The late journalist Christopher Hitchens grew up middle class in the economically sclerotic England of the 1970s. “If there’s going to be an upper class in this country,” he reports his mother saying, “Christopher is going to be in it.” He won a scholarship to a good “public” school (meaning private and exclusive, in the British parlance), went on to Oxford, and launched a dazzling literary career. Hitchens’s mother did not herself grow up in privilege, but she had figured out how the world worked.
On January 23, Regis High School, a small Jesuit institution on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sent acceptance letters to approximately 135 eighth-graders in and around the five boroughs. The letters will change the trajectories of these students’ lives, and perhaps the destinies of their families in the bargain. Regis, which operates tuition-free owing principally to the largesse of a wealthy Catholic philanthropist (known to Regians as “The Foundress”) who endowed the school in 1912, gives priority in admissions to promising young men who otherwise would not be able to afford a Jesuit education. (The school continues to raise additional money privately.) Its hope is that scholarship recipients will become leaders in their communities—in the words of the school’s mission statement, “men for others.”
Regis achieves extraordinary results. Former Marine officer and recent National Book Award winner Phil Klay is a Regis graduate, as was legendary book publisher Robert Giroux, Nobel Prize in Medicine winner John O’Keefe, several federal judges of the Southern District of New York and Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and current Houston Astros pitcher Declan Cronin. Nearly 20 percent of Regis graduates are accepted by an Ivy League college; many more attend highly ranked “Ivy-adjacent” schools. Such access to elite college education may be purchased elsewhere in New York City for $50,000 a year or more in private school tuition. At Regis, it may be had by achieving a high score on a scholarship exam, along with excellent grades and letters of recommendation—and in no other way. Regis turns away calls from alumni, donors, prominent New Yorkers, and anyone else trying to put a thumb on the scale in the admissions process.
Regis could fill every incoming class with the sons of Catholic bankers, lawyers, and physicians, making itself in the image of the great Protestant church schools, but that is not how it conceives of its mission. (Another Jesuit high school across 84th Street from Regis, Loyola School, substantially has done so, and also sends many students to the Ivy League.) Using its REACH program, Regis brings young men of limited family means onto campus for weekend and summer sessions beginning in the sixth grade. All races are well represented at Regis, as in the city itself. Elite higher education lately seems to have closed its doors to middle-and working-class white families; Regis has not.
Elite education has also entered a kind of existential crisis. Much of the vitriol is coming from the right, as with the controversy over recently deposed Harvard president Claudine Gay, but the sense of unease is pervasive. Our anxieties about higher education fit into the public’s broader disquiet about the health of U.S. institutions generally. College admissions, in particular, are now seen as a referendum on the parenting choices of upper-middle class families and on the genetic worthiness of their offspring.
Admission to the highest-ranked schools remains undeniably the clearest path to joining the meritocratic elite. If what you want is a good education, though, your state’s flagship university has probably never been a better option. The longstanding academic-employment crisis has allowed the land-grant schools to select from the top doctoral programs to fill any open faculty position, particularly in the humanities. You can learn to write English well at the University of Illinois, and you might even get to work on the Daily Illini, which gave the world the great film critic, Roger Ebert. It’s just unlikely that your roommate will be a Sulzberger or a Graham.
Our intense focus on college admissions ignores the fact that access to a good secondary school education is probably an even stronger predicter of meritocratic success. Secondary schools are where character formation takes place, where aspirations take root, where the horizon of one’s life comes to seem near or far. The right high school is the first on-ramp to the good life in America. If you live in an affluent suburb, you can send your children to the public high school, where they will be well prepared for college and where they will have to make some effort to find the kind of trouble that still deserves the name. If you have the means, you can also choose an excellent private school. Failing that, most American families are trapped in public high schools operating at varying levels of dysfunction, from which few students will rise. In education as much as anywhere, nothing succeeds like success.
As William Deresiewicz writes in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, our current generation of leaders is comprised of “the greatest technocrats the world has ever known.” The skills are there; what’s missing is the why. This loss of purpose has many causes, especially rising tuition costs. College is increasingly transactional; a degree sends a signal to the labor market, and in return for their dear tuition dollars, students want that signal to be as strong as possible. By contrast, Regis proposes an exacting personal mission for its graduates, founded in the Jesuit tradition. The process begins by asking students to look beyond themselves—that is, beyond the very attributes that gained them admission and promise them future success in the meritocracy. Even as American Catholicism declines, this message continues to find a home. Young men and their families are desperate for it.
Regis has not been exempt from the DEI revolution that has overtaken American elite education, especially as now middle-aged men who passed through the school in the 1980s and 1990s have begun to share their stories of feeling excluded by the school’s culture. The school appointed its first DEI czar in 2021. There’s every reason to believe, however, that DEI at Regis is not as corrosive and self-defeating an enterprise as it is at other places. In 2021, Regis president Father Christopher Devron, who then held the same position at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, wrote an article for America outlining an approach to DEI founded in Catholic social thought:
Catholic Social Thought calls out the evils of racist rhetoric as well as the extremes of what has come to be called “cancel culture.” For example, Catholic educators should question those who assume that because Black students cannot see themselves literally in the classic and ancient texts of the Western canon, we should abandon them altogether. . . . Insofar as critical race theory relies on racial essentialism, C.S.T. renders it untenable.
Such universalizing rhetoric is bound to strike some people as naive, but it is the only way forward for American higher education. The spirit-deadening spectacle of Harvard tying itself in syntactic knots in defense of its admissions policies in Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which revealed that it was engaged in outright discrimination against Asian students in the name of racial “equity,” should be all the proof we need. With the moral panic of the George Floyd era fading, we can expect Regis to continue to evolve a values-based approach that ensures the broadest possible access to an excellent high school education. Others would do well to follow its example.
The Catholic Church in America faces a daunting demographic challenge. Baptisms and Mass attendance are down dramatically in recent decades. It also faces a self-created trust gap, arising from the vast sexual-abuse scandal that has gripped the Church since the mid-1980s. (Regis removed a prior president in 2021 over sexual-misconduct allegations involving adults.) Remember this, though, balanced against complaints about the Church’s arrogance, insularity, and alleged irrelevance: the Catholic Church is often one of the last institutions standing in America’s inner cities, providing charitable outreach, spiritual aspiration amid chaos—and subsidized education. What happens when the archdioceses leave Bridgeport and Camden and Reading and a hundred other struggling American places? The success of Regis High School through more than a century of political and cultural shifts is vivid evidence of the enduring relevance of Catholic education, and a reminder of the open inquiry and service that for decades made American higher education the envy of the world.