Of those 62 spots at Trinity, one of New York’s most competitive schools, 33 were taken first by qualified siblings of Trinity students. An additional 11 went to children of alumni, who also get a leg up in the process, and one more belongs to the child of a staff member. That left 17 spaces for families with no ties to Trinity, giving those without connections a 2.4 percent shot at the prize.
Never has getting into Harvard — acceptance rate: 6.2 percent — seemed so easy.
Now, amid soaring demand and a weak economy, Trinity and other elite New York schools are beginning to change longstanding admissions practices as they try to balance often incongruous priorities, including institutional loyalty and a diverse student body.
Trinity, which is on the Upper West Side and took the rare step of sharing its admission figures, has relaxed its application deadline and enlarged its capacity for open houses in recent years. Ethical Culture Fieldston and Riverdale Country no longer do siblings the favor of early notification of admissions, according to those schools. The same is true at Horace Mann, according to preschool directors and one parent at the school (Horace Mann did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails). Some families fear that the insiders’ advantage they were counting on may soon disappear.
“With ever-growing numbers of siblings and legacies, admissions decisions have become more selective,” Ethical Culture says on its Web site, “in an effort to continue to provide access to families new to the school and who represent the school’s mission and goals.”
Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School, a well-known preschool and kindergarten-through-eighth-grade program, said, “There’s not a school out there that doesn’t have a stricter admissions policy for siblings today than they did last year or the year before that.”
Broadly speaking, the schools want to take siblings and legacies, both because it makes life easier for families and because it deepens relationships, which many believe results in long-term generosity. But as schools look to bolster endowments amid the poor economy, some have begun to question that approach.
“The thing no one wants to talk about is development,” said one head of school, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “You get more money from five families than two families with five children.”
Diversity seems to be the biggest driver of the change. Over all, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, 29 percent of students at 31 private schools in New York City were minorities in the last school year, up from 20 percent a decade earlier (nationally, the latest figure is 25 percent, up from 17 percent).
Minority students make up half of Fieldston’s lower school now, officials said. Dalton’s 2011-12 kindergarten class is 47 percent minority, Trinity’s 45 percent.
One of the lucky 17 who got into Trinity’s kindergarten class with no previous connection to the school, and who helps make it diverse, is the daughter of Rajeev Bhaman, a portfolio manager, and Gala Rabhu, a management consultant. The low acceptance rate led the couple to apply to nine schools in a process Mr. Bhaman described as “my full-time job for four months” and “way more difficult than anything I’ve done academically in my life, including applying to university in America from India.”
“The problem with the process is the data is fuzzy and the people involved seem to want to keep it fuzzy,” he said. “The uncertainty leads to greater angst and leads to precisely the behavior you see in this city: insane behavior.”
The scary admissions math is not the only thing causing the shift. As every parent knows, siblings are rarely carbon copies, and what school officials try to say ever so delicately is that just because Sophia made the grade doesn’t mean Liam will too. Saying no to an applicant can save a lot of grief down the line if the child is unlikely to succeed.
“It’s easier than when they are there,” said Roxana Reid, director of Smart City Kids, a consulting company. “It’s taxing on teachers and creates resentment among the families that their second child is not being treated well.”
Robin Aronow, another admissions consultant, said schools often had more siblings and legacies than seats, “so they make sure to say ‘look elsewhere.’ ”