Published: June 29, 2008
by Annie Karni
At the prestigious Dalton School, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, administrators can’t remember the last time a graduating senior class experienced a “Harvard drought.” In the past, it wasn’t unusual for as many as seven students to be accepted through early admission to the top Ivy League institution, says a guidance counselor there. But for the first time in memory, inside sources say, no Dalton students will be shipping off to Harvard come fall. And some parents—who shell out $31,200 a year for their kids’ private school education—are pissed.
At Dalton’s graduation earlier this month, one mom was heard muttering, “I won’t send my grandchildren here, that’s for sure.” Another frustrated parent says she “had to use personal connections” to get her Dalton-educated daughter, who had an A-minus average and near-perfect SAT scores, into Johns Hopkins this fall. She says: “The consensus is that the school took its eye off what it’s supposed to be about”—that is, getting kids into Ivy League schools or, more specifically, the holy trifecta of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “One of the things I looked at in picking a high school is what kind of colleges the students got into,” the parent continues. “But [Dalton] wasn’t focused on preparing these kids to get into college. The parents who trusted the school to do the job got screwed.” Of course, Johns Hopkins—rated the 14th-best university in the country in ’08 by U.S. News & World Report—is hardly sloppy seconds. But the need to strive for the best is just another extreme example of the NYC helicopter-parent stereotype (that is, parents who hover over their children’s every move).
Among nine parents interviewed for this story, many say the Dalton guidance counselors “lowballed” students. “They encouraged one girl who later got into Brown to shoot for Syracuse University,” says a disgruntled Dalton parent. Bev Taylor, the founder of the Ivy Coach (an independent college admissions counseling service), confirms that lowballing is common at prep schools, whose worst nightmare is having graduating seniors who haven’t been admitted to any college at all. “The last thing any school wants is for a graduating senior to not to get in anywhere,” says Bev, who starts working with some students as early as the seventh grade. “Schools worry that parents would sue them, so the counselors play it safe and lowball students who can probably get into more highly selective colleges.”
While Dalton does not make its college admissions list public, administrators say they are pleased with how their students fared. “We focus on achieving the right match for each student,” says head of school Ellen Stein. “We are proud of the fact that, once again, a very high percentage of our students were accepted at one of their top choices.”
Dalton isn’t the only Manhattan prep school that won’t be represented in Harvard’s freshman class come fall. This year marks the first time in five years that no students from Marymount, a private school for girls on Fifth Avenue at East 84th Street, were admitted to Harvard—though, according to teachers at the school (who declined to give their names for this story), 10 girls from a graduating class of 49 applied. Last year, Marymount sent four students to Harvard from a graduating class of 44.
While high SAT scores and grade point averages, extracurricular activities and privileges such as a $46,000 private guidance counselor were once expected to guarantee admission to Ivy League schools, that’s not the case anymore. And for private schoolers who have grown up with their eyes on the Ivies, the idea of getting a good education at a less prestigious school is little comfort.
“My best friend had his heart set on Duke, but got rejected,” says 18-year-old Tom Iadecola, who graduated from Dalton and will be attending Brown in the fall. “He’s going to Johns Hopkins, but people going to their backup schools, like Wesleyan or Hopkins, are acting like it’s a fate worse than death.”
In recent years, the college admissions process has become more competitive than ever for both public and private school students across the country. The rates of admission at elite colleges dipped to record lows in ’08, with just 7.1 percent of Harvard applicants getting in, compared to 9 percent the year before. At Yale, the acceptance rate in ’08 was 8.5 percent, down from 9.9 percent in ’07.
This year wasn’t a wash for everyone. The Trinity School on the Upper West Side, with a graduating class of 107 students, is sending six students to Harvard, seven to Yale and two to Princeton. The Horace Mann School, with a graduating class of 173, is sending nine students to Yale, nine to Princeton and eight to Harvard (including Eliot Spitzer’s daughter, Elyssa). But “most people I know are not going to their first-choice schools,” says one Horace Mann grad who was admitted to Cornell University only as a guaranteed transfer sophomore year, and will attend Syracuse in the fall. “A lot of my friends who expected Ivies are ending up at
Tulane and Vanderbilt instead.”
Three factors are making college admissions more competitive than ever: First, there are a record 3.3 million high school students graduating in ’08, according to the federal Department of Education. Second, students are applying to a greater number of colleges. And third, universities are overhauling financial aid policies to make an Ivy League education more affordable to lower- and middle-income families.
As a result, it seems private schools are feeling the heat more than their public counterparts. “The Ivies are reaching out for a diverse economic background—even home-schooled students are becoming more of a thing,” says one guidance counselor at a private school in Manhattan. “They are interested in first-generation college kids, and few privates have that. The Ivies are still good to legacies [children of alumni] if their alums have been good to them. But it’s getting harder for private school students because it’s getting fairer for the rest of the world.”
“Our low-income initiative has repositioned us,” agrees Marlyn McGrath, Harvard’s director of undergraduate admissions. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other top-tier schools have replaced loans with grants in financial aid packages, which has encouraged students who wouldn’t have been able to afford the schools in the past to apply. “A lot of people are starting to think about Harvard when otherwise their state university might have been on the top of their list.”
One local example of this brave new world is public school student Lukasz Zbylut, who just graduated from Brooklyn’s New Utrecht High School. After rejecting offers from 18 top colleges, including Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Dartmouth, he plans to attend Harvard University come fall. Lukasz’s parents are Polish immigrants, and his father works in construction in Brooklyn to support his wife and three children.
As if it wasn’t competitive enough already, Harvard is also admitting fewer students because of a housing shortage. According to Marlyn, the college received 27,472 applications for fall ’08, which represented a 20 percent increase in applicants at a time when it has reduced the size of its incoming freshman class for logistical reasons (there are fewer beds available this year because of rearrangements at the dormitories). In 2008, Harvard accepted 1,948 students, as compared to 2,058 the previous year.
Many guidance counselors at NYC private schools are trying to ease the tension surrounding the college admissions process by encouraging students to apply to schools that are a good fit for them, rather than just to the “brand-name” schools.
“But even so, a lot of New York parents have the ‘HYP or bust’ mentality,” says college counselor Bev, referring to Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
Some parents fault the schools for putting a cap on the number of colleges students can apply to. “The schools limit you to eight colleges,” says Louis Ekaireb, whose son, Austin, just graduated from Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side, and will be attending Washington University in St. Louis in the fall after getting accepted off the waiting list. “I was surprised—I thought, who are you to tell me [how many places] my son can apply to?”
While many parents want their kids to apply to as many Ivy League schools as possible to increase their chances of acceptance somewhere prestigious, guidance counselors often discourage students from applying to more than one of the premiere universities. “There’s a lot of jockeying that goes on with college advisors,” says Victoria Goldman, author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools. “They’re brokering. You don’t need the same kid getting into Yale and Harvard and Princeton. At the Collegiate School [on the Upper West Side], they won’t send your transcript out to a second college if you get in somewhere early, even if the admission isn’t binding.”
The number of graduating high school students is projected to decrease in 2015, and some colleges, including Yale, have announced plans to construct more dorms so they can admit more students in the future. But that’s little solace for current high school pupils. “It’s stressful for the kids in these prestigious private schools,” says philanthropist Suzanne Cochran, whose youngest son, Robby, just graduated from the Trinity School and will be attending Duke University come fall. “At our pre-prom cocktail party, everyone was still hoping to do better by getting in off the wait list. There are just tons of kids still on wait lists.” Harvard University, in fact, is still accepting students off its waiting list, dragging on the uncertainty and tension of the college admissions process well into the summer. “It’s becoming more of a global process, too, which is making it harder for everyone, and harder for private school students,” says Victoria. “It might be the most competitive thing next to the Olympics.”