25 Factors Great Boarding Schools Have in Common

Editor’s Note:  In June of 2013, Pat Bassett retired as president of NAIS, the National Association of Independent Schools, and now consults with schools. Pete Upham is executive director of TABS, The Association of Boarding Schools.1 This blog was originally posted in January 2014. 

Campus AerialGreat boarding schools are “built to last.” Many of the earliest schools founded in the U.S. were boarding schools. Today, more than half of the 280+ college prep boarding schools in North America are more than 100 years old, and 24 boarding schools are more than 200 years old).2   Great boarding schools persist over time because they appeal to families seeking an education of deep impact, focused not only on academic training, but also on the formation of good character, habits of lifelong learning, and active citizenship.

What follows are the reflections of two educators whose work in boarding schools and with boarding schools over nearly five decades positions them to observe what boarding schools “built to last” do particularly well.

Great boarding schools….

1. Create a distinctive and robust culture rooted in the school’s mission and values, informed by institutional history, energized by hope, and responsive to change.

2. Hire and continually develop versatile professionals (“double” and “triple threats”) who relish teaching, coaching, and advising students, and who see their work as vocation, not mere employment.

3. Establish a second, “residential” curriculum beyond academics, devoted to developing the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—after school, in the evenings, and on the weekends.

4. Deepen student intellectual development by leveraging the 24-7 character of the residential school experience to enhance the quality, intensity, breadth, and coherence of the academic program and to increase student interaction with teachers and advisors.

5. Build, renovate, and maintain facilities that by their very design encourage community, foster collaboration, and facilitate the powerful mentoring—in the dorm and across campus—characteristic of great schools.

6. Assume an in loco parentis posture in which a student’s teachers and especially his or her advisor serve as the student’s mentor, advocate, and guide in deep and meaningful ways, including “showing up” physically at the student’s performances (athletics and the arts) and psychologically (whenever needed).

7. Design experiential learning opportunities that serve a dual purpose: building student knowledge, confidence, and resilience through exposure to novel contexts, unfamiliar people, and fresh challenges; and deepening the esprit de corps between and among students and teachers.

8. Know that of all the outcomes of school, producing graduates who are both “good and smart”3 are the two that count most, and that character-formation is the foundation that pays the highest dividends for the individual and for society.

9. Admit qualified international students from a host of different countries, providing a rich immersion experience for them and a “cosmopolitan” experience for their North American roommates, classmates, and teammates.

10. Commit to diversity of all kinds toward the end of producing cross-culturally competent graduates.

11. Seek through financial aid and other means to enroll a student body that spans the socio-economic range and meet the financial needs of all enrolled students so that they have access to participating in the entirety of the school’s program.

12. Achieve institutional “equilibrium” by sustaining and growing each year the equity in the financial (endowment), physical (plant), and human (intellectual) capital of the school.

13. Model environmental sustainability and prudent stewardship by adopting the best innovations in conserving and generating energy, eliminating waste, sourcing food and supplies, and endeavoring to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the school.

14. Attract and enroll mission-appropriate students by achieving a record of exceptional student outcomes (contributing to “word of mouth”) and by offering unique programs and compelling approaches that become unique signature experiences of the school.

15. Monitor and analyze the competitive landscape, adopt a sound and cogent strategy, and manage with discipline the brand and other institutional assets to advance the school’s competitive position over time.

16. Develop student leaders at all levels whose personal example of achievement and character inculcates in new students the values and expectations of the community.

17. Attend to a faculty culture that is supportive of colleagues and school leadership, open to new thinking about teaching and learning, and hungry for professional growth.

18. Populate a board of trustees that is anchored by alumni, strategically-oriented, energetically engaged with the school’s executive leadership, and focused upon the prize of creating a stronger institution—built to last—for the next generation of students.

19. Attract, retain, and support an inspired school leadership team that both manages well (producing orderliness and predictability) and leads well (creating the capacity for dramatic and disruptive change).

20. Embrace thoughtfully and prudently the growing ubiquity and effectiveness of new technologies as operational and instructional tools to support a blended “high tech + high touch” future in support of the best possible learning experiences for students.

21. Require student and staff participation in the co-curricular realm, knowing that the arts, athletics, publications, service and similar pursuits often produce the strongest engagement of students, the most natural connections to teachers, and the clearest predictors of success at school, in college, and in life.

22. Forge deep alumni loyalty and engagement, creating “investors for life” who give to their alma mater in multiple ways: by their story-telling, their financial support, their volunteer hours, and their public attribution of life and career success back to their boarding school education.

23. Adopt an advisor system that trains all teachers, coaches, and dorm parents in the subtleties of adolescent psychology, motivation, and socialization, and reinforces what educators know: that effective teaching and advising are “relational” not “transactional.”

24. Believe in a “growth mindset,” committed to insisting that all students can grow in character and learning, that grit and resilience are the by-products of setbacks, and that a student is “neither the only prize rose in the garden nor a tumbleweed helplessly blown about.”4

25. Know that “doing what’s best for students” inevitably is “what’s best for the school.”


1. Membership in The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) requires that schools meet a host of eligibility requirements, among them that “the school’s residential program should reflect the mission, culture, and character of the school, and should demonstrate thoughtful planning, commitment to best practice, and substantive integration with the school’s academic, co-curricular, and community activities.”

2. See Appendix for the list of independent boarding schools over 200 years old.

3. The title from the work of Thomas Lickona (Good and Smart High Schools Schools) and one that echoes an observation by John Phillips, a contributor to the founding of two of America’s oldest and most prominent independent schools, Andover (1778) and Exeter (1781), who famously noted what he believed to be the foundational premise of an independent school:  “Goodness without knowledge… is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous…. Both united form the noblest character and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”

4.  A variation on the “beliefs statement” from an independent all-girls’ school.

APPENDIX: Boarding Schools 200 Years Old or Older

 Boarding Schools 200 Years or Older

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