Why is Walter Payton College Prep’s student matriculation into top tier universities consistently strong, especially in comparison to other high schools in Illinois? Conventional wisdom suggests that this is the result of an extremely competitive environment, or the result of extraordinarily wealthy students. Yet, Payton is nowhere close to the wealthiest public high school in the state, and has a relatively low median household income. Moreover, it is not the stressful “pressure cooker” high school that it is often made to be [when compared to other elite high schools]. These are facts: Payton students spend much less time in class per year than the average Illinois high school student (compensated by mandatory extracurricular involvement). Payton students enjoy comparatively high rates of grade inflation (contrary to conventional wisdom, I argue that this is a good thing and will ideally lead to the abolishment of grades). Payton also does not have class rank, and has no valedictorian.
The short answer? Payton is amazing at making their students look great by the time they apply to college. This is not an accident: Payton has deliberately adopted strategies that strongly benefit students in the college admissions game. To be clear, academics at Payton are by no means “easy.” Yet, while other high schools might focus on placing increasing burdens and pressures on the students, I find Payton’s opposing strategy more effective: reducing pressure on students and decreasing the amount of competition between them has resulted in stronger college matriculation.
Before proceeding, I want to point out that the conclusions I have drawn in this article are by no means indisputable. I draw many correlations, but provide little proof that a particular policy causes stronger matriculation (it could be something else- or simply chance). Unfortunately, I have been heavily constrained by a lack of data, and there isn’t a lot (to my knowledge, none) of pre-existing research on this topic either. Thus, while I use data to supplement my points, the arguments I make in this article should be considered anecdotal.
Walter Payton College Prep (Payton) is a public high school. It is ranked the #1 public high school in Illinois by US News, and ranked #2 by the Niche. It is a selective enrollment school that grants enrollment based on the results of an entrance exam, and some of the highest scoring students across Chicago tend to end up at Payton. The median household income is $55,198. Full disclosure: I graduated from Payton in 2018.
Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) is a small, public, boarding school. Notably, it is a 3-year school. It is ranked the #1 public high school in Illinois by Niche, and unranked as far as I can tell on the US News and Report. It is also a highly selective school, and students have to take and do well on the SAT in order to attend (this is kind of ridiculous considering that the SAT is designed for high school juniors and seniors, and not for 8th/9th graders). The median household income is $69,730. Fun fact, I almost went to IMSA after my Freshman year until students warned me not to attend when I visited.
Hinsdale Central is a public high school. It is ranked the #11 public high school in Illinois by US News, and ranked #6 by the Niche. It grants enrollment to students who live in the neighborhood. Hinsdale is one of the richest suburbs of Chicago, so students living in the neighborhood tend to be wealthier on average. The median household income is $184,684. I have tutored a few students from Hinsdale Central, so I am a little bit familiar with the school.
|Payton (2018)||IMSA (2019)||Hinsdale Central (2018)|
|U of I at Urbana||29||54||66|
|U of Michigan||13||3||12|
Why does matriculation into top universities matter?
The answer is higher future income (perhaps cynically, I think this correctly implies that most people pursue higher education for money and not to learn). There is a strong argument that an excellent student will be excellent anywhere, but even after controlling for factors such as parental income, SAT scores, and GPA (among other things), attending a top tier university grants anywhere from an 8-19% boost in income. That’s a huge effect. It is also only one part of the equation- financial aid, intended major, potential imposter syndrome, and whether the student actually likes their school are large parts of the equation too. Regardless, because there is a large material benefit from being able to attend the most selective schools, the frenzy around top universities is actually quite rational.
Less time in class, more time doing extracurriculars
|Number of classes per year||Hours in class (per year, per class)||Total class-hours|
*Chicago Lab lets students decide how many classes they take per year.
Every Illinois high school must have 176 days of “Student Attendance,” and each day must contain at least 5 hours of instructional time. Instructional time does not include lunch, passing period, or recess. Also, overtime can be applied to short days (so if the school day usually contains 6 hours of instructional time, the extra hour can be put towards making a shortened 4-hour day count as a Student Attendance Day). Doing a little bit of math, 176 days * 5 hours = a minimum of 880 hours of instructional time per year.
Does that mean Payton is doing something illegal?
Well, not really. Payton is unique from most schools because it has Enrichments and Seminar Days. It also has Advisory, a 10 minute period of time at the start of each day where students in the same homeroom meet. On Seminar Days, Advisory is 40 minutes long. It is not clear whether Advisory counts as instructional hours in Illinois (Based on the definition, I think it qualifies, but on the other hand some other states don’t count it). Over the course of a school year, students spend 35.8 hours in Advisory.
Enrichments are a 49 minute period at the end of each day and is best described as mandatory club time. Students sign up the day before, and each teacher is required to sponsor an Enrichment of some kind. Common Enrichments included tutoring sessions, cultural clubs, academic or sport team practices (these sometimes ran past the official end of Enrichment), among others. Students spend roughly 113.5 hours in Enrichment per year.
Every other Wednesday, Payton students enjoy Seminar Days. Each Seminar Day is a half day, and ends at 12:10. It also features 2 90-minute “for fun” classes. These could be anything from Judo to game theory lessons. Students spend 54 hours in Seminar classes per year.
The beauty of Enrichments and Seminar Days is that they both qualify as instructional time. Thus, even though Payton students spend much less time in class than students at comparable schools, they easily meet the requirement of instructional hours. This is important to stress: less total class-hours does not mean Payton students spend less time learning.
What’s the strategic advantage of Enrichments/Seminar Days?
Both Enrichments and Seminar Days are highly popular among students- it’s more fun than class time, and gives students more freedom to focus on what interests them. It also gives every student unique experiences that they can write on their resume (it’s mandatory after all- but college admission officers don’t necessarily know that). I find this system much more effective than pure class time that is often wasted.
There is a more fundamental, and less obvious reason that Enrichments and Seminar Days advantage students: it gives students an unparalleled opportunity to start clubs and programs. Because every teacher is required to run an enrichment, teachers are more than willing to help you start a club. After all, it means that they don’t have to design an Enrichment or Seminar Day offering themselves- and they get paid for it. I was able to start a Robotics team, a Diplomacy club, and even a one-time Desmos club (as a joke- it was held in a cramped teacher’s office) all because the interests of teachers and students were aligned. This would have been significantly harder at any other school. After all, at many schools (including Payton), you technically can’t be unsupervised in the building. Thus, you would have to find a teacher that is willing to help start your club for no pay, and overtime work. This is especially true of academic teams, which frequently end up costing teachers money in the form of hotel or transportation costs. Frankly, teachers willing to make those sacrifices are few and far between. Moreover, by forcing all students to take part in Enrichments, the amount of potential club members rises significantly. Thus, it is much easier to reach a critical mass of students than it would be at other schools.
No Class Rank
Class rank is incredibly toxic, yet many high schools continue to report it. Why? (Seriously, can anyone actually explain this to me?) It hurts students when it comes down to college admissions. Top tier private universities use it as an excuse to deny an otherwise strong applicant. And the top state schools? They heavily rely on a formula to determine who gets in- and if class rank is not reported, it tends to help. After Payton abolished class rank, acceptance rates into private institutions remained unchanged, while admission to state schools like U of Illinois and U of Michigan rose through the roof (According to the principal, Timothy Devine). In fact, college admission officers have come out on record saying that class rank hurts students more often than it helps. This is probably why high schools are abandoning class rank in droves, and in 2016 colleges were reporting that only about a third of high school were still reporting class rank.
Hinsdale Central still has class rank, while IMSA and Payton do not. This explains IMSA and Paytons relative competitiveness at sending students to schools like U of I at Urbana-Champaign (Hinsdale’s is low considering the class size).
High Grade Inflation
Most people seem to think this is a bad thing, but frankly it’s a huge advantage when it comes down to college admissions. College admission officers get roughly 7 minutes to look at an application. If you have a less-than-stellar GPA, it gives college admission officers a great chance to trash your application when they have 1000’s of other kids with 4.0’s. Payton has several policies that result in higher grade inflation. For one, there are only solid letter grades. This means that a 89.5% average is an A (It also means that an 89.49% is a B, to the great frustration of the unfortunate). While I lack supporting data, anecdotally A’s were very common, and one teacher told me that a Payton “B” is about as rare as another school’s “F” (As any upperclassman will tell you, there are several notable exceptions- if you happen to be a Payton student, heed their advice and avoid certain classes/teachers if possible). Another thing: all classes at Payton are treated as either honors or AP classes in terms of credits granted, which is a big help when it comes down to beefing up GPA.
I even took several classes at Payton where the teacher decided to abolish grades entirely. Not only were these my favorite classes, but students actually performed better on the AP tests than they did during years where grades were a thing. This is one area where all schools, including Payton, can improve. By abolishing grades, students often do better work, and they are advantaged when it comes down to college admissions. A good way to put it is this: if everyone gets an A, nobody is hurt when it comes down to college admissions. If some people get a B, they are significantly hurt, and their application might be thrown out before it is even read.
As a comparison, just look at this chart published by IMSA:
One more thing you might notice: IMSA does not offer any AP classes. While this is admirable because the AP curriculum is frequently garbage, it also means that students work harder for less credit, which frankly probably hurts students when it comes time to apply to colleges. Not to mention- AP credit is often VERY helpful at getting out of basic requirements once you get into college. That’s why a lot of IMSA students take the AP test anyway, which begs the question of why IMSA doesn’t just bite the bullet and call the courses AP classes for the benefit of boosting the GPA of students.
Culture of College Admissions
At this point of the article, I want to discuss a large caveat to Payton’s success: the development of a “culture of college admissions.” At Payton, the primary goal of almost every student is to get into college- and the goal of teachers and administrators is to help students get into college (after all, it’s Walter Payton College Prep). This isn’t specific to Payton, and actually is reflective of a greater change in American high schools. That said, I think this trend has rapidly accelerated at Payton in comparison to other schools. So far, we have assumed that this culture is a good thing because it helps students get into top colleges. Yet, some things are inevitably sacrificed to make this shift happen.
What Explains Payton’s Lack of Extracurricular Achievement?
While our math team is not bad by any means, we used to be city and state champions when our school was less prestigious. For example, from 2006-2008, Payton was the best math team in the city of Chicago, but Payton was not very prestigious yet (the school was founded in 2000, after all). Why would our math team be stronger when our school was lower ranked?
Some of the teachers who were around for the golden era of Payton’s math team explained to me that the star math team students were C students. They also only did one extracurricular activity: math team. The math team of my generation was a group of excellent students, and math team was just one of many extracurriculars that we participated in. Essentially, the culture at Payton changed: instead of students who only cared about one thing, the current culture encouraged well-rounded students who wore many hats at the cost of not dominating in any one area.
I think this is really important to emphasize, because it suggests that truly excelling at extracurriculars requires devoting an extraordinary amount of time to them. Encouraging a culture in which students participate in many extracurriculars and excel in their classes is great strategy for helping students get into college, but perhaps not a great environment for people who just want to pursue a passion.
When securing high grades and obtaining glowing teacher recs becomes the main goal of a student, there is a much higher incentive to behave and not skip school. Why would this ever be considered a bad thing? I don’t think it is necessarily bad, but it does mean that students are spending less time on hobbies and developing their individuality/independence. I imagine that the increasingly lame senior pranks is related to this as well (It went from sneaking live farm animals into the building to everyone collectively going to the school’s library during a passing period).
As a corollary, students who do not participate in a culture of college admissions are unfortunately often alienated, especially if the schools they apply to are considered less competitive (or if they chose not to apply to college at all).
I wrote this article to pushback on the common assumption that competition and high stress are necessary ingredients of being successful at college admissions, and to outline student-friendly policies (Enrichments/Seminar Days, abolishing class rank and valedictorian, abolishing grades) that have been demonstrably effective. So, where did the idea that a high-pressure, competitive environment is ultimately beneficial for students come from? It may be an inappropriately applied concept of market efficiency (the main issue with this application being that knowledge is an infinite resource while money is a finite one), but I tend to think that it originates as an excuse for lazy teaching. After all, if competition is good, then student failure is expected (and necessary). Thus, teachers are no longer obligated to help students learn and improve.
On a philosophical level, it feels a little weird to praise Payton for optimizing college admissions. After all, the focus on college admissions certainly detracts from the pure and idealistic purpose of education: to learn. Yet, from a practical standpoint, focus on college admissions is inevitable, and so adopting such policies is the next best thing. What does this mean for the future? I think that more and more schools will begin to adopt Payton’s approach. The subsequent grade inflation will result in an inevitable loss of meaning in grades, and likely their eventual abolition. Similarly, as extracurricular involvement among students continues to transition from unexpected to mandatory, there will be less meaning assigned to extracurricular involvement as well. This will mean the dominance of standardized testing, the dominance of the personal essay, a lottery system for college admissions, or a move towards narrative evaluation, which I have already elaborated on in a previous post. I think that all of these worlds, done correctly, could potentially result in an education system in which high school students truly learn for learning’s sake, and not for the purpose of getting into college.
Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!