Sunday, July 27, 2008

Private School Rejects

June 29, 2008

New York City parents were up in arms as one of the most renowned prep schools in town—Dalton—reportedly failed to get any of its ’08 grads admitted to Harvard. But is it the school’s fault, or are parents expecting the impossible?

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.”

Editor's note: As we were going to press, we were informed that one student from Dalton was admitted to Harvard off of the wait list.

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