Prep is largely set in a fictional Massachusetts boarding school called Ault, but this imaginary setting is faithfully based in reality. In the United States, thousands of students a year graduate from expensive boarding prep schools like Ault. As a matter of fact, Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld herself attended one such school, the Groton School, located in Massachusetts. American boarding schools of the kind Lee attends evolved from British "public" schools (in the United Kingdom, a public school is an independent school rather than a state-funded free one). These British schools, such as Eton, Harrow, and Rugby, were largely founded in the Middle Ages and evolved into the institutions that children of the elite still attend today. At the time of their founding, these public schools catered to students from all backgrounds. As they aged and the prestige associated with them grew, they began to cater almost exclusively to children from wealthier backgrounds. As a matter of fact, these schools evolved a purpose beyond mere education. Attendance at a public school like Eton became one of the trappings of respectability and influence in nineteenth-century Britain. Boys who received their education at public schools—for they were open only to boys and in many cases remain so, with lesser-known all-girls institutions springing up alongside them over time—might expect to continue their education at the equally venerable universities of Oxford or Cambridge. In the days of the British Empire, public-school graduates often assumed prestigious positions in the empire-building project. In short, the public school became one of the most serious markers of status in nineteenth-century Britain, and offered its students not only formal education but also connections and training in proper social behavior.
It is no coincidence that so many of these qualities are true of Lee's school, Ault, despite the fact that it is located not in England but in New England. True, Ault seems to have been founded in the mid-nineteenth century rather than in the Middle Ages, and it is open to girls and boys alike. However, attentive readers will notice that Ault was open only to boys at the time of its founding, just like its British counterparts. Even in the 1980s, when Prep is set, the school emphasizes Greek and Latin, prizes tradition, and takes competitive sports seriously—all values shared, in general, by the British public school. Furthermore, both historically and at the time of the novel's setting, it grooms its students, most of whom come from upper-class backgrounds, to join the next generation of the American elite. Lee mentions that Ault students in the school's earlier days could get into and choose a college simply by writing the name Harvard, Yale, or Princeton on a slip of paper. Ault counts famous (fictional) politicians and actors among its alumni, just as many royals and future prime ministers have matriculated at its real-life equivalents across the pond. Even the school's architecture is oddly British, forming a strange contrast with the largely working-class Massachusetts town where the school is located. Regular services are held in a Gothic cathedral, a form more in keeping with the medieval British roots of schools like Eton than with the aesthetics of 1800s New England. Lee notes that "Yankee modesty" causes Ault's students and faculty to refer to the cathedral as a mere "chapel," and this detail is telling. American boarding schools sprang up, mostly in the nineteenth century, in imitation of the elite public schools in England. Though Britain's cultural influence retained enough of a hold on its former colonies to inspire this mimicry, American discomfort with the idea of elitism and a permanent upper class clashed with the ethos of these institutions. Lee's observation about "Yankee modesty" is a perfect distillation of this tension: these schools resemble the exclusive public boarding school in many ways, but, in order to avoid drawing ire or mockery, have frequently deemphasized their exclusivity and inaccessibility.
The most elite American boarding schools are located in New England and were largely founded in the nineteenth century, when British public schools had long been established as formative institutions for well-off boys. Among these American schools are Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, and Groton itself. Some of these schools, like Ault, have a religious affiliation, although their students do not necessarily affiliate with or practice this religion. Most of these schools, including Groton, originally admitted only boys before becoming coeducational in the mid-twentieth century. These schools have much in common with Sittenfeld's fictional equivalent in terms of both reputation and exclusivity. Students and teachers alike tend to prize their rigorous academics, college counseling services, and low student-teacher ratio, in addition to their state-of-the-art campuses and beloved traditions. These amenities come with a high price tag, though: a Choate Rosemary Hall education, for instance, can cost over $60,000 a year for boarding students. As a result, graduates of these schools tend to come from wealthy families and go on to have illustrious careers. The Groton School's graduates include President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while Phillips Exeter's include President John F. Kennedy.
As many sociologists and historians have noted, these schools exist in friction with American culture as a whole: in a society that sees itself as based in meritocracy and equality, many find the idea of prohibitively expensive private schools odd or even offensive. As a result, the schools and their students have tended to avoid reinforcing the prep school's image as an outdated institution. For instance, American prep schools are less likely to have uniforms than British ones, allowing students to blend in with non-students. The schools have made a number of other adjustments, with the goal either of becoming more inclusive—or of appearing more inclusive to avoid attracting negative attention. Sittenfeld fictionalizes these efforts, making Lee herself a personification of the tension between middle-class America and the prep-school elite. Prep never comes to an easy conclusion about the efficacy of scholarships and similar initiatives, since Lee feels ambivalent about her Ault experience both as a student and as an alumnus. The schools have developed a range of approaches to make tuition less prohibitive, just as the private colleges in which many of their students continue their education have instituted scholarship programs. Some schools have chosen to waive tuition for students whose families earn less than a given amount in every year. Others offer competitive scholarships based on merit. In addition to these programs to mitigate expensive tuition and room and board, these schools have attempted to diversify their student bodies and create more inclusive atmospheres in various ways, such as the creation of gender-neutral dormitories or religious services for Muslim and Jewish students. Some academics have praised the move towards inclusiveness that began when these institutions started admitting girls, seeing it as a way to expand access to an unmatched education. Others have dismissed them as mere tokenism, or, in some cases, have seen increased diversity at these schools as a dangerous thing: these scholars have worried that prep schools merely teach students to adopt the values and manners of the elite class, allowing them to reinforce an unequal education system by assimilating into its highest ranks.