Boarding Schools: Don’t Rank Them, Understand Them

2010 Private School Rankings... ughThe fall admission season has opened and admission directors everywhere are facing the same questions – the most enduring of which is the “Where is your school ranked?” We all respond with the same mantra: There is no such thing as official rankings of U.S. independent schools, boarding or day. Our schools have not participated in any empirical study that ranks our schools.

None of the major organizations that support independent school education: the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS); The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS); the Secondary Schools Admission Test Board (SSATB); or the Education Records Bureau (ERB) offer support for any such study.

Yes, there are a variety of publications out there that purport to have come up with a formula for rankings, but without the participation or cooperation of our schools, none of these publications’ claims should be taken seriously. It’s a particular problem overseas where rankings are of particular importance. At best, the magazine attempts to rank schools end with subjective conclusions and, at worst, the rankings they come up with are mere speculation gleaned from word of mouth. I am sorry to say that many of these publications see creating such rankings as a great way to sell a magazine or newspaper. And they do!

So why are our schools so adamant about not participating in ranking studies? My best answer is to ask an inquirer simply to visit as many schools as one can. Doing so will reveal the remarkable diversity available in our schools. All boarding schools were founded for a specific purpose that speaks specifically to one point: every child is different; every child has his/her own way of learning; every child has different talents and interests. Boarding schools simply, then, cannot be put into some sort of cookie cutter mold. If that were the case, we’d all be part of one large corporation producing one kind of student. Happily, this is not the reality.

I’ve written about this subject before but I feel compelled every year to get on my soap box and beg parents to avoid making the same assumption about boarding schools. From this admission director’s perspective, here is what happens: The parents are persuaded of the validity of a publication’s school rankings, pick the top five, and that is where they apply. Unfortunately, yes, there are always the same schools listed because of name recognition and certainly they are very fine schools. Think of how many parents are so desperate to get their high school child into an Ivy League university. They are, without question, some of the finest colleges anywhere; but when I ask parents why they want their child to attend those colleges, their eyes glaze over. Rankings, they say! Well, it’s the same for many boarding schools. The result is that parents put all their eggs into those five baskets even though none of the schools is a good match for their child. What happens then? The student gets admitted to none of them. Now what? It’s April and all our schools have made our decisions and we’re full. There are no openings. Where does that leave the parent?

On the other hand, the parent that does her homework, visits the schools, has a clear understanding of her child’s talents and aspirations, and asks the right questions has now improved her child’s chances of admission tenfold. It happens every time. Why? Because these are the types of parents we all want to meet: a parent who understands that education is for a lifetime – not just the next four years or even eight years. When their child – now an adult – is out of college and looking to make a difference, how many company CEOs are going to ask for the ranking of their school or college? How many adults can point to the “ranking” of their school as the reason for their success? The fact of the matter is that if there were a ranking system, it just would not have any relevance in the real world, except to the parent who can boast their child went to a “ranked” school.

Okay, I will now get off the soapbox but say it one more time. There is no such thing as a ranking for independent/private schools. Parents, it is up to you to do your own research and homework.

Leo Marshall serves as the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at The Webb Schools in Claremont, CA- a coed, boarding school offering grades 9-12.

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