Monday, March 7, 2011

Admission madness

Like Harvard, we’ve abandoned our belief that we can command the tides — of college applicants. From next year, we will admit part of each class in the fall and part in the spring. True, students admitted in the fall will be offered early action rather than early decision: they will still be able to apply for spring admission at other universities. If another university offers a more attractive financial package, or simply seems more appealing, a student admitted to Princeton will be able to accept admission there instead — a policy that seems both fairer to applicants than early decision and necessary at a time when many families’ plans are being buffeted by the larger financial turbulence.
Still, the decision worries me a little. Rachel Toor, who worked for some years for the admissions office at Duke University, recalled that, “Kids that looked great to us in November would pale in comparison to the applications we’d be reading in January.” Others have used statistical evidence to show that applying early gives a student a substantial advantage over those who apply for ordinary admissions. I’ve never been certain why it was good policy to give those who live in the towns and go to the private schools at which early application is the norm such a preference.
Princeton’s 2006 decision to eliminate early decision, moreover, marked a departure from a problematic past. Large-scale studies of admissions policy by Zachary Karabell and others have shown that Princeton struggled for decades with the fact that it simply did not appeal as much to applicants as Harvard, Yale or Stanford. As the competition grew more intense, Princeton played some ugly numbers games — notably, rejecting applicants of very high academic quality on the tactical ground that they were likely to go elsewhere. Certainly no one wants to slip back towards those ways of doing things.
The decision must have been hard, and the reasons for it complex. There are plenty of arguments both for and against, as last Monday’s point-counterpoint discussion in the ‘Prince’ made clear. Applicants — including at least some applicants from less advantaged families — wanted the security that comes with early acceptance. Princeton’s financial packages are generous enough that most students will not be harmed even if they commit to accepting our offer of admission without looking at what the competition might be prepared to tender. At the same time, though, the core reason seems to have been, as in the old days, competition. When major rivals didn’t follow the lead of Harvard and Princeton, our yield — the percentage of admitted students who accepted our offer — fell. In changing policy we wanted to serve applicants — but we also wanted to compete more effectively for them.
And it’s here that I find myself really out of sorts — not with Princeton so much as with the larger world of competitive undergraduate admissions. Every year, the numbers rise. The pools of applicants for Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Penn regularly score massive increases, about which we duly boast on websites and in college dailies. Princeton boasts of having received over 27,000 applications this year, as if it’s an unquestioned good to be able to blight the hopes of 24,000 to 25,000 18-year-olds instead of 15,000 or 10,000. Meanwhile Harvard received 35,000, Brown 31,000 and Yale a mere 25,800.
Does anyone really know how to sift these masses of talented, intelligent 18-year-olds for the ones who will flourish at a particular school? Every year, wonderful students come to Princeton and flourish here. But every year, some students show that they are neither prepared to work at our level nor engaged with their studies. Every year, a fair number of seniors show that they are neither eager nor equipped to research and write the senior thesis that we, idiosyncratically, require of all liberal arts students.
I’m sure the same thing happens in every other arena of intense student activity, from sports to arts. It’s not clear why early action will produce more reliable results — as opposed to giving some hundreds of applicants a pleasant, stress-free winter and spring, raising our yield and enticing students to commit to Princeton, sometimes for the wrong reasons.
In my ideal world, each great university would seek the student body best fitted to make use of its resources, its community life and its idiosyncratic ways of doing things. The admissions frenzy would die down, and we’d be able to worry about the big issues — the real-world ones that affect the vast majority of young Americans who don’t attend selective colleges.
The economist Nancy Folbre notes in a recent book that of every 100 9th graders, 69 will graduate from high school four years later. Only 39 will enter college, and only 27 of those will return for sophomore year. Of the original 100, no more than 18 will earn an associate degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six years. And many of those who succeed will do so without becoming engaged in their work or gaining substantial new skills. There’s a situation that really calls for some creative thinking.

Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at

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