President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Right Decision
November 5, 2008
In the fall of 2006, Princeton announced its intention to end its early decision admission program. As I noted in these pages at the time, our return to a single admission process was driven by one overriding consideration: ensuring fundamental fairness.
One problem with a two-round system was that it unintentionally “advantaged the advantaged,” namely, students who had the benefit of well-informed parents and guidance counselors helping them to navigate the early admission process. Had this process been in place this year, we would have chosen roughly half the class from among only 2,000 applicants, while filling the remaining places from 19,000 applications in April. Despite the very high quality of the early applicant pool, the students in it were as a group significantly more affluent and less diverse than those who submitted applications later. Thus at the very time when we were trying to reach out to students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, we had a process that made it more difficult for them to gain admittance.
A related concern was the degree to which our early admission program had become a means of “gaming the system” rather than giving those who had already made up their minds a chance to learn whether they would be admitted to the school of their dreams. This sometimes compelled students to decide on a college before they were fully prepared to do so. And so, after careful consideration and in the wake of Harvard’s decision to end its early admission program, we decided that one of the most effective ways to widen the path to higher education would be to eliminate early admission, effective with the Class of 2012.
While this was manifestly the right thing to do, our decision was also freighted with unknowns, and it was not until this fall that we could assess its impact. Would our inability to “lock in” a significant percentage of successful applicants allow us to maintain the academic quality of our undergraduates? Would we still be able to recruit talented student-athletes? Would the children of alumni continue to apply and attend? And would students from diverse backgrounds and schools truly fare better in a single admission process than in a two-round system? I am pleased to say that the answer to all four questions is a resounding “yes.”
This year’s freshman class was drawn from the largest applicant pool in Princeton’s history, totaling 21,370 students, which made for a very busy winter in West College. With no early decision process, the fall could be devoted to visiting a wider range of schools than ever before and introducing their students to the unique qualities of a Princeton education and — thanks to our generous program of financial aid — its affordability. Coupled with the assurance of equitable treatment implicit in a single admission process, these efforts yielded the most diverse class ever. Just shy of 38 percent of freshmen are members of minority groups; the percentage on financial aid reached 56 percent for the first time; there are a record number of international students; and, in another first, the class is evenly divided between men and women. Our success in broadening Princeton’s reach can also be seen in the fact that we offered places to 428 students who were enrolled in schools from which no student had been admitted in at least the last five years.
None of this has been achieved at the expense of academic strength. On the contrary, the Class of 2012 has a higher percentage of top-ranked students than a number of other recent classes. Nor did our ability to attract a stellar group of student-athletes suffer. In fact, our yield on student athletes — the ratio of acceptances to offers — actually increased. While our overall yield fell, as expected, from 68 percent in 2007 to 58.7 percent, a decline of less than 10 percent is modest considering that previously half the freshman class was obliged to accept our offers under early decision. Moving forward, we can say with confidence that every student who enters Prince-ton will have done so as a free agent, often turning down very attractive alternatives. As for the children of alumni, we admitted a larger percentage than in any of the last five years, which should be reassuring to those who wondered if Princeton’s intergenerational ties would be weakened in a single admission process.
Every significant institutional change entails at least a small leap of faith. Ending early decision was no exception, but as the Class of 2012 begins to leave its mark, it is clear that we could both do what is fair and equitable and attract the finest students in the world to Princeton, regardless of gender, race, or economic circumstances.