High Schools Are Posting Their College Lists. Don’t Be Misled.

High Schools Are Posting Their College Lists. Don’t Be
Misled. 1

The rosters showing where seniors are headed say little about the role that money and value played in their decisions.

Once the first of May comes and goes, eagle-eyed observers in communities across the country await the list. Who is going where? How does it compare with last year — and other schools nearby? And what will it mean for private school applications next year, or real estate values or the college counselor’s standing?

Maybe this isn’t your town. But in hundreds of places where the upper classes (and those who aspire to place their children in them) dwell, the list of colleges that high school seniors will attend is often as closely watched as the homecoming score and the police blotter. It’s true in private schools, and it’s equally so in high-achieving public systems.

It probably shouldn’t be. With each passing year, these lists become ever more misleading, owing to their fundamental financial ambiguity. When college can cost over $300,000 and discounts are legion, we can’t know why any given teenager attended one over another. Publishing these lists without any context about who is paying what (and why and how) is to pretend that we can.

Before we outline why that is, let’s be clear on what we are quite specifically not talking about here. If yours is a community that publishes a college list as a form of celebration, complete with names, that can be lovely. And if yours is one where continuing education is not a given, then acceptances and subsequent college matriculation (or graduates headed for trade school or an apprenticeship) may well be an outright triumph.

In either type of place, if all teenagers truly do want their intended destination available for public consumption — if you’ve asked, and they’ve consented — then fire up the confetti cannons and cue the Instagram sweatshirt reveals.

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What we’re talking about instead is the list of colleges (without seniors’ names) that schools post on their websites or hand to parents of overeager kindergarten applicants. This is the same list that some sheepish suburb shoppers go hunting for online in the dead of night.

Educators outlined the issue at the National Association of Independent Schools conference last year. “Increasingly, independent schools,” the phrase the industry of tuition-charging institutions now uses instead of “private” schools, “are expected to ‘deliver’ elite college acceptances for students, often in contradiction of thoughtful, developmentally focused mission statements,” said the description of a breakout session on the topic. “The tension between school marketing and expectations about college outcomes has never been a more profound challenge.”

And yet schools publish the lists anyhow. Why?

Once upon a time, bond underwriters that helped private schools raise money wanted to see them, according to a guide to capital financing that the national association posted on its website years ago. Sure, finance people cared about area demographics, but “of equal importance” was maintaining “respectable matriculation and college admissions statistics.”

These days, most schools go to banks to raise money, “and I don’t think the banks give a whit about the college lists,” said Kevin Quinn, a principal at the Wye River Group of financial advisers and one of the names at the bottom of the guide, in a recent interview.

Public schools once faced similar pressures. But Alison Bernstein, who built a business, Suburban Jungle, around helping people shop for the right towns to settle in, said parents of younger children were increasingly realistic about the appropriateness of putting a magnifying glass on the college matriculation lists from the local public schools.

“Every town changes every 10 or 15 years,” she said. “Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Some are better and some are worse in terms of education.”

Nevertheless, plenty of high schools reluctantly persist with the college rosters. “My clients would love to never have to publish a list ever again,” said Shelly W. Peters, principal of Crane, an Atlanta firm that helps educational institutions and nonprofits market themselves. “But parents still expect it, and as long as others publish them, it becomes an expectation.”

So if this is at least partly on parents and you are one of them, consider the near futility of trying to milk meaning from the lists.

First, remind yourself that the most selective colleges and universities are not adding many slots, but that a lot more people are applying to fill them. And the undergraduate institutions may, or may not, want what any given teenager has to offer in any given year.

“Colleges are not rewarding kids for grades,” said Sonia Bell, director of college counseling at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, Conn. “They are building communities.”

Now consider the money. We are mostly ignorant about the household incomes and family assets of the students who are able to attend (or not) any particular college. We remain clueless if, in fact, a more “respectable” (to again use the term that the financiers once did) school did not give a family enough need-based financial aid. And we have no awareness of which slightly less respectable colleges offered so-called merit aid to affluent families to persuade them to say no to other institutions.

“These are CliffsNotes versions of multiple, untellable stories that communities are co-opting into their own achievements,” said Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools.

Moreover, to publish these lists is to encourage ill-advised comparisons. “There was a point when I felt as though my job as a college counselor felt like the role of our basketball or football coaches,” Ms. Bell said. “The results were not only public to our families but to other schools, and it was like ‘We beat them’ or ‘They beat us.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, that is not what this is.’”

A collective movement to ban the lists may not be the right solution, either, given what could be lost. Plenty of parents are very much not shopping for a hothouse prep school, and having a diverse variety of colleges on a list helps signal that a high school isn’t a pressure cooker or some kind of factory. Ms. Bell likes being able to broadcast that some students go to, say, historically Black colleges or certain public universities that some families may have turned their noses up at a generation ago, she said.

There is probably no set of asterisks for these lists that wouldn’t bring their own problems — and more granular financial disclosures run the risk of invading families’ privacy.

So if the lists are indeed a necessary evil, at least for now, perhaps they need a disclaimer. Please read this sample one, before you look at another college matriculation list. And if you write such rosters, maybe hand-forge a version for your own community.

We publish this list with great reluctance, at the request of both current parents and prospective ones, but we sort of wish you would ignore it.

Let’s be blunt: If you’re picking a school or a suburb based on this list, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. While we have a role to play in preparing teenagers for college, their readiness is also born of the social class privilege in which much of this community is absolutely drowning.

Meanwhile, we have no earthly idea why some of our seniors get into the most rejective colleges, as the education advocate Akil Bello rightly refers to them. These schools take whom they take for their own reasons, and their institutional priorities change from year to year (and sometimes hour to hour in the last frantic days of April as they try to fill their freshman classes) without providing any explanation to us or you. Then, plenty of families — more than you may think or we as administrators may ever know — base choices on value as much as supposed prestige.

Because of all of this, we decline to take much credit — or blame — for the names that appear here. So judge us on this instead: Who are the 14- and 18- and 22-year-olds you know whom we have educated? What are they like to talk to? What sort of parents self-select into our community — and, let’s face it, whom do we leave out, through some fault of our own or none whatsoever? What do our teachers say about our students when you meet them socially or talk with them casually?

And finally, have you clearly articulated what sort of values your own family stands for — and whether our educational institution stands for something like them? Get clarity on your own goals, and if ours seem mushy, call us out on that.

Then, put this list down and promise yourself that you’ll never look at another one like it again.

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