Prep schools have long been an exclusive rite of passage for the children of the wealthy and elite. The friendships that are forged among the scions of the rich and powerful plant the seeds for a network of future bankers, venture capitalists and CEOs, practically guaranteeing a student's success.
But being a poor kid among a bunch of rich kids brings up all sorts of issues about class, entitlement, possibilities and options in life. It can also raise serious questions: Does being treated like one of the elite make you more successful? Does being around money make you want it, resent it or both?
"I obviously strive to make a lot of money one day, and I know all these kids come from very comfortable families, and their fathers do things I'd like to do, and it helps me to make connections," says Greg Ramey, 18, a senior at the Holderness School, a boarding school near Plymouth, N.H. "I can say, 'I went to school with your son.'" 'Everyone here wants to be successful'
Ramey is hardly on welfare -- his father works in marketing -- but he doesn't zip around the world on private jets, like some of his peers do. "(Having money) definitely gets to some kids' heads," he says. "I've seen it cause a little bit of friction sometimes. Sometimes a kid will throw out, 'I have an iPhone, and you have a dinky flip phone.'" Inside prep school: Campus life and gossip
Ramey believes his prep-school network will help him get ahead. Next year, Ramey is going to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and plans to study international business. He hopes to end up in a position similar to that of some of his friends' parents.
Jonathan Moreland, 22, understands just how powerful the networking potential at a prep school can be. Moreland and his parents decided that prep school was the best way to secure his success.
Moreland, now an account coordinator with Schneider Associates public relations and marketing firm in Boston, has been working steadily since he was 13. There was never any doubt that he'd be responsible for his own spending money. His parents were solidly working class, so if he wanted extra cash, he had to earn it himself. A taste for the finer things
This was quite a difference from his friends at the affluent Kansas City, Mo., private school he attended from fourth grade through high school. Thanks to a combination of grants, financial aid and loans, Moreland's parents were able to squeeze out tuition for him, but the bulk of his discretionary spending (cars and clothes, for example) fell on his shoulders.
"I was constantly dealing with a drastic difference in income levels with my classmates. They were set for life on their parents' name, while I (had) to consider my and my family's finances every day, from social activities to college choices," says Moreland, now 22.
Jessica Martha, 22, says she didn't really think about money while she was a day student at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn.
"Seeing kids that could have whatever they wanted -- you kind of got used to it," she says. "They're people, you talk to them, you laugh, and then you go do homework."
Choate, if you haven't heard of it, is the alma mater of a certain president (Kennedy) and continues to attract the children of some of the world's wealthiest. Attendance costs $40,000 a year.
Some of Martha's peers at Choate included Ivanka Trump, who was a few years older, and the prince of Bhutan, who was a classmate.
Interestingly, she found that people who didn't attend the school were more concerned with lucre.
"I had several conversations with students at a public high school in Wallingford, and before we were even able to talk about Choate, I had to explain to them that students of varying economic backgrounds attend the school," she says. "That took several minutes. The . . . stereotypes associated with boarding schools are still very much intact, even though their student bodies are changing. The students who attend these schools know that, but not everyone else does."
There's no question that some of America's great achievers have gone to exclusive prep schools, although whether the schools can claim credit for their students' achievements is debatable. Obviously, there are also plenty of public-school graduates who have gone on to great success. But it does bring up a point: Does being around great wealth inspire others, especially those without it, to reach greater heights?
Choate's administrators point to its alumni for an answer.
"We have 15,000 living alums, and we've identified 10% of them as being capable of making philanthropic contributions of $100,000 or more," says Dan Courcey, the school's executive director of development and alumni relations.
"So 10% have net worths in excess of $15 million."
Courcey concedes that some Choate students come from families with big money. But he says the school gives its students key skills for career success.
Others agree that the right environment can turn students into high achievers.
"All the classic psychologists who developed our motivational theories suggest that personalities tend to have genetic components but that behaviors can be taught," says Nan Andrews Amish, an organizational
"Over time, personalities can be shifted by experiences and nurturing. Many self-made millionaires became driven to avoid forevermore their birth-family upbringing, which was difficult, often in poverty," Amish adds. "This drive may be about survival initially but then becomes part of who the person is."
Published May 2, 2008
Produced by Elizabeth Daza
Graphics by Joe Farro and Hakan Isik