Prep Chic

Sean O'Mealia didn't want to go to Taft, a prestigious 115-year-old boarding school in western Connecticut. For starters, his buddies were staying at his public school in Middletown, N. J. Boarding schools, he'd been warned, were full of snobs. He didn't like the clothes either: ribbon belts and brightly colored chinos left him cold. Four years later, he calls Taft, "a fun school where it's cool to learn" and admits, "I had an antiquated stereotype" of boarding school.

O'Mealia could be forgiven for his mistake. For decades, Americans have loved--and loved to hate--boarding schools. In the 50's, Holden Caufield condemned them for being full of "phonies" and "crooks." Hollywood movies like "The Dead Poet's Society" and "School Ties" portrayed them as verdant playgrounds for over-privileged Brahmins.

Lately, though, boarding schools are hot. In the past two years, applications at elite schools like the Thacher School in Calif., Andover and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts are up as much as 10 percent. Other kids don't want to attend the schools, but they want to look like they do. Recently, J. Crew returned to its roots selling the kind of a rainbow flip flops and bright polo shirts rarely seen out side of Kennebunkport and Nantucket.

Sales increased by 16 percent over last year. The trend, says author Curtis Sittenfeld, helped propel the book "Prep" about a middle class girl attending boarding school onto bestseller lists around the country. "People are interested in things that seem exclusive and reek of money," says Sittenfeld, whose publisher sent out review copies bound with a pink ribbon belt. Boarding schools, she says, are this year's Beverly Hills 90210.

In reality though, boarding schools aren't what they use to be. Sure, some kids play field hockey, attend chapel and get a junior scion for a roommate. But Mike Mulligan, headmaster at Thacher, insists that since the 80's, the best schools have be come more diverse and more democratic. They no longer rely on the same prominent families and prestigious day schools to fill their classrooms. These days, admissions officials spend months abroad, interviewing prospective students from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Senior Spenta Kutar says leaving her home in Mumbai, India for Taft made sense. At home, she says, "the education system goes downhill after 10th grade. So boarding school was the best option available to me."

The schools also are pulling in more kids from public schools. Taft admissions chief Frederick Wandelt , who has also seen applications rise 10 percent in two years, makes more visits to public schools than private ones, looking for prospective students. Diederik van Renesse, an educational consultant who specializes in boarding schools, says that asking kids to leave their local schools--and their families--is often a hard sell. These days, parents are more actively involved in their children's lives. In the 80's and 90's, public schools got better, too. In affluent areas, says van Renesse, public schools can offer a spectrum of advanced-placement courses, an array of activities and beautiful facilities , he says, "that can match almost anything most boarding schools can offer."

So boarding schools are now using a powerful recruitment tool to entice middle class and poor kids to their campuses--money. Many have massive endowments and are using their financial heft to entice high performing kids. Thirty years ago, 16 percent of Taft students received financial aid. These days, slightly more than one- third of Taft students get it.

Though boarding schools have long been feeders to elite colleges, those links have weakened. In 1939, 23 students from Taft's 82-member graduating class were admitted to Yale. By 1984, the numbers had shrunk to six out of 148. In the past five years, 23 percent of Taft graduates attended one of the Ivies or little Ivies (Wesleyan, Williams and Amherst). Those students were just as smart as their '39 counterparts--or maybe smarter. But these days, high- powered colleges are looking for diversity, too. An excellent student from a public high school in, say, Montana may be a more attractive applicant to a highly competitive college than an average student from a prestigious boarding school in the Northeast. Senior Sam Daegremond says he'd probably be going to Harvard if he'd stayed at his public high school in Old Lyme, Conn. "My parents and I talked about how colleges look at boarding schools, and that coming from Taft would be kind of a disadvantage. I sort of sacrificed my standards for college by coming to a good [high] school." Instead, he's settling for his second choice, the University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, because the college admissions process has become so frenzied, it's almost random which highly-qualified students are admitted. Parents, says Deerfield Academy headmaster Eric Widmer, are beginning to look to boarding schools to supply the same leg-up in the world. "They reason that a good boarding school can provide the same kind of advantages as four years in an Ivy league college," says Widmer. They want to provide their children with that experience--even if it means their kids get a little homesick.