It’s April in New York, a time of joyous exultation or bitter misery for seniors in New York City’s private high schools and, more tellingly, for their parents, as they await with sweaty palms the envelope–is it thick or thin?–from Cambridge or New Haven that will dictate their fates, at least for the next four years. Though students throughout the country are going through the same thing, the ritual is particularly stressful for New York kids, for whom attending even as prestigious a school as Swarthmore or Smith can be perceived as failure.
Five years ago, The Observer ranked New York City’s elite private schools, measured by what percentage of students from each school enrolled in the nation’s top colleges and universities. While many parents, teachers and college counselors decried the rankings as an unfair portrait of the strengths of the private schools, it’s an open secret that New York parents often judge a school by its ability to launch their children toward the Ivy League or prestigious institutions like Stanford University and Amherst College. Sure, the Dalton School has a shiny new technology facility, and, yes, the Fieldston School emphasizes the teaching of ethics–but such perks dissolve in the acid bath of Ivy ambition. After all, 12 years of private school have cost parents well over $100,000, and they want some tangible return on their investment. So as a public service–or nuisance, depending upon your point of view– The Observer offers our new, updated rankings, looking at where students have ended up over the past five years.
We again arbitrarily and snobbishly divided the colleges into two tiers. The first tier consists of the Ivy League’s Big Three (Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities); the second tier the eight Ivy League schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania) as well as Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College, Duke University, the University of Chicago, Georgetown University, Wesleyan University, Williams College and Wellesley College.
We were most interested in what, if any, changes had occurred in five years. Is the pecking order the same? Are the Chapin School and the Brearley School still in the lead? Please note that our rankings are based on students who actually enrolled at the colleges in question–the matriculation rate–rather than on the number of students accepted.
Before we get to the raw numbers, a brief nod to those who insist that a private school’s placement record is not foremost in parents’ minds. Lawrence Momo, director of college counseling at Trinity School, told The Observer that most parents he met were more interested in a school’s curriculum and facilities, not its Ivy credentials. Another guidance counselor, however, said, “The college results are the first thing parents flip to when they get our school catalogue.” Caroline Erisman, college counselor at the Hewitt School, said obsession with college placement has gotten out of hand. “I mean, I’ve gotten calls asking me if I have liability insurance,” she said. “Some people will actually try to sue if they feel that you haven’t done your best at placing their kids at a prestigious college.”
Top Tier: Trinity Beats Buzzer
The Trinity School, 139 West 91st Street, heads the list of Big Three matriculations, with 22 percent of its graduates entering Harvard, Princeton or Yale, a huge surge from five years ago, when co-ed Trinity placed fifth in this category with 15 percent. The all-boys Collegiate School, 370 West End Avenue, came in second, with 21 percent of its seniors entering the Ivy trinity–a 4 percent rise from 1993. Chapin School, 100 East End Avenue, the all-girls school which won this category five years ago with a score of 20 percent, came in third this time, although its percentage remained the same. To what will surely be the delight of Chapin girls, their “brainier” sisters at the Brearley School, bright girls in Birkenstocks who consider themselves the Cliffies of New York, dropped from second to fourth place since 1993, although Brearley’s percentage of girls entering the Ivy’s fearsome threesome held steady at 19 percent.
Behind these schools, a group of three is closely bunched. The Spence School, 22 East 91st Street, with its heavy emphasis on humanities, and status as alma mater to Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow and MTV veejay Serena Altschul, rose two percentage points from 1993, coming in fifth with 16 percent. Horace Mann School, 231 West 246th Street in the Bronx, with a reputation for being perhaps the most cut-throat of all the city’s high schools, came in sixth, at 13 percent. It tied with the Dalton School, 108 East 89th Street, known for progressive education and its smattering of children of celebrities like Robert Redford, Barbara Walters and Ralph Lauren, which drops from 1993’s fourth-place showing. Saint Ann’s School, 129 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, where students can take seminars on bookbinding and psychotherapy, came in seventh with 12 percent. The Fieldston School, on Fieldston Road in the Bronx, home to bohemian preppies, held its 1993 rank of eighth, but with a three-percentage-point rise to 10 percent.
In quick succession, the Riverdale Country School, 5250 Fieldston Road in the Bronx, clocked in at 8 percent. The Nightingale-Bamford School, 20 East 92nd Street, considered the “nice” girls’ school, also hit 8 percent. They are followed by two Catholic schools, Convent of the Sacred Heart, 1 East 91st Street, the school for the Catholic elite, and Regis High School, 55 East 84th Street, the perennial debate champions, both at 6 percent.
Rounding out the field, with 5 percent or less of their students ending up at Harvard, Yale or Princeton, are the United Nations International School, 24-50 F.D.R. Drive at East 23rd Street; Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day School, 9216 Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn; Packer Collegiate Institute, 170 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn; the Berkeley Carroll School, 181 Lincoln Place in Brooklyn; Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, 5 West 93rd Street; the Dwight School; 291 Central Park West; Friends Seminary, 222 East 16th Street.
The Second Tier: Chapin, Brearley Rule
Of course, few parents take the view that their children in private schools absolutely must attend Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Which brings us to our second tier of rankings, the eight Ivys plus Stanford, M.I.T., Amherst, Duke, Chicago, Georgetown, Williams and Wellesley. While not comprehensive, this tier is fairly representative of the colleges and universities that have both top academic credentials and that slight sheen of glamour that says the school can hold its own when inquiring friends and relatives want to know where the 17-year-olds are headed in September.
In this category, Brearley squeezed by with 61 percent to Chapin’s 60 percent. Trinity came in next at 56 percent, followed by Horace Mann (54 percent) and two schools that hit the 50 percent mark, Collegiate and Spence. Dalton came in next with 48 percent. Saint Ann’s and Fieldston clocked in with over 40 percent, followed by Nightingale, Regis, Riverdale and Packer Collegiate, all of which broke 30 percent. The rest of the schools surveyed came in somewhere between 15 percent and 30 percent.
A Biased Reading of Results
Why did some schools move up or down, in both tiers, in five short years? Obviously, their academic profile cannot have changed so suddenly. One must look as well at the potent, hidden factors, the most powerful being the shifting number of legacies, or applicants who are sons and daughters of alumni, that each private school presents each year. Frank Leana, educational director of Howard Greene & Associates, which advises families on the college admissions process, said, “As a parent, you have to ask: How many of the kids at Harvard or Stanford are legacies?”
One must also take note of the size of the student body: While Horace Mann may boast only of 13 percent of its graduates entering the Big Three Ivys, its student body is appreciably larger than those of other private schools, meaning that the actual number of students it sends to Harvard, Yale or Princeton may be higher than schools that scored better in the rankings.
At United Nations International, Marjorie Nieuwenhuis pointed to the school’s diversity of students: “Many of our students go to university outside the United States. Also, we have a greater range of students. Some are top-notch academically, others less so. So the percentages won’t be as high as prep schools that take only academically gifted students.”
Then you have the X-factor of parents who give big donations to a college. College advisers generally agree that only very large donations–far larger than even the annual $10,000 check–are needed to sway admissions committees.
But the private schools do make a difference. Louise Henderson, director of college guidance at the Chapin School, said, “Schools like Horace Mann, Brearley, Trinity and Collegiate have made a sizable investment in their college guidance program. They enable counselors to really devote the time necessary to maximizing each student’s chances.”
Indeed, hiring well-known college advisers like Ms. Henderson, or Collegiate’s Bruce Breimer, is part of the formula. Trinity seems to have taken this process one step forward, hiring Larry Momo, former head of undergraduate admissions at Columbia University, as its college counselor, and Henry Moses, formerly Harvard dean of freshmen, as headmaster.
Mr. Momo dismissed the whole idea of choosing a private school by where its graduates matriculate. “It’s just a bad idea. It’s like U.S. News & World Report ‘s college ratings, which purport to be fair. In the end, they’re both superficial. The best way to pick a school for your child is to see where your child will be happiest. If your child isn’t happy, he won’t do well in the program and won’t be successful in his or her college search.”
But few deny that having a bright college counselor helps. “There’s the commitment of the guidance counselor to making the right match,” said Ms. Henderson. “I mean, when a college admissions officier comes and says, ‘We need a female tuba player,’ you’d better hope the college counselor knows her students well and can find that tuba player if she has one.”
And one must acknowledge the high school students whose idea of paradise is not four years in Princeton, N.J. As Lisa Montgomery, director of college counseling at Friends Seminary, commented on her school’s tepid showing, “Look, many of our students attend excellent small colleges such as Swarthmore and Oberlin that are more consistent with our Quaker heritage. Not everybody wants to go to Harvard or M.I.T., but we certainly have an outstanding record of placing those students who want to attend.” Her point is reinforced by Friends’ impressive median SAT score of 1310.
And there are certain schools that have many students from overseas who aren’t planning to attend colleges stateside. Ryna Bab, director of college guidance at Dwight School, which clawed its way around the bottom of the rankings, said: “Dwight is international in nature. We have a very different student body than Brearley, which may have very different objectives.”
Still, given the top preparation parents expect from private schools, you have to wonder why only 3 percent of, say, Columbia Prep graduates matriculate at Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
It’s not likely that parents with children in New York private schools will ever give up the dream of watching their sons and daughters bring home a Yale or Harvard diploma. And college admissions adviser Mr. Leana told The Observer that the competition has only gotten more intense since our last check in 1993. “The stakes keep getting higher and higher,” he said. “Students I see are prepping for the SAT 1 and 2, doing sports, taking voice and piano, participating in community service and doing four to five hours of homework a night. There’s so much competition now at top colleges that schools will use any type of hook to get their students in.”