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Milestones as Merit: Selecting the Elite in Early Childhood Private School Admissions


Elite private schools are sites of elite reproduction. Existing research focuses on the experiences of enrolled students but does not systematically address how elite schools select students. We provide a qualitative study of admissions at elite U.S. private day schools. Many of these schools admit the bulk of enrolled students in the early childhood years before traditional academic metrics are available. Drawing from interviews with admissions personnel, we investigate how schools select their youngest members. We found that evaluations of children, not parents, were central bases of admission. To evaluate children, schools used one of the few classifications available for this age—developmental milestones—and infused them with meanings about children's intrinsic worth. Defining milestones as merit enabled schools to create admissions processes that outwardly seemed fair, while allowing them to screen children based on their perceived capacities for embodying elite values. Our results highlight how elite private schools not only seek to cultivate elite cultural styles among enrolled students but also directly screen children based on their perceived capacities for developing them, beginning in toddlerdom. In addition, they show how elite schools’ admissions practices serve as a form of social closure intended to restrict enrollment to able-bodied, neurotypical children.


Working Paper


Estela Diaz, Lauren Rivera

Date Published



Diaz, Estela, and Lauren Rivera. 2023. Milestones as Merit: Selecting the Elite in Early Childhood Private School Admissions.


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