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.