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Having someone with experience in the behind-the-scenes world of your dream school is an unmeasurable advantage over someone who doesn’t, like students at public schools — like myself.

Above graphic created by Nick Harris, VOX ATL staff

A Deep Dive Into The Not-So-Secret Private School to Top 40 University Pipeline [Opinion]

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With senior year coming to a close, my classmates and I have started committing to colleges — making the verbal commitment to attend our universities of choice for the next four years. With this, many senior classes at high schools around the country have started “decisions” accounts on social media, accounts where seniors share the schools they’ll be attending. It takes just one look at a private high school’s “decisions” account to notice that their students are practically propelled to Ivy League or Ivy-adjacent schools. 

Prestigious Atlanta private schools, including Woodward, Lovett, Westminster, Pace and Paideia are sending many of their kids to top-tier universities. And if you look at the websites of the schools I just named and find the college counseling departments, you’ll notice some interesting connections between the college admissions departments and private school counseling offices. Furthermore, many of the colleges these students are admitted to at disproportionately higher rates use a holistic review process, a process that should benefit the not-so-perfect candidates who don’t have access to things like the top-notch college preparation you’ll find at every single one of the schools mentioned above.

In layperson’s terms, private school students are admitted to top colleges at higher rates than public school students. In fact, The Harvard Crimson self-reports that 37% of Harvard’s class of 2025 came from private schools, although, according to the Brookings Institution, only 12% of American schoolchildren are enrolled in K-12 private schools. But why is that the case? Is it simply that candidates from private schools are more qualified? Or smarter? Or is there something else happening here? 

I disagree with the widely-accepted idea that students from private high schools are simply better candidates in the eyes of top universities. I spoke with students from both public and private high schools, and a former high school college counselor to learn more about this apparent private school to Ivy League university pipeline.

Reporting Methodology

For this piece, I’ll be using the rankings of the best high schools in the Atlanta area, and the US News & World Report rankings of the Best National Universities, with data as recent as February 2023. 

The data I’ve found describing relationships between counseling departments and universities comes from the Atlanta private school websites themselves and the Linkedin profiles of the officials (which is hyperlinked for readers and represents data as of February 2023). Also, it’s important to note that my definition of the “Top 40” includes schools ranked slightly under number 40, to include schools like the University of Georgia, Boston University, and Northeastern, since these were extremely popular picks at the schools mentioned. 

I looked at five of the most prestigious private schools in Atlanta, The Westminster Schools, The Paideia School, Pace Academy, The Lovett School, and Woodward Academy. All five of these have been ranked within the top 10 private schools in the Atlanta area, and tuition ranges between $28,000 and $34,000 per year. The parents who can afford to send their kids to these expensive private schools live in a very different socioeconomic world than I do.

By The Numbers

I operate my school’s “decisions” account for my public high school, DeKalb School of the Arts, where we had 51 out of 70 seniors submit posts last year. Of those students, zero students committed to an Ivy League school, and nine students who committed to a school ranked within the top 40.

In contrast, according to the Westminster Schools futures account, of their 63 commits, seven students are heading to the Ivy League. At Paideia, out of the 85 commits published on their futures account last year, 45 students were headed to a top 40 school, and seven to the Ivy League as well. Out of the 108 commits published on Pace’s account, 53 students were headed to the top 40 last year, and 1- students to the Ivy League. At Woodward, out of the 200 commits, five students were headed to the Ivy League and 43 to the top 40. Out of the 146 commits at Lovett, 57 students were headed to the top 40. 

A National Trend

The numbers show us that these private school students are propelled to top universities at rates disproportionate to their public school counterparts. According to Forbes, this isn’t exclusive to Atlanta, either. In a story published last fall, Forbes reported: “Although private school students made up only 8.5% of American students in 9-12th grades in 2019, they accounted for almost 40% of the incoming freshmen classes of 2025 at Harvard and Yale, and over 40% of the class of 2026 at Dartmouth.”

First, I did a deep dive into The Westminster Schools, ranked as the No. 1 school in the Atlanta area by Niche. The Westminster School’s college counseling page informs visitors: “The perfect blend of care for each student and effective strategies for admissions sets our college counseling program apart. Our counselors encourage every student to find the best-fit college or university, then help them get there.” 

On the page’s “External Relations” box, Westminster then adds: “Externally, members of the department hold positions as President of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling and as Deputy Executive Director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. Counselors have recently served as advisory board members for university admission offices.” 

Essentially, members of their counseling department currently hold external leadership roles in college admissions and/or have previously served on the advisory boards at colleges.

Examining Westminster’s Counseling Department

Things get more interesting when you take a look at the positions that members of their counseling department have held. According to his LinkedIn, Westminster’s Director of College Counseling, Steve Frappier, was previously a director of Undergraduate Admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, where, according to the chart the school posted of college matriculation, they’ve sent 20 students in the last four years. Their Associate Director of College Counseling, Anthea Economy, also served on the Advisory Boards at The University of Alabama and The University of Georgia, where Westminster has sent 96 students in the last four years. Not to mention, according to Westminster’s website, Economy is described as “currently on the Advisory Boards for both Fairfield University and the University of Illinois.” 

Jay McCann, the Associate Director of College Counseling at Westminster, also served on the Advisory Board for Pepperdine University. 

Just a glance at the “Meet our Team” section of the Westminster Schools’ website illustrates that many members of their College Counseling Team previously worked at the universities their students go on to attend. 

A Closer Look at Pace Academy

At Pace Academy, their college counseling office contains Amy Ruff, who served as the recruitment coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan, and as the associate director of the admissions office at Emory University and Florida State University.

According to his LinkedIn, Ben Wescott, Pace’s associate director of college counseling was also the associate and senior assistant director of admissions at Rhodes College for six years.  And according to her LinkedIn, Pam Ambler, another Pace associate director of college counseling, was also the senior admissions counselor at Emory University for seven years. 

A Deep Dive Into Paideia and Lovett

At the Paideia School, Tyhuna Nelson, is listed on the school’s website as a registrar and assistant to College Counseling, and according to her LinkedIn, Nelson has worked at Emory University from 2007 to present as a senior academic records specialist.

At the Lovett School, Chief Engagement Officer of college counseling, Jessica Jaret Sant, has served on the counselor advisory boards at Dickinson College, Lynn University, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Georgia, and also worked in the undergraduate admissions department for both UGA and Emory. Director of College Counseling Anita Hua worked on the application review committee and served as the admissions representative for the Southeast at Elon University. According to her LinkedIn account, Ashley Armato, Lovett’s associate director of college counseling, also currently serves as a counselor advisory board member for Dickinson College and as a board member on the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, and previously worked on the Johns Hopkins University Advisory board. Melissa Benski, Lovett’s associate director of college counseling, worked as the NYU associate director of admissions, and her colleague Chris Rodriguez worked for five years as the assistant director of admissions and an admissions counselor at Mercer University. 

In short, these Atlanta-area private school college counselors have extensive backgrounds working in college admissions capacities, and some work for both private high schools and serve in some capacity at universities at the same time.

“It’s Very Intentional”

If you look at private schools, how society views certain colleges and how private schools input and hire these teachers and administrators, it’s very intentional,” Layla White, a junior at DeKalb School of the Arts told VOX ATL.

For many public school students, this creates the perception of an unchecked system of privilege, one that benefits the students at the private schools these counselors work for. And when private school counselors are right in college admissions offices, it also creates the perception of a conflict of interest. Having someone with experience in the behind-the-scenes world of your dream school is an immeasurable advantage over someone who doesn’t, like students at public schools like myself.

“I Definitely Had Connections To Universities”

I also conducted a digital interview with Darby Williams, who served as a college advisor with College Advising Corps for one year (2017 to 2018). Here’s what Williams told me:

Q: Did you have any connections to universities while you worked as a counselor?

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Williams: I definitely had connections to universities while I was an advisor. During training for the position, I was introduced to admissions counselors for most of the colleges my students were interested in. I kept in regular contact with them throughout my time as an advisor. I would ask them questions about fee waivers, application deadlines, and other issues that arose while my students applied for those schools.

Q: In what ways would you say your students benefited from this connection?

Williams: My students greatly benefitted from the connections I made. I often referenced specific students when I would chat with admissions counselors, and so they got to know who my students were before applications were submitted. I vouched for my students regularly and made a point to highlight their successes, their work ethic, and other positive traits to those counselors. I was able to encourage my students to contact their admissions counselor directly and facilitate those communications. By the time they were reading my students’ official applications, counselors already had a good understanding of who that student was, knew a lot of information about them beyond what was written on paper, and had my endorsement. 

A Closer Look at Woodward Academy

Unlike every other school featured in this piece, the Woodward Academy website doesn’t feature a biography section for counselors. 

Woodward Academy has been ranked as the sixth-best private school in Atlanta, where tuition reaches $30,000 per year and the alumni network consists of NFL players, senators, and 35 students who went to top 40 universities last year. Unlike some of the other schools in my findings, it appears the very foundations of Woodward Academy are rooted in these kinds of connections. According to her LinkedIn page, Woodward’s former college counseling director of 33 years, Missy Sanchez has served on the advisory boards at UGA, Northwestern, Miami of Ohio, Rice, and Furman University. Sanchez has also served on the US News & World Report Advisory Board, the same publication that handles the high school and college rankings featured in this article.

“What Are They Trying To Hide?”

When asked about this lack of transparency, former college advisor Darby Williams told VOX ATL: “I find it odd that schools don’t post their counselor’s bios. It’s really common for counselors at the high school level to have worked at the college level and vice versa, and if I were a parent, I would expect to be able to find that information out easily. I’m also a big fan of transparency in general, and whenever I can’t find information that should be harmless and easy to find, my instinct is always to ask, ‘what are they trying to hide?’”

“I think it’s the accessibility that matters,” adds DSA student Layla White. “I think everyone should be able to have access to the same things regardless of socioeconomic status.”

The Private Schools Respond — or Don’t

When I reached out for comment, Woodward Academy Director of College Counseling Bryan Rutledge told VOX ATL in a statement: “As you’ve noted, college counselors at Woodward do actively serve on advisory boards for colleges and universities. We believe that by teaming up with higher ed admission representatives, we can more effectively and knowledgeably serve our students and families in their college search process.” 

In a statement to VOX ATL, Justin Abraham, the Lovett School’s director of communications (who, according to his LinkedIn account, also previously served for five years in communications for Westminster)  said they “value the breadth of experience our college counselors have as former admission officers at a variety of post-secondary institutions, but their primary purpose is to provide counsel so each student finds a college, university, or other postsecondary opportunity that is the right fit for them and their interests, regardless of its ranking or connection to our counselors.”

Westminster, Paideia and Pace did not respond to VOX ATL emails inviting them to comment for this article.

“It Absolutely Gives Me and My Classmates an Advantage”

My VOX ATL colleague and Lovett School junior Jennie Matos, (who also serves on the VOX ATL board of directors) told me: “It absolutely gives me and my classmates an advantage, and that’s the biggest problem. Our school has like five or six college counselors for a class of about 150 to 200 students, but a lot of my friends’ schools have thousands of students and maybe two college counselors. It’s really messed up. There’s a lot of one-on-one meeting and prep to help us achieve our college dreams, and other students at other schools deserve these resources and attention, too. There is so much inequality in the college admissions process as a whole, and a lot of families don’t necessarily know how to deal with the whole system as a whole. There are so many amazing students in this city and this state who deserve to have a shot at the colleges of their dreams. Could you imagine how public school students could thrive if given the same resources? At the end of the day, it’s sadly another issue of inequity and class.”

The bottom line: Private school kids are at an advantage. Whether that’s through the preparation they receive leading up to the college admissions process, or the not-so-gentle push they appear to receive from well-connected college counselors toward the colleges of their dreams. 

Essentially, this way of gaming the system is hiding in plain sight, and the counselors with valuable college connections are actually perks of these expensive private schools. If you have the money to send your child to one of these private schools, this is nothing more than an expected amenity. These schools tout these connections for the most part, as discouraging as it may be.

Author’s note: If you have the time, check out my sidebar piece on how I was able to beat these odds and commit to my top college, without access to the resources and connections mentioned in this article.

READ: “I’m A Public School Student Without A 4.0, Here’s How I Got Into My Dream College”

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comments (2)

  1. Piet Hein

    I find some of your word choices to be connotationally charged by assumptions for which you provide no support (except perhaps that the implications are currently la mode), and I encourage you to consider and perhaps challenge yourself to write an article on the following more complex topics:
    1) How important is attending a certain college (or college at all) to becoming a healthy happy full-formed human?
    2) Is it desirable or not for human growth and development to be a multi-generational process by which children stand on the shoulders of their parents so as to eventually surpass them?

    I posit that the answers are (1) it helps marginally but is neither a necessity nor guarantee, and (2) very desirable for society as the alternative would limit progress to a single generational lifetime albeit not necessarily from the perspective of every individual relative to their peers.