Five years ago, tears streamed down a great many cherubic cheeks as thirteen-year-olds across the country clutched their Exeter or St. Paul's rejections and resigned themselves to lesser schools or, at worst, to four years in public high school.
This week, when the prep school acceptance and rejection letters find their way into aspiring preppies' hands, there will be fewer rejections and undoubtedly fewer tears.
As one thirteen-year-old boy sneeringly asked his Groton-educated older brother, "How did you like going to chapel six times a week and twice on Sunday and asking permission to go to the bathroom?"
Slim Years Ahead
According to admissions directors of prep schools all across New England, the fat years of increasing applications and swelling endowments are over. The prep schools are entering a decade that may see some empty beds at formerly selective schools and housing developments where less-established schools once stood.
On the surface, the present economic recession seems to be the major cause of the coincidental decline in applications and the economic viability of the prep schools. But according to the admissions directors, the drop in applications is due to a wide variety of reasons. In addition to tighter money and steeper tuitions, the most frequently cited objections to prep school stem from:
a reaction to the disciplined "ivory tower" existence of the prep school student;
the improved education in public high schools;
the failure of prep schools to continue to insure their students automatic acceptances to prestigious colleges (an old reason);
the partial failure of prep schools to take the lead in educational innovation (a new reason); and
a change in the decision-making process. Whereas the parents used to decide, now the children decide for themselves whether they'd like to go away to school (perhaps the most important reason).
"Plenty of families can foot the cost," Andover's director of admissions Robert Sides said last week. "The kids themselves just don't want to go. They feel they're being cut off from the main stream of activity."
Andover's own experience is enough to frighten the striped tie off the many prep school alumni who have confidently sent off their sons and their generous checks to their old schools for generations.
Eight years ago, Andover accepted approximately 22 per cent of its applicants. This year Andover will accept over 40 per cent of its applicants.
According to Sides, the situation is even worse in fact than it seems on paper. Not only has the number of applicants dwindled, but their intellectual quality has declined as well.
"We used to reject intellectuals to keep the student body well-rounded. We don't have that problem any more," Sides said, taking little comfort in his words.
Exeter, Andover's twin in terms of size, endowment, and number of Harvard admissions, is also suffering, although apparently not as badly. Exeter accepts about 30 per cent of its applicants, and three out of every five boys accepted to both Andover and Exeter choose Exeter.
Two smaller schools, Groton and St. Paul's, are apparently not as badly affected by this decline in interest. Although Groton's director of admissions, David Rogerson, noted that "the competition isn't as stiff as it used to be, and the classics scholars are getting worried about a decline in intellectual
According to one source, the University prefers to build student and faculty housing on the Treelands-Bindery site because it is one of the few pieces of land in Cambridge zoned for high-density housing. High-density housing permits more people to live on any one piece of land-in this case, 2.25 acres.
"The University hopes, by building quality." applications have not dropped too noticeably at Groton.
St. Paul's admissions director Richard Sawyer maintained that admission figures "look about as they did five years ago," although he appeared unwilling to talk about the exact numbers. St. Paul's, a traditionally upper-crusty church school, will go co-ed next year. but Sawyer feels that this will not have any significant effect on the number of applications.
Mt. Hermon, a large school lacking the protection of tradition and endowment, is suffering so badly that it has resorted to the sure sign of desperation-advertising for students in the Harvard Alumni Builetin.
If the boys' schools are worrying, the girls' schools are running scared Farmington, an old and prestigious girls' schools, has had a large drop in applicants. Miss Hall's, a notch down on the academic and social ladder, is also having trouble filling its beds. St. Timothy's, a school of Farmington's stature, accepts over half its appellants, and applications are "considerably down" at Westover, a middle-echelon school.
Even Concord, a school that sits at the top of the pile in terms of popularity, is experiencing a decrease in applicants for the first time in a decade.
While the boarding schools have been suffering, the day schools have been enjoying a marked increase in applications. Day schools appear to parents and children as a happy compromise between high school and boarding school, offering the academic quality of a private school without the restriction and isolation of a boarding school.
In Boston, for example, the Belmont Hill School has experienced a sharp increase in applications, probably at the expense of surrounding boarding schools such as Middlesex, St. Mark's, and Brooks. At the Riverdale School, outside New York City, there has been "quite a swelling of applications," according to admissions director Cleaver Foubes, who added, "Hardly anybody goes away to school anymore."
Ten years ago, the Collegiate School, a twelve-year day school in Manhattan, saw 75 per cent of its eighth grade go away to school. Last year, only four out of 45 decided to leave Collegiate for boarding school.
Despite the occasional note of optimism voiced by admissions directors to placate their alumni and salve their wounded spirits, the outlook is bleak for the prep schools. If the economic squeeze isn't damaging enough, the growing rebellion of once awed or indifferent thirteen-year-olds should be enough to doom a few schools and hurt, if not cripple, many others.