America's Best Prep Schools

Forbes

These 20 Private Secondary Schools Are the Creme de la Creme

For some families, the college application process starts early -- well before campus visits, entrance exams, or even before a student learns to read. It starts as early as kindergarten, with entrance into the most elite and prestigious college-preparatory schools.

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These private educational institutions, colloquially known as "prep schools" in the United States, can be boarding or day schools, affiliated with a particular faith or completely secular. At the high end of the spectrum, they're known for ultra-competitive admissions, high tuition and top-notch facilities. Their aim is to provide students with education that funnels them into the very best universities.

These institutions all offer high-caliber instruction and uniquely valuable experiences to their students. But in a world where education is so competitive and expensive, and where the name of your high school can open doors for life, it's worth measuring the best of the best.

The top prep school in the U.S. is the Trinity School, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in New York City. Founded in 1709, this co-ed day school has an average enrollment of 960 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. There's one teacher for every six students, more than 80% of the faculty hold an advanced degree and the school's $40 million endowment helps assure the facilities are first-rate. Tuition for one year of schooling in the Upper School (grades 9-12) is $34,535, though the school offers financial aid.

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In order to rank the 20 best prep schools, we started by creating a candidate list of 55 top private educational institutions. We then collected a series of statistics about each school and used them to create the ranking. Half of the ranking was weighed equally between student/faculty ratio, percentage of faculty that possess advanced degrees and size of the school's endowment. The other half was based on percentage of graduates, over the last five years, that matriculated into 10 top colleges: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. This list, while arbitrary, reflects the fact that many parents send their kids to prep school specifically so they can get into the most prestigious universities.

So do prep schools really provide a pipeline to elite higher education? It turns out they do. In the past five years Trinity School sent 41% of its graduates to the Ivies, MIT or Stanford. On average our 20 top schools sent nearly one-third of their graduates to those 10 schools. (In contrast, less than 0.01% of all U.S. high school graduates ended up in those schools in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education.) Plenty of prep schools that did not make our list -- such as Sidwell Friends, a co-educational Quaker day school in Washington, D.C., which President Obama's daughters attend -- also have high matriculation rates, and their exclusion in no way means they are not excellent schools.

"Prep schools are organized to ensure elite college placement -- that's the whole idea," says Mitchell L. Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford University and author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. Stevens worked for a year and a half at the admissions office at an elite liberal arts college, traveling to high schools mainly in the Western U.S. and the East Coast to recruit applicants. "A [big] name high school provides assurance to college admissions. It's about the reliability of applicants."

Tiny classes, individualized attention -- and in the case of boarding schools, 24 hours access to faculty -- certainly help students earn their way into the best colleges. But Stevens stresses it's not just academics that count. "There's a much lower likelihood that a student from a boarding school is going to freak out" when they get to an extremely competitive university, he says.

Other benefits of going to a prep school include top-notch facilities and extracurricular activities. St. Paul's, a boarding school in Concord, N.H., which places No. 8 on our list, has nine athletic fields, two ice rinks, 15 tennis courts and an eight-lane competition swimming pool. The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., (No. 14) has a nine-hole regulation golf course. Horace Mann in New York City (No. 2) has a nature laboratory comprising 100 acres in Washington, Conn. And the Phillips Academy Andover (No. 3) houses one of the world's most important collections of American art in its Addison Gallery.

"Colleges are not only looking for the best, they are looking for a diverse student body," says Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, assistant professor of education at the University of Toronto and author of The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School. "There are lots of different ways to be the best ... and prep schools give ample space to be good at something." Of course those resources don't come cheap; the most elite prep schools have very high tuitions (typically over $30,000) and endowments that rival many colleges (No. 6 Phillips Exeter Academy's is over $840 million).

But in the end, the real value of a prep school education is more than just getting into Harvard. Prep school kids have, as assistant professor at Columbia University Shamus Raham Khan says, "the ability to treat hierarchies as ladders, not ceilings." Khan, who not only attended St. Paul's School but later taught there, says small classes and individualized attention gives prep school kids a unique self-confidence and ease in their exchanges with authority figures. That translates to higher wages post-college, compared with their peers. "Prep schools teach students something, or better, provides them with resources, that others do not learn or have," he says.

To rank the 20 best prep schools, we started by creating a candidate list of 55 top private educational institutions. We then ranked them on four data points. Half of the ranking was based on the school's student/faculty ratio, percentage of faculty with advanced degrees, and size of its endowment. The other half was based on the percentage of graduates, over the last five years (unless otherwise noted), who matriculated into 10 top colleges.

No. 10: The Winsor School

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Alice F. Stern/Winsor School

Location: Boston, Mass.

Founded: 1886

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 31%
Student/Faculty ratio: 7:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 89%
Endowment: $50.4 million

Notable alumni: Olympic gold medalist Tenley Albright, film director Hilary Birmingham, former Vogue editor Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley.


No. 9: The Spence School

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Location: New York, N.Y.

Founded: 1892

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 33%

Student/Faculty ratio: 7:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 73%

Notable alumni: Helen Clay Frick, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aerin Lauder

No. 8: St. Paul's

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St. Paul's School

Location: Concord, N.H.

Founded: 1856

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 30% (four-year average)

Student/Faculty ratio: 5:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 74%

Endowment: $346 million

Notable alumni: William Randolph Hearst, J. Pierpont Morgan, Sen. John F. Kerry

No. 7: Collegiate School

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Location: New York, N.Y.

Founded: 1628

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 40%

Student/Faculty ratio: 5:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 72%

Endowment: $61.7 million

Notable alumni: John F. Kennedy Jr., David Duchovny. Bill Kristol

No. 6: Phillips Exeter Academy

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Art Durity/Phillips Exeter

Location: Exeter, N.H.

Founded: 1781

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 29% (three-year average)

Student/Faculty ratio: 5:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 83%

Endowment: $854 million

Notable alumni: Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Mark Zuckerberg

No. 5: Roxbury Latin

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Roxbury Latin School

Location: West Roxbury, Mass.

Founded: 1645

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 36%

Student/Faculty ratio: 8:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 76%

Endowment: $105 million

Notable alumni: James Pierpont (principal founder of Yale), biologist Jared Diamond, former Treasury Secretary Roger Altman

No. 4: The Brearley School

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Brearley School

Location: New York, N.Y.

Founded: 1884

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 37%

Student/Faculty ratio: 6:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 73%

Endowment: $106 million

Notable alumni: Caroline Kennedy, Tea Leoni, Kyra Sedgwick

No. 3: Phillips Academy Andover

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Photo by Ellen Hardy; image courtesy Phillips Academy

Location: Andover, Mass.

Founded: 1778

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 33%

Student/Faculty ratio: 5:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 73%

Endowment: $641.8 million

Notable alumni: Humphrey Bogart, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush

No. 2: Horace Mann

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Horace Mann

Location: New York, N.Y.

Founded: 1887

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 36%

Student/Faculty ratio: 12:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 94%

Notable alumni: Jack Kerouac, William Carlos Williams, James Schlesinger

No. 1: Trinity School

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Kevin D. Ramsey/Trinity School

Location: New York, N.Y.

Founded: 1709

Ivy/MIT/Stanford pipeline: 41%

Student/Faculty ratio: 6:1

Faculty holding advanced degrees: 82%

Endowment: $40.4 million

Notable alumni: Colson Whitehead, John and Patrick McEnroe, Katrina vanden Heuvel

Click here to see full list of America's Best Prep Schools.

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