Phillips Exeter Academy will announce today that it plans to offer a free education, including tuition, housing, books, and a laptop, to students whose families earn less than $75,000 annually.
The move by Exeter comes one year after its fellow Granite State prep school, St. Paul's, began offering a free education to students whose families make less than $65,000 a year.
Exeter's principal says the move, effective next school year, is part of the school's effort to keep the 1,000-student campus diverse. But it also reflects the challenge of overcoming the perception that boarding schools are exclusively for the rich.
"A great many students who are qualified to come to Exeter and schools like it never bother to apply because they think they can never possibly afford to pay," said principal Tyler Tingley.
St. Paul's School, in Concord, saw an increase in applications from students in lower-income households after announcing its new policy, said Laura Dickson, senior associate director of admissions. But she said only a handful of those applicants met the school's admissions requirements.
"We got a lot of phone calls from people who didn't understand what a boarding school was," Dickson said in a telephone interview yesterday. "They just saw this school is offering free tuition."
But more importantly, she said, more middle-income families - those whose students didn't qualify for free tuition but were eligible for significant financial aid - realized that boarding school was a viable option.
Putting boarding schools on the list of options for families of bright students, regardless of their income, is also Exeter's goal. Officials at Exeter and St. Paul's both say they were inspired by efforts at Harvard University and other colleges to assist qualified low- and middle-income students.
Exeter is able to expand its pool of nonpaying students because its endowment recently reached $1 billion and because the school reached its capital fund-raising goal of $305 million two years ahead of schedule.
"It led us to the point where we needed to do something dramatic," Tingley said.
Forty-six percent of Phillips Exeter's students receive financial aid, ranging from $2,200 annually to $36,500, which is the full cost of a year's education.
Despite the push to remove financial barriers, Exeter will remain exclusive. The academy accepts about one of every five applicants, Tingley said. Its admission standards, which bring in students with an average SAT score of around 1400, won't be lowered, and the size of its student body will not be increased, he said.
The school nestled among trees in the tiny southern New Hampshire town of Exeter, adheres to the Harkness method of instruction, in which 12 students sit around a table with an instructor, who engages pupils in discussion of the subject matter, be it mathematics or philosophy.
"It's an extraordinarily active way for bright kids to go very deeply, very quickly, into the material they are learning," Tingley said.
The school looks well beyond New Hampshire's borders for students, currently teaching students from 45 states and 27 countries.
John C. Drake can be reached at email@example.com.