Frank Bruni: Why Fit Matters Most

Updated  January 05, 2016 |
Frank Bruni: Why Fit Matters Most
Parents considering schools should read New York Times columnist Frank Bruni's book about college admissions entitled Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. Much of what he says applies in the private K-12 world.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written a very useful book about college admissions entitled Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. Obviously, as you can see from the title, Bruni's audience is parents, and possibly students, who are thinking about and applying to college. Yet as I read the book, I began to see many similarities between the private K-12 school admissions process and the college admissions process. I suggest that you read this book which will clarify your thinking as you go through the process of selecting a private school for your child. Bruni's insights will also prepare you for the months and years ahead when you and your child will be dealing with the mysteries of college admissions. In the meantime let's look at some of the things about college admissions which Frank Bruni points out which are remarkably similar to what we will find in private school admissions.
 
Treatment of legacies
 
Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions by Richard D. Kahlenberg and The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden are two additional books which you should read about legacy admissions. These authors go into great detail and cite many sources to support their arguments.
 
What is a legacy? A legacy is an applicant to a school who has a relative or relatives who attended the same school. You will find legacies in both private K-12 schools as well as at the college level. Kahlenberg and Golden offer examples of how the practice works. Far be it from me to say whether legacies skew admissions one way or the other. From a practical point of view I would be comfortable admitting the younger sibling of a present student even if he or she scored less than some of the other applicants for the class. Why? Because I know the parents and have seen the lengths to which they will go to support and encourage their children to be all they can be. The old adage "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" applies. 
 
Is admitting legacy applicants a bad practice? I suspect that it is theoretically possible for the practice to be abused in some situations. There is always the risk that the legacy applicant's admissions profile scores lower than others in the current applicant pool. Admissions officers, as they do with every other decision, will weigh the pros and cons and probably side with accepting the legacy simply because he comes from a family which has sent children to the school for years and has supported the school generously.
 
I personally remember a legacy admissions situation years ago at a school where I taught. I was not involved with admissions at the time so can only report what I observed. The older brother from a prominent, wealthy family had been an academic and athletic super-star. He had the lead in the school play. He was a legend. Several years later along came his younger brother. This child was bright but lazy and spoiled. Needless to say he was admitted on the strength of his brother's accomplishments as well as a substantial donation for a new playing field. All you can do is shrug your shoulders and accept what is a done deal.
 
From the parent's perspective a legacy admission makes perfect sense. The school knows you and your track record. Why not take advantage of a legacy admission?
 
Ranks
 
Many parents, particularly from the northeastern part of the country and from overseas, seem to think that their children absolutely have to go to one of the top tier boarding schools in order to get into the right college. Actually for many parents the process actually starts with preschools, but we shall leave that to one side for now. The right college is, of course, in their minds one of the Ivy League schools. Far be it from me to say that these top tier private schools are not outstanding and equipped with the finest faculties and facilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. These schools are the sine qua non of private school K-12 education. But the question you need to be asking is whether one of these schools is the best fit for your child. Input "Is this school the best fit?" into your smartphone's notes or reminder utility. Keep this question in front of you whenever you visit schools on your shortlist. Finding the right school is really worth it as this video illustrates.
Yes, the top tier schools have it all. There is no doubt about that. However, when you begin to look under the hood, you will discover that there are dozens of schools not in top tier which are actually a much better fit for your child. This is where the educational consultant fits into the picture. She will be able to suggest a list of three to five schools you probably were not aware of. Because she knows your child and understands your requirements, these schools will have pretty much everything you are looking for. The next step is to visit them and see for yourself which one is the best fit.
 
Frank Bruni makes the point several times that colleges which were not those instantly recognizable top-tier names often did much better for their students than the more famous college could. The same thing applies in the K-12 private school world. Find a school which most of what you need. Visit it. Then make your decision.
 
Financial aid
 
Financial aid and diversity are largely intertwined. As schools seek to broaden their reach and diversify their student bodies, they will have to offer financial aid in order to attract students from more diverse backgrounds.
 
Many private K-12 schools offer tuition-free packages when the family financial situation meets a certain threshold. $75,000 to $100,000 seems to be the range of numbers which I have seen. There are many variables, of course, but admissions staffers serious about seeking a diverse applicant pool will be sure to get the word out.
The other practical alternative to financing a private school education is the kind of program you find in the Cristo Rey schools. This work study program is roughly comparable to what you will find in many college work study programs.
 
Diversity
 
A recurring theme in Frank Bruni's book is diversity. He tackles the sameness and the homogeneity of college student bodies with many examples of how a more diverse and smaller student population offers lessons in life which are frequently simply not available in other educational situations. So it is with private schools. Yes, Exeter and Hotchkiss are very fine schools with sterling reputations and long traditions of excellence. But what about that small school which your educational consultant is suggesting but you have never heard of? You won't know until you visit the school, meet the staff, explore the campus and imagine your child attending the school.
 
Questions? You may contact me via Twitter. @privateschl

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