Private School Graduates Overrepresented Among Phi Beta Kappa Inductees
The students elected to Harvard’s chapter of the national academic society Phi Beta Kappa each year boast near-perfect grades and glowing recommendations. Most of them also hold diplomas from wealthy private high schools or well-funded public ones.
From the Class of 2011 on, roughly 48 percent of the “Junior 24” and “Senior 48” attended private or parochial schools and 52 percent attended public schools, including magnet and exam schools. The Crimson found secondary school information for 611 of the 648 early Phi Beta Kappa inductees during this period.
Private school graduates were overrepresented in their ranks relative to the College as a whole. The percentage of private school graduates in Harvard’s classes hovers between 30 and 35 percent annually, according to The Crimson’s freshman surveys.
Twelve high schools have sent five or more graduates to the College who went on to join Alpha Iota, Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the first two rounds. Of these, four are New York City prep schools — Collegiate School, Trinity School, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and Horace Mann School. Three are New England boarding schools — Deerfield Academy (Mass.), Phillips Academy Andover (Mass.), and Phillips Exeter Academy (N.H.).
The tuition of all seven schools exceeds $40,000 per year.
Other schools that sent five or more eventual Junior 24 or Senior 48 inductees to the College include urban, private institutions — Harvard-Westlake School (Calif.), University of Toronto Schools (Canada), Lakeside School (Wash.), and the Winsor School (Mass.). Just one public school — Lexington High School (Mass.) — produced more than five early Phi Beta Kappa inductees.
Only four public high schools sent more than three graduates that became early Phi Beta Kappa inductees. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (Va.) sent five, while both Newton North High School (Mass.) and Stuyvesant High School (N.Y.) sent four. All four public schools are located in counties that number among the nation’s wealthiest. The median household income in Lexington, Mass., for example, is $162,083.
The lion’s share of Junior 24 and Senior 48 inductees hailed from just a few states — 104 came from Massachusetts, 84 came from New York, and 83 came from California. Ten states yielded no early Phi Beta Kappa inductees.
Consideration for election to the Junior 24 and Senior 48 starts with clearing a grade point average cutoff. Applicants then release their transcripts and submit recommendation letters to a committee of Harvard faculty and senior staff members who select the inductees, according to chapter secretary and Chemistry lecturer Logan S. McCarty ’96.
McCarty said he thinks grade inflation may contribute to the lopsided distribution of Phi Beta Kappa winners. Because grade point averages at the College are high overall, students need near-perfect grades to win an early Phi Beta Kappa spot.
“Someone who arrives at Harvard, and maybe doesn’t have the high school preparation, or even doesn't have good advice about what classes to take freshman year, and gets one B-plus freshmen fall and then gets straight As for the whole rest of their college career here — they might not actually even be considered because the other grades are so high,” McCarty said.
“Essentially the only students that we see are people who got one or two A-minuses and everything else is an A,” he added. “Unfortunately, I think with the way grades are right now in the College, a student who, you know, has a few missteps probably can't recover from that later on by doing really, really stellar work.”
The data includes secondary school information for 611 of the 648 Junior 24 and Senior 48 inductees, starting with the Class of 2011. The data does not include information for the seniors who join Phi Beta Kappa in the spring before graduation.
To gather data on where Phi Beta Kappa inductees attended high school, The Crimson reviewed Freshman Registers and yearbooks, the two College publications in which Harvard students can choose to self-report their secondary school. For students who did not self-report their secondary school, The Crimson reviewed a combination of alumni data and external publications.