Through a combination of wealth, influence, and polished marketing campaigns, elite schools project an image of superiority, which can instil a sense of confidence that these are the best possible environments for cultivating future success. But studies reveal educational background is not always a reliable predictor of academic achievement, with government school students often performing just as well, if not better, than their non-government counterparts.
Despite this evidence, elite schools continue to produce a disproportionate number of university-bound students.
My research investigated the life trajectories of former elite boys’ school students in Australia and has shed some light on how their educational background shaped emotions and feelings surrounding the transition to university.
Elite schools have long been associated with cultural, economic, and social privilege, paving the way for prestigious university admissions and esteemed careers. While the predictable pathway from elite school to top university, and eventually lucrative professions is well-known, little attention has been given to how elite school alumni might perceive and navigate the transition to university.
Access to higher education and future employment opportunities are heavily influenced by factors such as parental income, place of residence, and secondary schooling. The significant resources available to elite schools provide academic advantages and opportunities to a selective and exclusive group who can afford the high tuition fees.
So, what happens when graduates of these schools hit university?
Extensive research has been conducted on the transition to university, delving into the processes of adaptation, navigation, and transformation. While studies have focussed on the narratives of graduates, other research explores the complex and contradictory nature of transitioning into university, framing it as a process of self-development.
Emotions can play a significant role in university transition as students construct new identities in response to the unfamiliar learning environment. For example, the process of becoming an undergraduate student can be particularly complex for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse communities. However, there is a scarcity of research on the emotions and feelings of students from privileged backgrounds. In listening to the stories of university transition, as told to me by men who attended elite boys’ schools, it became clear that the narratives and transitions of these students were less coherent and confident than expected. Specifically, these transitions were marked by experiences that challenged their beliefs about academic excellence and privilege.
My research was informed by three case studies from a larger project, which investigated how old boys negotiated their masculine identities in relation to elitism and privilege, with a particular emphasis on examining how they have reconciled outdated attitudes and values that were endorsed by their schooling. The wider study included nine men who were primarily recruited through a combination of my pre-existing relationships and insider status as an old boy. Most participants identified as heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, and White. In listening to their stories of schooling, higher education, and trajectories into adulthood, the importance of narrative in conceptualising their schooling experience, and its impact on self-reflection and re-evaluation, became a key focus.
Old boys on campus
The findings revealed three themes that shed light on how the participants experienced the transition from an elite boys’ school to university. I elaborate on these themes below to illuminate the emotions and feelings that were entangled with this experience.
Preparing for university
Theme one highlights the challenges and constraints that were imposed on the participants by their schools, and how this was implicated in feelings of uncertainty and indifference towards their preparations for enrolling in a university program. All participants felt an inherent expectation to attend prestigious universities, considering it a natural step in their educational trajectory. While all but one enrolled at a Group of Eight university, their journeys were far from straightforward. Within these environments, there was a tension between prioritising personal values and pursuing expected trajectories, as well as feelings of doubt and indecision surrounding program and course selection.
The feeling of uncertainty not only affected decision-making but also shaped undergraduate identities. The pressure to conform to an expected trajectory limited opportunities for imagining alternative pathways. As such, there was a distinct lack of any plan for their university education.
As John explained to me, ‘I walked out of the school gates with no plan for what I was going to be doing, but just the expectation it was going to be great.’
This casual and indifferent approach to university preparation has been recognised elsewhere. As Musa Okwonga noted of his time at Eton College, elite boys’ schools are a safe environment, reassuring students that even if they have trouble in life, ‘everything will be okay’ and ultimately, ‘everybody makes it in the end.’ Despite emerging from this environment, the participants revealed that the lack of preparation for university compounded feelings of doubt and unease, while also presenting a sense of disappointment about unexplored study possibilities and careers.
Theme two focuses on the experience of arriving at university and the bias and entitlement that was carried by the participants from their elite boys’ school. All discussed the pressure they had experienced surrounding enrolment at a prestigious university, regardless of its alignment to desired study options and imagined futures. This resulted in a snobbish attitude towards those universities that were perceived as having lower academic standards and expectations. Such biases were also directed towards students from government schools who were met at university. In particular, the participants revealed dominant assumptions that students from government schools would not perform as well academically and should be avoided to keep a social network of the best and brightest. As such, the participants recognised how the bias transported from their schooling influenced their beliefs and interactions with students at university who were outside the elite school network.
The final theme examined how university became a site where preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence were challenged through what the participants referred to as ‘bubble burst’ moments. The participants shared stories of encountering students from government schools who excelled academically, challenging their beliefs about their own educational background, and preconceived notions of its superiority. This rupture in their understanding led to a reconfiguration of their identities and a realisation of the sheltered environment from which they had emerged.
Understanding old boys
While students who attend elite boys’ schools continue to enter prestigious universities, and pursue pathways into esteemed and financially rewarding industries, the accounts about transitioning to university, as provided to me, suggest that this process may not always be straight forward, planned, nor easy.
Despite an often emotionless and rational exterior, some old boys might arrive at university with a sensitive and troubled set of feelings that are implicated in their identity formation as undergraduates.
It is also possible that the expectation to attend prestigious institutions, combined with biases embodied while secondary school students, can hinder the exploration of alternative pathways and limit interactions with a diverse student body. However, the ‘bubble burst’ moments shared with me suggest that university can constructively challenge preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence, forcing elite school alumni to reassess their values and beliefs.
By delving into the complex experiences of these students, this research serves as a small contribution to understanding the impact of elite schooling on university transitions and the durability of privilege.
Cameron Meiklejohn is a PhD Graduate from the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research interest focuses on the feelings and life trajectories of men who attended elite boys’ schools in Australia and the meanings they attach to their schooling experience.