By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — More than 95 percent of the Staples High School Class of 2023 headed off to college this fall.

The 436 graduates are said to be scattered across 173 various higher education institutions, having collectively submitted 3,846 applications, or on average, more than nine per student.

With them, the class brought test scores and acceptance rates much higher than the state and national levels.

Their overall acceptance rate was 52 percent.

Where they landed remains a list similar to the Staples graduating class before them.

Some 17 members of the class are at the University of Connecticut, followed by 16 at Indiana University, 11 each at Penn State and Syracuse, followed by 10 each at University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Rounding out the top 10 are Northeastern University with eight, and Tulane University, University of Michigan and Virginia Polytechnic Institute with seven each.

For many, however, the Class of 2023 College Admissions report remains a balancing act between celebrating the school district’s achievement and trying not to contribute a so-called “toxic achievement culture” that stresses some students out to the point of being miserable.

“We try to stick with a consistent message and emphasize the importance of individual fit,” William Plunkett, director of school counseling at Staples High School, told the Board of Education last week.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice called the report — which has been presented to the board for the past three years — interesting. He said there is a value associated with the prestige and level of some of the colleges where Westport students matriculate, but he too worries about the message sent.

“I think there is a real caution of having our fingerprints on contributing to something that we know is a real problem in communities like Westport,” said Scarice.

Others see the data as tools not to be denied to parents and students in the throes of the college search process.

“Realistically, we live in a community that places value on achievement,” said board Vice Chair Liz Heyer. “For better or worse, that is the community we are in.”

Heyer said it is up to families to decide to what extent they are willing to endure a “toxic achievement cycle.”

“We can’t not support them with information because we don’t think they should do it,” Heyer said.

 A competitive year

For a class that had to circumnavigate a pandemic during their time in high school, Plunkett said the Staples Class of 2023 was competitive and ended up in a “really good place.”

The class was sent home in March of freshman year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and spent their sophomore year attending class in a hybrid format. For some, college “visits” in junior year were not done in person but virtually.

Still, 91 percent of the class as seniors report feeling satisfied or very satisfied with their post-high-school plans.

Some 154 members of the class of 436 graduates were accepted into at least 75 percent of the colleges they applied to and 275 were accepted to at least half.

Students whose application results that didn’t work out in their favor, Plunkett said, tended to apply to a higher percentage of “reach” schools than would typically be recommended.

 A complex year

The Class of 2023 also entered college as the admissions process grew more complex.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibits colleges from basing admissions decisions on racial status alone.

Even so, Sandra Zeigler, coordinator of the College and Career Center at Staples, said diversity remains important to colleges. Admission counselors can still consider ways that a student’s background and identity, including race, have shaped their lives and offer a unique contribution to a campus community.

That information can be culled through student essays, faculty letters of recommendation, or even one-minute videos that school board member Dorie Hordon said some colleges are asking students to submit to see what they look like.

“Some do. I don’t know if it’s a trend,” Plunkett said of the practice.

Colleges, he said, are adjusting to a lot of changes.

This year, there are changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

A steady decline in higher-education enrollment has reversed, with a slight uptick in the number of undergraduates in the fall of 2023.

Students continue to apply to more and more colleges, while acceptance rates at the most selective colleges remain in the single digits.

The test-optional trend continues, with more colleges leaving it up to students whether they submit SAT or ACT scores.

Test optional has meant less pressure for students to take those tests multiple times in search of a better score, Plunkett said. “Fewer students are over doing it,” he added.

Yet, most take the tests more than once.

The composite mean SAT score at Staples between 2021 and 2023 was 1,244 out of a possible 1,600 points. That is almost 200 points above national and state averages, Plunkett said.

ACT composite scores from 2021 to 2023 were 28.9 compared to 19.5 nationally.

Staples students are also taking more Advanced Placement exams — 1,273 in 2023, with 95 percent getting a passing score of 3 or better.

 Location and more

Along with data, counselors at Staples survey students on the college selection process.

Most students reported the most important factors in their search were the academic programs, location and campus life of the colleges considered.

Their advice to younger students is to focus on their own journey and not on their friends’ plans.

Some said they wish they had more help completing the college essay.

In response, the district held a boot camp this past summer for 50 students that helped with the essay-writing process.

Zeigler said she hopes to continue and expand the program next summer if the demand is there.

Some board members suggested incorporating the essay-writing experience into regular English classes during the school year.

Plunkett said the most challenging feedback from students was the feeling that some want more access to their counselors. Each counselor has a caseload of 160 to 165 students in grades nine through 12.

To assist parents, the district offers a software program that helps capture historical data on Staples students showing how their Grade Point Averages and test scores compare to a profile of students accepted at a given college over the past three years.

A parent workshop to explain how to use the new program will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 7 at the Westport Library.

Heyer suggested a parent survey on the college selection process might be in order.

“If parents are less stressed then maybe students will be less stressed,” she said.

Board Chair Lee Goldstein said she would like to see the district contact alumni a year or two into college to find out how they are doing.

During the public-comment segment of the meeting, Michele Carey-Moody, past president of the Staples PTA, said she’d also like to survey alumni on college retention rates.

“Did they stay, transfer, was it not the right fit?” Carey-Moody said.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.