Monday, March 11, 2019

Double the Competition: Young Women and the Prep School

In honor of this past week's International Womens' Day:

In the 1980's, prep school enrollment was in decline: Generation X was simply smaller than the previous generation of boarding school students. Perhaps as individualists, they were more interested in MTV than structured, supervised life in the dormitory. At some campuses, the social fabric unraveled with problems like binge drinking and even drug scandals; hurting institutions' pristine, long-cultivated reputations. At the time, some boarding schools were co-ed, but many were either boys' or girls' schools. The boys' schools were renowned for producing America's leaders; the girls' schools most often known as finishing institutions for debutantes.

Few boarding schools have endowments like the two Phillips academies; so declining enrollment- and declining tuition income- posed an existential threat to the survival of fabled institutions. They needed more students. They were "seeking all kinds of kids". These included "Non-traditional" students like first generation preppies, those who attended public grade school, minorities, day students; but most importantly, young women.

The Hill School, located outside of Philadelphia, PA, was one such school that faced enrollment challenges. The quality of the learning environment was great as ever, but simply the quantity of students fell short. The school's reputation was such that daughters of alumni expressed interest in attending; enough so that the Hill School's future was guaranteed when the boarding school went co-ed in the 1990's. That was not the end: going co-ed, there came to be double the competition, in admissions, in awards, and so forth. The student environment drew foreign exchange students from Europe and Asia, who wanted to be part of the reinvigorated boarding school environment. Admissions is selective today. 

Once the gender barrier had been removed from the general psyche of prep schools, the weaker boarding schools closed: they fell behind what public schools in exclusive zip codes could offer.  You could call this efficiencies in the educational marketplace, when students and their parents now had twice the choices of boarding schools. In no small part, it was young women, and their aspirations, who saved prep school culture from the dustbin of American history. 

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