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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 02/ 1/2010

College quotas for high schools?

By Valerie Strauss

So your child comes home in despair with news that two or three kids from his/her high school have already been admitted to Yale, or Chicago, or Stanford, or Virginia, or Northwestern, or Williams, or some other college of your kid’s dreams. Now he/she is worried that he/she can’t be admitted because the quota is filled for that high school.

That would make sense if there was a quota. But after asking dozens of college and university admissions officers, I’m convinced there is no formal quota.

“No. Categorically no. There is the immortal myth that we do. We do not,” said Thomas Reason, interim director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“That’s like an NFL team turning away players from the best collegiate football team in the country just because they have a lot of players from there. Why turn away talent?” said Dulcey Antonucci, director of media relations at Franklin & Marshall College.

Said Carol Rowlands, director of admissions at Lafayette College: “Applicant pools can vary from year to year. If there is an exceptionally compelling group of applicants from one school, it is possible that all will be admitted. By the same token, all the applicants from a particular high school could be denied in a given year.”

But if there are no quotas, some other process is going on.

Colleges won’t choose a bunch of kids from a small number of high schools; clearly there is an effort to spread acceptances among public and private, small and large, urban and suburban, rich and poor, East and West, North and South, etc.and etc.

But some high schools send more kids to elite schools than others. In fall 2007, The Wall Street Journal surveyed the freshman classes at eight prestigious colleges-- Harvard University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Williams College, Pomona College, Swarthmore College, University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University--to see from which high schools the kids had come.

Schools in New York City and New England did the best, and the 10 high schools with the most students in those freshman classes were private schools. You can see the results here.

Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., sent 19 students to Harvard that year!

Of more than 60 ranked high schools, five were from the greater Washington area--all of them private: Holton Arms School for girls in Bethesda; Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Fairfax County; Park School in Baltimore; Sidwell Friends School in the District, and National Cathedral School for girls in the District.

I know parents who made the calculation that it would be easier for their oh-so-bright child to get into Harvard from a public high school that is not considered the best than it would be to get in from a top private or public school where there is more competition.

Here’s the way Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development at George Mason University in Virginia explains what happens behind the closed doors of the admissions office:

“I don’t know any schools that have a quota for the number of students they will admit from a school, but I have worked with many that review applications by school, meaning that to some degree an applicant is competing with other applicants from the same high school. This may appear functionally the same but actually works quite differently.

“If I had a quota of 10 admits for School A, for instance, I would only admit 10 no matter who applied. If I’m reading all of School A applicants, however, I might see a pattern and take the most competitive students for my institution, which could be 5 or 10 or some random number ... A student may get denied at a school with a bunch of applicants, if he or she is at the lower end of those applicants, but appear reasonably admissible with the same profile from a school sending very few applications to that institution.”

So does it matter where your kid goes to high school in terms of where he/she goes to college? Sure it does, quota or no quota.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Unless something has changed without my knowing it, Thomas Jefferson is NOT a private school. In fact, at one point, you call it a magnet school. So, please correct your column -- it is not private.

Posted by: rlalumiere | February 1, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

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