For most people boarding schools conjure up thoughts of young men in navy
blue blazers with white shirts and a tie going to a beautiful school with ivy
covered walls and the game of polo being played in the distance. Oh, and don't
forget thoughts of parents with fat wallets and a family trust fund. This is
what Gordon Vink, the director of admissions at Mercersburg Academy in
Pennsylvania, calls the "Holden Caufield-Catcher in the Rye syndrome"(Parker
111), a book about the troubles a boy faces at his prep boarding school.
To an extent the image holds true. Prep schools offer collegiate type
atmospheres, have strict rules, and often teach generations of students from the
same families. The simplest definition of a boarding school is a place that
parents pay for a stodent to live and go to school. The school's teachers,
coaches, and administrators live in dormitories with boarders and act as their
family enforcing the strict rules, making disciplinary decisions, and overseeing
behavior and academic performance.
Boarding schools can be one or all of the following: academic boot camp,
a place for parents to put kids they don't want around or don't have the time
for, a haven from deteriorating public schools, a necessary credential for
children of the rich and famous, or a training ground for tomorrow's leaders.
These schools range from small unknown institutions which will accept anyone, to
the elite schools, which are very selective and are a pipeline to Ivy-league
schools and success.
Boarding schools are superior to public day schools. Proponents of
boarding prep schools claim the schools offer unparalled discipline, a stronger
curriculum, exellent facilities, a way to get in to better colleges, a superior
learning environment, staggering extra-curricular options, and allow students to
attain a higher level of performance. Opponents argue that the astronomical
cost, anywhere from $8000 to $25,000 per year for the most elite, is too
expensive. They also claim the rules are too extreme and suffocating, and that
students experience an abundance of stress.
The biggest argument against boarding schools is cost. With an average
cost of $8000 to $25,000 (Topolnicki 100), many parents ask: Are private
boarding schools worth the expense? The extra attention and frills don't come
cheap. "It's like buying stock or a new house," says private school consultant
Georgia Irvin. "It's a major investment." (Parker 111) But many boarding
schools have been working hard to increase their financial aid and to structure
new methods of payment. Pricey prep schools are more likely to give
scholarships. Sixteen percent of students who attend get financial aid, which
averages $5,400 a year. ( Topolnicki 101) Boarders also must consider what they
are getting - tuition and all living expenses. "Just think about how much food
a typical teenager eats," Susan Laittus says. She pays $21,000 a year for her
child to go to boarding school. She feels no price is too high when thinking of
her children's future. That $21,000 also gives her child access to a private
beach, surfing classes, and a recreation room with an ocean view. One
alternative to get a similar education is to move to an advantaged public school
system, but then there are high property taxes to pay and the average home
costs between $125,000 to $500,000 in such affluent neighborhoods. (Topplnicki
100) If the costs can be overcome, then a private boarding school is worth
Another problem is the system of rules the schools use. Boarding
schools generally plan every hour in the student's day. From wake up to lights
out, every hour in the student's life is set. At Exeter Boarding School in New
Hampshire, classes start before 8:00 AM and often don't wind up until 6:00 PM.
(Morgan 103) Jenny Cantrell's first discovery at Mercersburg Academy in
Pennsylvania was the school rule book. Jenny had to be at dinner from 6:20 PM
until 6:50 PM, then have study time from 7:30 PM to 10:00 PM. After 10:45 PM
she was expected to be in her room. On weekends she has to sign in at her dorm
between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM to report where she would be until her 11:00 PM
curfew. You can't just leave to see a movie if you are tired of doing
schoolwork. This loss of personal freedom often leads to severe stress.
(Cookson 33) In his study of American private schools, Peter W. Cookson reports
that teachers talk of "corks popping" and "freak outs". Leonard Baird found
that "Nearly half of the students were bothered very much by pressures of their
highly regulated environment." He could not state the exact number of prep
school students who need or seek counseling to deal with this stress. But he
does know the schools consider it an important problem, shown by their elaborate
counseling systems. Unfortunately, offering counseling in itself is not enough
for many students. Boys in particular seem to fear asking for psychological
help. Boys are supposed to present themselves as in control. If a boy shows he
is in trouble, what would his faculty or college counselors think? The
penalties for breaking the rules are as strict as the rules themselves.
Expulsion, probation, and disciplinary restrictions are common punishments. At
these schools one infraction, especially a serious one such as drug use, is
enough to get you kicked out.
Many parents, however, feel the structured life promotes self discipline
and independence. A disciplined way of life is just what Dale Stinger and his
wife want for their 13 year old son. "We like the regimented schedule which is
more than what the public school can give him. (Liu F10) However, with all the
rules, kids are still pretty much on their own. They have to take
responsibility for their actions, and as a result there is a certain maturity in
boarders. "Personally, now I can deal with any person or situation that comes
along," says 17 year old Laura King.
All these rules are part of the sacrifice prep students are expected to
make in preparation for the privileged positions they will hold in society. In
exchange for their loss of freedom, prep students earn a right to membership in
the privileged "higher group" and come to believe that they deserve certain
privileges because of the high personal price they paid. The present pain for
future gain thought holds true. Prep school graduates are disproportionately
influential in business, banking, and law. Seventeen percent of the rare group
of people who are board members of two or more major corporations graduated from
one of thirteen elite prep schools. (Cookson 31) Cookson claims, "Their
influence on contemporary American culture is widespread."
Part of these people's success can be attributed to an environment that
is conducive to learning. Most parents equate small classes with 15 or so
children, each being given individual attention by the teacher, with quality
education. The average boarding school class is 9-17 students. (Topolnicki 100)
Because students live at school, teachers are more readily available to give
help after class hours. Private schools also don't have to compete with the
public school's open door policy. Private schools not only have the ability to
select students, but also to remove troublemakers who get in. Public schools
administrators must face a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy to remove
unruly students even temporarily. As a result of their power, private schools
report only the occasional fist fight or act of vandalism. By being able to
select students, private boarding schools only have students who want to be
there. Elite boarding schools only accept on average fifteen percent of
applicants. (Morgan 103) To get in an applicant must take the SSAT, write
essays, submit recommendations from teachers, visit the school for a personal
interview, and pay a $30.00 application fee. As can be seen, only well
motivated students can manage to get in. Those that do get in tend to stimulate
each other to succeed. The competitive atmosphere is an advantage that public
The facilities that a private school has to offer can only be matched by
very advantaged public schools such as Beverly Hills High. Most prep schools
have campuses complete with playing fields, art studios, and well stocked
libraries, not to mention the beautifully manicured campuses and living quarters.
One elite school had an indoor swimming pool, a greenhouse, facilities for
every sport imaginable, and a cable television studio.
Boarding schools have long emphasized the extras. Garrison Forrest
School near Baltimore has the nation's only all-girls' high school polo team.
(Parker 111) Although very few private schools can round up enough of their
busy students to have more than a few sports, they often have many unique clubs
that can be joined. Private Orangewood Adventist Academy in Garden Grove,
California plays only four sports - football, baseball, basketball, and
volleyball. However, the school does have clubs for hikers, scuba divers, and
rock climbers - all activities that don't require a crowd. (Topolnicki 100)
The most important reason that boarding schools are superior to public
schools is that students there perform better than students at public schools.
Prep schools boasted the highest SAT scores, ranging from 1000 to 1300.
(Topolnicki 99) The prep schools, which by their name are in the business of
preparing students for college, send virtually every student to selective
colleges. Although prep schools are not teaching as diverse a group as public
schools, their students clearly outperform average and disadvantaged public
schools who average SAT scores of 790 to 986 and 757 to 948 respectively.
Prep schools offer more challenging courses than public schools do.
Advance Placement (AP) courses, such as calculus and computer science, which
count for college credit, are usually some of the most challenging classes a
student can take. Of the 29 AP courses recognized by colleges, prep schools
typically offer 10 to 15 compared with 0 to 5 for average public schools.
In conclusion, private boarding schools are far superior to public
schools even with the high cost, rules, and stress. They offer a better
learning environment, disciplined life style, better curriculum and activities,
and immaculate facilities. They can also choose which students will attend
their school. Public schools lack a student body brimming with eager children.
In her book The Classrooms of Miss Ellen Frankfort, Confessions of a Private
School Teacher, Miss Frankfort said that unless there is an advantaged public
school in her community, she will send her children to a private boarding school.
She feels that this kind of school would do a better of educating her children
and give them a "more enlightened world perspective". She likes the smaller
classes and ability for the schools to bypass the "bureaucratic machinery". She
appreciates that people are paid to worry for you - it's their job. Parents are
assured that there is a commitment to the student and his or her future, which,
if the school has anything to do with it, should be bright.
Cookson, Peter. "The Price of Privilege". Psychology Today (March
1986): 31-35. Rpt. in SCHOOL. vol. 3. Ed.
Eleanor Goldstein. Boca Raton, FL: Social Issues Resources Series Inc.,
1993. Art. 44.
Frankfort, Ellen. The Classrooms of Miss Ellen Frankfort, Confessions
of a Private School Teacher. New Jersey: Prentiss-Hall Inc., 1970.
Liu, Caitlin. "Boarding Schools: Higher Education at a Higher Cost".
The San Diego Union-Tribune 9 August 1994: F10.
Morgan, Leslie. "Boarding Schools". Seventeen October 1991: 102-105.
Parker, Amy. "Away At School". Washingtonian. November 1992: 111-112.
Topolnicki, Denise M. "Why Private Schools Are Rarely Worth the Money".
Money (October 1994): 98-101. Rpt. in SCHOOL. vol. 5.
Ed. Eleanor Goldstein. Boca Raton, FL: Social Issues
Resources Series Inc., 1993.