As we complete work on our forthcoming book on U.S. boarding schools, we continue to be struck by the talent, diversity, and preparation of the boarding school students we encounter. They are typically mature socially, involved in several activities at a deep level, and taking advantage of an enriched and exciting academic program.
In other words, they are just the kinds of students most colleges would love to enroll. Yet many college personnel we speak with do not feel their institution connects well with boarding schools or has made inroads into recruiting talented boarding school students. Some college administrators are unaware just how much boarding schools have changed in the past two decades and what they can offer colleges.
Boarding schools are unique environments. These independent schools combine strong academics with a residential setting and a variety of programs to work with an incredibly diverse array of students.
Students gain early experience living away from home, working closely with faculty and other staff, and taking leadership positions not only in the usual extracurricular activities but also in community roles like proctoring a dorm or serving on judicial and residential life committees. They interact closely with administrators and their families, speak with trustees, and give tours to prospective families. Typically they are expected to integrate some form of character education into their development, as boarding schools emphasize a balanced educational approach addressing the whole person.
Many boarding schools offer extensive academic resources, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses and high-level core classes and electives across academic disciplines. Often students will explore key areas of interest through independent study, research, and internships. Boarding school students, even those who do not take the most advanced classes, are often well prepared for standardized tests and, of major interest to most colleges, have typically done more reading and writing under close faculty supervision than the average public school student.
Socially, boarding school students are often exposed to a more diverse and expansive social environment than they might find in their local public or private high school. This is often surprising to families and boarding school visitors. The fact is, many suburban, rural, and urban schools are still highly segregated along socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic lines. We find one of the top reasons families seek out boarding school environments today is their search for great diversity. Boarding students typically encounter roommates and dorm mates from different states and countries. They live with multiculturalism and are taught tolerance and respect.
Financially, boarding schools are costly, approaching the level of private liberal arts colleges. A full-paying family can expect to pay over $30,000 per year for room, board, and tuition. Fortunately, one of the changes that has accompanied the rising price tags has been increasing amounts of financial aid. Many boarding schools offer aid to between 25 and 35 percent of students.
Yes, that means that, as a college, you might expect to find a good number of potential full-paying college students. It also means that you will find talented and well-prepared students of lower socioeconomic and underrepresented minority backgrounds. Studies support the achievements of these students in independent schools. In addition, many minority students have found their way to boarding schools through such programs as A Better Chance and Prep for Prep, which have long served as important feeders for selective colleges.
So we have made these arguments for why your college should seek to recruit boarding school students:
They are there to prepare for college, and well over 90 percent will enroll in a college after graduation.
They are diverse, well prepared academically, socially mature, and able to handle living away from home and managing a challenging educational and residential life program.
Now, how do you find and communicate with these students?
Among the several hundred boarding schools in America, and those abroad, which often enroll a fair number of American expatriates (but that's a story for another day), there is great diversity in terms of institutional makeup and concentration.
You will find large schools enrolling more than 1,000 students to small schools with fewer than 100; schools with a specific religious heritage and approach and those that remain steadfastly nonsectarian; schools featuring the International Baccalaureate (IB) or AP curriculum, and those maintaining their own academic approach; schools with a heavy focus on sports, and those with an emphasis on the arts; schools enrolling only boarding students, and schools with a predominantly day population.
We recommend that, as an administrative and admissions team, you consider your own institutional mission, academic programs, special offerings, and school culture, and then try to develop a medium-sized list of boarding schools that might enroll students who fit the enrollment goals and prospective student profile. Just keep an open mind. Highly selective colleges might find incredibly strong students at boarding schools that are seen as less demanding academically, for example. Less selective colleges can find excellent students with many talents who might be in the lower range of the class at a more competitive boarding school.
Once you have identified some prospective boarding schools, you must engage directly with the college counseling office in order to begin forming a relationship for the long term.
Boarding students lead a curious life. Their parents are at home, often kept largely on the periphery of the college admissions process. They do assist with college visits, especially during the summer, but they tend to rely on boarding school guidance counselors to direct and organize a student's admission process. And, increasingly, students must organize most of the process on their own.
This means that the place to find students is at school, not at home. Mailings to a home address will often go unnoticed and forgotten. Mailings even to a school postbox will often sit unattended in that box. We heard from one student this year who didn't know she had received an "early notification" acceptance offer from a highly selective college for several weeks after its delivery; she hadn't bothered to check her snail mail!
While most boarding school students are highly adept with electronic communications, and will conduct most of their research and application process online, they're in need of personal contact with colleges. The dilemma is, given their highly intensive schedules-including weekend athletic, performance, and academic commitments-these students find it very difficult to visit college campuses. If you can present them with a well-trained admission officer in their very own school guidance office who will sit for a small group information session or, better yet, a one-on-one interview, then you will go a long way toward attracting serious applications from appropriate students.
When you make contact with college counselors at boarding schools, try to discover which range of students might prove to be the ones you are looking to enroll. Be realistic about your own academic programs and selectivity, and examine the boarding school's profile and record of recent college placements.
Try to understand where your institution might fit in that school's college preference list. Will you break in and attract students at the top of the class? Perhaps. Are you interested in those in the middle or even the bottom of the class? They might be great applicants for you. Talk with the college counselors about what kinds of students you are looking for, and what is important in your admissions process. Listen to that counselor's impressions of your institution, learn what he or she is looking for in terms of appropriate college matches for that school's students, and ask about the kinds of preferences and questions students there tend to have. How can you change your approach based on this information?
Attracting boarding school counselors and boarding school students requires something more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Given the turnover in the college counseling offices at these schools (and perhaps in your own Admissions office), persistence and consistency in building relationships with boarding schools is important.
We hope that, in the long run, such a focused recruitment program will lead to a record of institutional success as word of mouth about your offerings and the students who have enrolled in your institution spreads through the administrative, student, and parent communities of boarding schools across the nation.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.