“If a kid liked Fieldston, chances are they would go to Wesleyan,” said Tyler Lederer-Plaskett ’21.
No one from my high school is currently at Wesleyan, and, to my knowledge, none has ever attended. I expected that new first years at Wesleyan would share in my gratefulness at the opportunity to attend such a prestigious school. Instead, I found a community in which Wesleyan was the status quo, a tried and true progression from high school to liberal arts college. Stepping into an existing elite community that had been climbing a ladder of interconnected schools for years, I learned that to some, the Wesleyan experience is insignificant, merely the logical next step. Does normalization of Wesleyan via pathways between elite, feeder high schools and the University pose a threat to diversity and the aims of a liberal arts education?
In 2017, the National Center for Education predicted that less than 10 percent of high school graduates would have attended private institutions. However, nearly half (between 48 percent and 51 percent) of Wesleyan hails from a non-public school. In comparison to the mere 10 percent of high school seniors that attend private schools, this number constitutes a gaping hole in Wesleyan’s stated mission of diversity. Wesleyan draws from an incestuous pool of schools in which Wesleyan’s name, as well as theirs, are well known.
Inextricable from Wesleyan’s disproportionate private school background is the presence of schools that individually make up large proportions of the Wesleyan community. Year after year, a handful of both public and private high schools send large numbers of students to Wesleyan. Among these feeder schools are notable names like Fieldston, Berkeley High, Harvard Westlake, Crossroads, Brookline, and Oakwood.
Graduates of these schools arrive in groups, tackling orientation with acquaintances, if not friends. They can extend social connections, knowing who their fellow schoolmates get along well with. They participate in what looks very much like a preexisting community, where attendance at one of these select high schools feels like a prerequisite.
Of the 2.1 million high school graduates matriculating to a college or university in 2016, why does Wesleyan largely compose itself from just a few institutions? The possible reasons are numerous.
First, applicants from some schools have slightly higher chances of being admitted. According to Executive Assistant to the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Admission Eileen DeVille, between 59 and 61 percent of Wesleyan applicants in the last four years attended public or charter schools. A lower percentage, never more than 52 percent, have matriculated.
Specific high schools, unsurprisingly those that send a large number of students to Wesleyan, sport slightly better admissions statistics. Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private institution in the Bronx, N.Y. had exactly 33 percent of its applicants admitted. Berkeley High, a public high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, had 19 percent admitted.
It is clear that a number of schools with strong ties to Wesleyan either produce more capable applicants or receive preferential treatment in the admissions process. Perhaps more significant is the fact that over 50 students from some high schools (Berkeley) applied to Wesleyan.
One reason for this discrepancy is that students at prestigious feeder schools receive significantly more guidance in the application process. First-year Jack Leger, a public high school graduate from New Hampshire, mentioned that he was given a 30-minute meeting with his guidance counselor once every few months.
In our one and only meeting, my own college counselor recommended Arizona State University (acceptance rate 83 percent).
In contrast, Foster Conklin ’21 said that at Phillips Andover in Andover, Mass., “By application time senior year, I was meeting with my counselor about once a week.”
Furthermore, he estimated that there were 10 or 11 college counselors serving the school of 1,100 students.
Contributing to, or a result of, the elite culture of Wesleyan and other selective institutions is a poor understanding of how to join. Feeder school attendees have peers and acquaintances to consult. They have available college counselors. Without college counseling resources, Wesleyan appears largely indistinguishable from any other liberal arts college to the enthusiastic high school senior. Furthermore, a lack of belonging is palpable in the foreign and poorly understood world of liberal arts schools. At the school I attended, it was widely believed that selective schools only ever admitted one student from our town, regardless of how many applied. Students competitively applied or chose not to apply based on this rumor. In my high school of 1,200 students, the idea that there were unlikely to be two “fits” for Wesleyan was unimaginable.
Clearly, graduates of a number of feeder schools have proven their propensity for becoming successful members of the Wesleyan community. Whether because of their academic preparation or interests or tendencies as alumni, the University has continued to admit graduates from these select institutions. However, at a liberal arts college with the resources to support an espoused commitment to diversity, we should offer a Wesleyan education to more than a select group of elites.
I came here with a desire to escape the community in which I spent the last four years, in search of a community of shared value and ambition. I did not expect to find, in the Wesleyan experience, so many students who have long belonged to the elite community of prestigious, often private schools.
I am not suggesting that any students hailing from schools with a history of connection to Wesleyan merit admission any less than those admitted from other schools. Instead, I am suggesting that such habitual practices represent a significant inconsistency with the aims of a liberal arts school. An undergraduate education is still largely a beginning in which academic and professional habits can be learned. Graduates of the select few high schools who attend Wesleyan clearly possess the background to succeed in this development. However, focus must continue to be directed toward composing Wesleyan of the best, not merely the elite.
Jesse Marley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jesse is a member of the class of 2021.