President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
November 8, 2006
Earlier this fall, Princeton decided to eliminate early decision and instead operate a single admission process for all students, beginning with the class that will enter in the fall of 2008. Although we had been considering this step for several years, we did not believe it was something we could do unilaterally. When Harvard announced it was eliminating early admission, we decided the time had come when we should act, and following thorough discussion, the trustees agreed.
Our first and most compelling reason to adopt a single admission process is a matter of simple fairness. Under this process, all admission decisions will be made on the same terms and at the same time. In recent years, while half of our class was admitted in a competition with about 2,200 other applicants, the other half was competing against some 15,000 other applicants. While there are strategic advantages to being able to enroll a significant portion of the class early, we increasingly came to recognize that it was very difficult to be fair to all applicants—and to be perceived as fair to applicants who do not apply early—when almost 27 percent of the students who apply early are admitted, as compared to less than 8 percent of those who apply later. Princeton has attracted very strong candidates in the early process, but the discrepancy between the two rates is particularly worrisome in light of the demographic differences between the two applicant pools, with the early pool significantly more affluent, less international, and less diverse.
Our concern about fairness was amplified by the recent increase in “strategizing” associated with early admission. Many schools that serve more affluent and admission-savvy populations have told us that early admission has evolved from a program designed for a relative handful of students who make a clear college choice by the fall of their senior year to a program in which students and schools elect early admission because they perceive it to provide a competitive advantage. As a result, the frenzy over college admission has moved to the junior year, students are being asked to make decisions before they are prepared to make them, and many students are coasting through their senior years after being admitted to college in December.
At the same time, students and schools in less affluent neighborhoods clearly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage as colleges admit a third to a half of their classes before these students even apply. Many of these students are not as well advised by their guidance counselors about the benefits of early admission, or don’t learn in time that an early program exists. Even when they know about early admission, many of these students are concerned about committing to any school without being able to consider a range of potential financial aid packages.
Since we have the strongest financial aid program in the country, it is to our advantage to encourage students to compare packages. We believe there are enormous educational benefits to enrolling students from a full range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of our entering class on financial aid has increased from 38 percent to 55 percent, and this year 11 percent of our freshmen are the first in their families to attend college. We believe we can fully achieve our goals only by considering all applicants in a single pool. A single process will also allow our admission staff to travel more in the fall to inform students from all backgrounds about our commitments to undergraduate education and financial aid.
Some alumni have expressed concern that the elimination of early admission will reduce the quality of Princeton classes. We believe that it will have the opposite effect by allowing us to base our decisions on more complete information about our applicants and about the entire applicant pool. A single admission process does entail some greater uncertainty as to precisely which students will enroll, since none of our applicants will be required to attend Princeton if admitted, but we have every confidence that, with the help of schools committee volunteers and others, the students we admit will recognize that there is no better place in the world to be an undergraduate. There may be students who chose to apply to a school with an early program when they otherwise might have applied to Princeton, but our applicant pool is so strong that we still will have many more exceptional applicants than we can accommodate.
Some alumni have asked whether a single admission process will in any way alter our policies regarding the admission of alumni children. The answer is no, and we have every reason to believe that alumni children will continue to be well represented in our classes.
Some have expressed concern about the impact of a single admission process on athletic recruiting. This is a concern we take seriously, and Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye and our coaches have already given a great deal of thought to how we can be sure to continue to compete successfully for the student athletes we want to attract to Princeton. One element of our strategy will be continued use of the letters that by Ivy League agreement admission offices are allowed to provide to recruited athletes in the fall to indicate that as long as they continue to do well in school they are “likely” to be admitted.
Finally, some have expressed concern that a single admission process reduces the likelihood that we will enroll students for whom Princeton is their “first choice.” Students certainly will have every opportunity to communicate this in their applications and their schools committee interviews. But we have to remember that there are many excellent students who simply have no way to identify a “first choice” by the fall of their senior year in high school. One of our challenges is to communicate more effectively with students who know very little about Prince-ton, who don’t know others who have attended Princeton, who don’t have the resources to visit the campus, and yet who would benefit enormously from what Princeton has to offer and would contribute greatly to the intellectual, cultural, and residential vitality of campus life.
In a posting on one of the TigerNet discussion groups, one alumna noted that the right test is not whether a student loves Princeton before arriving, but whether the student loves Prince-ton after living and learning here. As far as we can tell, alumni admitted in regular admission graduate with just as much attachment to Princeton as those who had the advantage of being admitted early.
I hope other universities will join Princeton, Harvard, and more recently the University of Virginia in eliminating early admission. But whether they do or not, I have every confidence that we will continue to attract the very best students in the world and that we have done the right thing for Princeton by adopting an admission process that is fair and equitable to all of our applicants.