sometimes mailing the
letter separately to college admissions officers and sometimes including it
in the students’ applications. Mr. Bosworth says he sometimes telephones
academic departments and even individual professors at certain
universities, rather than leaving matters to the admissions office, to call
attention to standout students. He has even been known to fly to an
out-of-state college to deliver a student’s portfolio of artwork or tapes
of musical performances. Though originally started as part of an Episcopal
church, the school is now secular.
"Nothing is a lot of money if you’re educating a child," says the
76-year-old Mr. Bosworth, who is retiring at the end of this school
Heavy on Ivies
No approach to ranking schools is perfect, of course. In setting up this
study, Weekend Journal picked as our 10 colleges a group that included but
wasn’t limited to the Ivy League. Based on recommendations from admissions
experts and guidance counselors, plus lists of SAT scores and acceptance
rates, we narrowed our choices to seven Ivies — Harvard, Yale, Princeton,
Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell and Brown —
supplemented by three of the most exclusive colleges in the West, Midwest
and South. These were Pomona, the University of Chicago, and Duke. (We were
unable to get data from an eighth Ivy, Columbia University, or from one of
the most exclusive colleges on the West Coast, Stanford University.
However, Pomona also has impressive selectivity rates and SAT scores.)
For matriculation data from the high-school class of 2003, we relied on
college face books and interviews with colleges and high schools. However,
a handful of high schools didn’t return our calls or wouldn’t confirm our
numbers. Our decision to include only schools that sent 20 or more students
to our choice colleges was made to help the survey be more manageable.
As an additional check, we compiled the admissions data for three
prestigious small colleges across the country, Williams, Amherst and
CalTech, to see if our survey results would change significantly with those
schools included. They didn’t.
Our numbers thresholds, to be sure, excluded some small schools that had
an extremely high admissions success rate. For example, New York’s
Collegiate School — which John F. Kennedy Jr. once attended — fell just
below our minimum class-size requirement, with a graduating class last year
of 49 students. However, a whopping 25 of them, or 51%, went to our college
picks; that would have made it No. 1 in our study. Among the other elite
schools with famous names that fell below our class-size cutoff were
Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Mass., and Nightingale-Bamford and
Brearley in New York. All had impressive acceptance rates that would have
put them high in our rankings. Notably, Roxbury Latin, with tuition of
$15,200, is also an exceptional deal among private schools. Its 40%
acceptance rate was almost as high as Saint Ann’s.
Then again, it’s important to remember that a secondary-school education
shouldn’t just be judged on whether it gets you to the gates of Harvard
Yard. Even as high schools tout their admissions successes, they also
emphasize to parents that the name at the top of the diploma can never be a
guarantee of entry to a top college. For their part, A-list colleges say
they pick students based on individual merit, and they say they don’t give
preference to particular alma maters.
Top colleges also say the obsession with feeder schools has become both
excessive and misguided. "We admit students, not schools," says William
Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid. "We are
looking for the best people we can get."
–Reed Albergotti contributed to this report.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at
Behind the Numbers
Rankings of high schools typically focus on SAT scores and class size.
We set out to examine an additional factor: the role tuition plays in
getting kids into prestigious colleges.
We focused on 10 elite colleges — seven Ivies plus one of the most
selective schools in the South, Midwest and West — to serve as our
benchmark for profiling where the students came from. These colleges all
had SAT scores of accepted applicants in the 1280-1580 range and an average
admissions selectivity of 21%. Our schools were Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth,
Duke, Harvard, Pomona, Princeton, the University of Chicago, the University
of Pennsylvania and Yale. There are some notable exceptions to our list. We
could not obtain the high school lists for one Ivy, Columbia, or for the
most prestigious school in the West, Stanford. (We added Pomona, a school
with similar mean SAT scores, in the interest of including an exclusive
West Coast school.)
We chose to focus on enrollment, not acceptances, in this year’s
freshman classes at the colleges — in other words, the high school
graduating class of 2003. For information on students’ alma maters, we
relied heavily on "face book" directories that colleges generally
distribute to new students. Four colleges gave us their face books. The
rest were lent to us by students or were purchased from their publishers.
We also called about 130 high schools to verify as many numbers as we could
— for a total of nearly 11,000 students. One caveat: Because both the face
books and the high schools’ own data on their students’ matriculation plans
were put together over the summer, they may not reflect last-minute
Some high schools bristled at the idea of what one school official
called "a scorecard," saying that rankings distract kids and their parents
from choosing a school that’s right for them. Others pointed out that the
true value of a high school education should not be measured by admission
to an Ivy college. Still, almost all schools worked with us willingly to
double-check our numbers.