February 15, 2006: From the Editor
Probably nowhere on campus does the midnight oil burn brighter this time of year than in West College, where the admission staff is reviewing thousands of applications for spots in the Class of 2010. In a controversial book published last fall, Jerome Karabel, a Berkeley sociologist, attempts to show how these difficult admission decisions have been made at the nation’s most elite universities. In this issue, we offer an excerpt from his book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Much of the book discusses the rationale behind the often-unsavory admission policies that were commonplace at the three Ivy League schools for many decades. (This is not a book that makes Princeton look good, though Tigers should note that Harvard and Yale come off no better.) The final chapters take on some of the hottest current topics in admissions, including early decision and policies relating to the admission of legacies, athletes, and minority applicants. PAW invited Janet Rapelye, the dean of admission, to contribute an essay about Princeton’s approach to these issues, but because of demands of the application season, she declined.
The former admission dean, Fred Hargadon, who figures prominently in the excerpt, took strong exception to many of Karabel’s conclusions and told PAW that the excerpt misrepresents Princeton’s admission office during his tenure. Hargadon prepared a response, which is available online, click here to read.
Karabel argues in the introduction to his book that the history of admissions at the Big Three schools is “fundamentally, a history of recurrent struggles over the meaning of ‘merit.’ Yet beneath the flux has been a consistent pattern: The meaning of merit has shifted in response to changing power relations among groups as well as changes in the broader society.” And so, Karabel said at a talk in November at the U-Store, meeting changing needs and requirements requires the admission system to be flexible and marked by “discretion and opacity.”
Today that discretion is used to create strong and diverse classes that balance many competing demands — and how that is done each year prompts both admiration and anger. One of the biggest issues in admissions today is whether low-income students should receive preference in the selection process — a question explored by writer Doug Lederman ’84 in a PAW feature story last April. This defies easy solutions: As Karabel notes, “the privileged are the meritorious; of all students nationwide scoring over 1300 on the SAT, 66 percent come from the top socioeconomic quartile and only 3 percent from the bottom quartile.”
Change to address this problem and others, Karabel suggests, would require yet another redefinition of what “merit” really means.