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The Most Competitive High Schools Don't Guarantee Success. What About Ones Like Georgetown Prep?

Research suggests that being surrounded by well-off peers in not-too-intense academic environments can lead to lifetime gains.
The entrance to Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Maryland.

The entrance to Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Meritocracy has recently been a hot-button issue, spurred mainly by Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Arguments about Kavanaugh's privilege (or lack of it), the privileges of his critics, and the bootstrap-based claims of worthiness he's put forth have consumed public discourse. But we know that "hard work" and intelligence don't guarantee American success, and we know that "self-made" wealth is a fallacy, from the president onwards. Plus, research shows an education like Kavanaugh's is an ideal pipeline to career highs.

A new study on lifetime achievement reaffirms two long-held ideas about predictors for lifetime success—and speculates that the students who go furthest in life attend good-not-great high schools with rich peers. For example: Georgetown Preparatory School.

Why? Well, there's long been consensus in social science fields that socioeconomic status (SES) is a key predictor of which children do well in school. High SES, including parents with higher education and higher household income, among other factors, is strongly correlated with better outcomes, like access to good schools and good jobs (and the same for generations to come).

But there's another, less intuitive consensus: Schools that are too good—that is, on average, full of high achievers—can actually hurt students. The phenomenon is known as the big-fish–little-pond effect: Smart students in average schools stand out, and their "academic self-concepts," or their trust in their academic skills, benefit. Conversely, attending academically selective schools can negatively affect how students see themselves compared to peers. The phenomenon also holds out across generations and nations.

The new study considered both variables over time. Using data from the 1960 Project Talent study and its follow-ups 11 and 50 years later, the authors found both that high SES positively affects achievement and that high-achieving schools negatively affect it, even for well-off students. Schools that are both academically competitive and overwhelmingly affluent actually come with negative lifetime effects.

And students who attend schools with a high average socioeconomic status and a less-intense achievement average—students like Kavanaugh—are probably best off, the researchers speculate. A school like Georgetown Preparatory in tony Bethesda, Maryland, has a high-SES student body; only 26 percent of all students receive financial aid for its tuition ($37,215 a year for day school). It's a good school, but it's not the most intense in America: The average Secondary School Admission Test scores are in the 60th percentile (slightly above average), and Prep's average SAT score is 1386 out of 1600 (that's 94th percentile, so not too shabby, but below similar institutions). That's the ideal combination for creating, say, a Supreme Court justice like Neil Gorsuch, who also attended the school—and maybe Kavanaugh.

Of course, there's no pipeline directly linking Georgetown Prep to the Supreme Court. Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan went to public high schools. But Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Sonia Sotomayor went to Catholic high schools. And every sitting justice attended either Harvard University or Yale University's law school. If confirmed, that statistic will include Kavanaugh, who earned his J.D. from Yale in 1990.

But Georgetown Prep is different from other mega-elite high schools in the country. Famous boarding prep schools like Phillips Exeter and Phillips Academy (Andover) are more economically diverse—about half the students at each receive financial aid—and more racially and geographically mixed. They're also more well-known and higher-achieving, with average SAT scores of 1430 and 1460 respectively, compared to Prep's 1386. Still, while Georgetown Prep is set to have two sitting Supreme Court justices, they have none.

Ironically, if a person like Kavanaugh had attended an extra-competitive high school, not only would he have probably had less time to escape to parties and the beach, he'd also likely have suffered a deflated academic self-concept. So for all his claims that he got where he is by "busting [his] tail," the data shows that his education primed him to reach these heights.