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Letters from alumni about Early admission

March 19, 2002

The discussion of early decision (ED) admissions by President Tilghman in the President’s Page of February 27 raises issues that increasingly trouble me as an Alumni Schools Committee chair.

Although I can’t entirely disagree with the president’s support for something that she clearly considers advantageous to applicant and university, I can highlight some aspects of ED, unintended or otherwise, and provide some corroborating data, omitted in her discussion, that might color one’s judgment about the probity of this policy.

Asserting that the wide discrepancy in admission rates from the early and regular decision (RD) pools is entirely due to differences in applicant qualifications strains credulity. During the application cycle for the Class of 2005, Princeton admitted 35 percent of the applicants from an ED pool of approximately 1,670, producing some 587 guaranteed matriculants, and added the remainder of its 1,700 admissions from 9 percent of its RD pool of about 11,850, to produce an overall admission rate of about 12 percent. This, of course, means that half the class came from 15 percent of the applicants (the ED group), with the remaining half gleaned from the other 85 percent (RD).

This startling divergence in admission rates is mirrored in our own regional statistics over the last 11 years when 44 percent of the nonbinding "Early Action" (prior to 1996) and subsequent ED applicants were admitted in contrast to only 8 percent of the RD group. For those who wish to, gaming this discrepancy gives a clear advantage to those students who have the family support, educational (and often, financial) resources and foresight to apply ED, advantages which often don’t exist for students in many smaller or less well-funded schools, rural settings, and especially in family, cultural, or geographic settings where the traditions and techniques of applying to very selective colleges haven’t previously existed.
In practice, ED dislocates the college selection process, with all its attendant anxieties, to the junior year or earlier and essentially mandates a final choice at the outset of the senior year. SAT’s often must be taken in junior year (surely no later than October of senior year), and the college visit should be completed as well. Whether it is optimal or even sensible to expect a 16- or 17-year-old to have such informed certainty at this stage in their development, or whether one should argue that an additional year of maturity and experience wouldn’t permit a more informed decision, I leave to your discretion.

A few of President Tilghman’s arguments make little sense to me. As for ED eliminating the nuisance of submitting multiple applications, the certainty that only one-third of Princeton ED applicants will be accepted must compel all but the most confident (or arrogant) to submit RD applications to other universities either concurrently or subsequently in December, when they learn they haven’t made the ED cut. Contending that ED benefits students in the RD pool by removing ED competitors is disingenuous, much like saying that first-class passengers benefit economy class by reducing the competition for coach seats. The truth is that ED admissions co-opt half the available spots in current admission classes and sharply reduce the odds of admission for those who follow. Yes, many students are ready to make college choices by the beginning of senior year, but many more potentially deserving but strategically naive students have understandably only begun to grapple with the problem, unaware that their odds of admission drop as each new ED admit is approved.

And while I’m sure that ED admission parameters compare to the university’s historic admission norms, the relative merits of each ED applicant can’t be compared to those of RD applicants who as yet haven’t mailed in their grade points, SAT scores, and essays. It smacks of something that biological scientists often decry: the comparison of experimental groups to historical controls, instead of contemporary prospective ones.

As for advantages to the university, ED clearly allows design of a "diverse" freshman class, but only diversity as closely defined by the Admission Office, and not by the less predicable but possibly more salutary effect of choosing from a larger, less stereotyped population, one which, incidentally, has the right to choose as well.

In the interests of fairness, it should be mentioned that some colleges have used ED to lock in a higher "yield" (the ratio of enrolled applicants to total admissions) and to reduce the required number of RD admissions necessary to fill the entering class, which promotes "selectivity" (the ratio of admissions to applicants). These ratios comprise an essential part of the methodology of various college ranking systems, systems, which currently place Princeton in a flattering position. While it may warm the hearts of ASC members to point this out to prospects, a widely admired institution like Princeton with an unassailable academic reputation shouldn’t need this type of hierarchical adulation to feel that it’s worthy.

Lest I be misinterpreted, let me confess my sincere admiration for the enlightened and sensitive motives which the Admission Office brings anew each year to the Herculean task of selecting individual Princeton students. My criticisms are of the ED policy and its effects, and not of the intent of those who labor under it. But even a casual Internet search reveals a large and growing literature, generally unfavorable, on ED and its consequences, a sure sign that public sentiment is increasingly arrayed against it. Best that those within the Princeton family begin to reconsider this misguided option, before such decisions are mandated from without.

George W. Schnetzer III ’60
Tulsa, Okla.

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March 3,2002

I read with interest President Tilghman's letter (President’s Page, February 27) on early decision and was thrilled to see that fairness and equity were among the important goals of the admission process. In her essay, she also talks about enrolling the "strongest possible class." And therein, it seems to me, might be a little contradiction.

The admission process as it currently exists is inherently unfair. It favors families who can afford, for example, SAT tutoring, good school districts, private education, trips abroad, music lessons, sports camps, and special instruction. It is not "in the nation’s service" as it ultimately serves to widen the gap — not to close it — between an educated elite and those who are not so fortunate. Early decision in particular favors the cynical and savvy who understand the statistical advantages of applying early — and it's being used unfairly by many applicants. I would be interested to know how many of Princeton's early decision admits don't actually come to Princeton and how this number has changed in the past decade — that would be one measure of its increasing abuse.

My proposal: Eliminate early decision. Accept applications only from students who are among the top ten percent of their high school classes. Then, using a lottery, pull out twice as many applications as the number of students Princeton intends to admit. Let students know their status after the lottery. Read only the applications that make it through the lottery and choose the class from these. The admission staff's work would be dramatically cut, and they would be able to truly get to know the applicants and choose the "strongest." Princeton would still get to choose among many outstanding applicants, but would be pulling from a wider pool and opening the gates to students who might not otherwise even consider applying. Perhaps Princeton would end up with a class that has a few fewer highly accomplished young people. But even if that were the case, the quality of a Princeton education is so extraordinary that surely the end results for any class admitted this way would be no different from what they are now.

Such a plan would be walking the talk — it would be a powerful statement of confidence in the quality of the education offered — even if you admitted only a portion of a class this way. But it could also have some more valuable effects. It could create a more democratic Princeton. It could also make for a more diverse class, representing more types of schools and communities than Princeton does currently. And it could change a campus culture by replacing the undercurrent of "privilege" with one of "luck." That would be truly fair and equitable.

M.F. Badger ’83
Cambridge, Mass.

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