The Outsized Advantage of Private Schools

A piece up on Slate shines a light on inequities in elite college admissions.

Are private high schools the true enemy of equity in highly selective college admissions? Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court notably punted on the hot-button issue of the consideration of race in college admissions. But one editorialist for Slate believes that the real scandal in college admissions is not Affirmative Action nor even legacy admission. Rather, it’s the fact that such a significant portion of each incoming class at our nation’s highly selective colleges is comprised of students from private high schools. While most American young people don’t attend private high schools, a significant share of each incoming class at the Ivy League schools and other elite universities hail from schools through which they have to pay tuition dollars to attend.

Private School Graduates Constitute a Big Chunk of Incoming Classes at Elite Universities

As James S. Murphy opines in a Slate piece entitled “The Real College Admissions Scandal,” “Graduating from private high school is a far larger advantage at many top ranked colleges than playing sports or being a legacy or even having a connection to a donor are. (Viewed a certain way, a private school is almost a more reliable income source for an elite college than a donor.) While 10 percent of students admitted to Harvard’s Class of 2018 were recruited athletes and 12 percent were legacies, almost 40 percent of the class went to a private school. If we really wanted to get rid of the most glaring case of bias at prestigious private universities, we would target private high school students. Legacy, donor, and athletic preferences should be stripped out of college admissions too, but when it comes to tipping the scales away from fairness and equity, private schools outweigh everything else. Only 7 percent of high school students attended private high schools in the United States in 2019, according to Census Bureau data, but at many of the most selective colleges in the nation private school grads make up a third to half of freshman classes.”

It’s One of Many Inequities in Elite College Admissions

We appreciate Mr. Murphy’s argument. It’s not untrue that some private high schools enjoy an outsized advantage in elite college admissions — though strong public schools do as well. And it should be noted that there are some bad private schools — many, in fact — that enjoy no such advantage in elite college admissions. Yet we take his larger point. But do we have to choose? Legacy admission, development cases, the admission of recruited athletes, the huge chunk of students admitted from fancy schmancy high schools, and so much more contribute to systemic inequities in elite college admissions. We applaud Mr. Murphy for shining a spotlight on this particular inequity. We’re just not so sure it has much to do with yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court to kick the can down the road on Affirmative Action.

 
 

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