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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Feeder Schools and Inequality in Higher Education

As a high-school senior, Sai To Yeung hadn’t known many students who had gone on to highly competitive colleges, but he decided to “dream big” and was thrilled when he got into Harvard. He felt that the admissions process needed to be demystified. He told me that he’d decided to bring “order out of chaos” and tracked down information on which schools had sent students to three colleges: Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. I asked him how he had obtained it; he said he couldn’t reveal his method. Liam O’Connor double-checked much of Yeung’s data for Princeton and found that, except for “a few mistakes,” the information was correct.

The result of Yeung’s research is a website called PolarisList. Looking over the data for Princeton’s classes of 2015 through 2018 is bracing. The list of sending schools is dominated by highly selective magnet schools, public schools in wealthy areas, and famous prep schools: the Lawrenceville School, Exeter, Delbarton, Andover, Deerfield Academy. Among the top 25 feeders to Princeton, only three are public schools where 15 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

If you went to Lawrenceville, a boarding school not far from Princeton and the university’s top sending school, your chances of going to Princeton were almost seven times greater than if you went to Stuyvesant High School, an ultra-selective public school in New York City and itself a top Princeton feeder, where 45 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But compared with an average American public school? You don’t want to know.

Here is another big number that really needs to be investigated: More than 50 percent of the low-income Black students at elite colleges attended top private schools, according to Anthony Abraham Jack, the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. This means that these schools, which collectively educate a tiny proportion of Black teenagers, have a huge influence on which of these kids get to attend the best colleges. To some in education, this is a cause for celebration—the old route to social and professional success has within it some dedicated lanes for Black children from low-income families. To others, it is a cause for concern—if these children want to attend an elite college, their best bet by far is to spend their adolescence in a school where the experience of being Black is, for many, a painful one.