Elite private schools and the rents of early talent filters

An email from a (no doubt loyal) reader about my post last week:

“I’m a big believer that – for all the problems with our educational system – it’s a strength of the US that it’s possible to be a late bloomer and still succeed. But your piece also resonated with me because I’ve been revisiting  my thoughts about [Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology of Northern Virginia, a public magnet school] through all of the recent controversies over promoting diversity. (Not my topic here. I’m for it, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

I will state up front that my opinion is not a popular one among the TJ crowd (as evidenced by the bemused reactions it got at my 25 year reunion), but here goes: 

I believe people are using the wrong baseline when they point to the success of TJ – most wonder “what would my life have been like if I hadn’t gotten into TJ?”   but I think the proper question is “what would my life have been like if TJ didn’t exist?” 

I think that is well observed, but lets unpack it a bit more. The broader framing of “Would admitted students’ lives be different if schools like TJ didn’t exist?” is an extremely useful one, especially if you compare them to the elite private schools whose entire sales pitch boils down to “For $60K a year we’ll give your child a real shot at getting into the Ivy League or the Supreme Court“. When that is your pitch and your price tag, schools have no choice but to invest significant resources ensuring that their graduates have not just an advantage, but pre-designated slots in the incoming classes of the elite undergradute institutions. They aren’t passively part of a filter system, they are actively working to ensure that their admissions process for those 13 or younger serve as a talent filters for the Ivy League.

Full Disclosure: I attended the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the mid-90s. It was no doubt less competitive to get in then, so don’t feel obligated to update your prior beliefs regarding my intelligence or insight. My time there was a lovely experience that I am grateful for, though, so I am no doubt biased.

For all of it’s incredible local reputation, TJHSST isn’t nearly as big a deal in the broader world, in part because it remains very much a public school, albeit one with an admissions process beyond pure geography. There is no board of trustees working actively to promote it as a filter, no club structure committed to the long-term prestige of the institution to be passed down through legacy admission​s. Part of the reason I find the TJ model more tolerable is that it promotes itself as an educational opportunity and adjuvant for its students, rather than a probabilistic ticket to the next stage of the social ladder.

The cost of TJ not existing is roughly equivalent to that borne by students who applied but were not admitted: a set of kids each year who receive an arguably inferior education, nothing more, nothing less. The external cost imposed by TJ admissions on the rest of the school system is largely neglible. Yes, the peer networks within each of the schools they pull from will be slightly weaker academically, but they are pulling from a lot of schools, so that cost is spread pretty thin.

What about the filter effect, you might ask? Are the students not admitted to TJ suffering at a disadvantage later applying to college? There may be some small signal disadvantage at the margin, but my suspicion is that it is pretty small. There are no resources dedicated to creating dedicated pipelines into elite schools, and absolutely no legacy systems incentivizing the creation of those generational pipelines. For an institution to become a talent filter it has to on some level, I believe , dedicate resources towards becoming a filter. It has to not just want that status, it has to have club members willing to invest in it acquiring that status.

Conversely, the effect of Georgetown Prep, the Phillips Academy, and others of their ilk not existing is, similarly, a probable decline in the quality of education of some subset of students. It would also mean, however, that the pool of consideration for Harvard and Yale would get wider and the relevant talent filters would be applied 4 years later in student development. As it stands, students not being admitted, not being unable to afford, or not even being aware of the existence of these educational institutions and opportunities is that they’ve been removed from the track to the professional elite. The composition of the Supreme Court and Congress are being indirectly determined by the admission boards (and legacy donors) sorting children before they’ve learned algebra or finished growing.

You want my opinion? Well here it is: we need more TJHSST’s, not less. We need more public magnet schools, more elite public colleges and universities. Schools where, yes, students are competing for admission, but for whom the prize of admission is the education itself and not entry into a club whose principal endeavor is procuring rents for their matriculants and the offspring of their alumni by offering signal value through their admission. If a filter occurs, it should occur through the quality of their educational outputs, not the narrowness of their admission criteria inputs.

In the end, private schools as early talent filters are an institution prime for capture by highly capitalized rent-seekers. Truly great public schools are not part of that problem. They may even be a solution to it.

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