The discussion of early decision (ED) admissions by President Tilghman
in the Presidents
Page of February 27 raises issues that increasingly trouble me as
an Alumni Schools Committee chair.
Although I cant entirely disagree with the presidents 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 ones 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 dont 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 havent previously
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. SATs 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 wouldnt permit
a more informed decision, I leave to your discretion.
A few of President Tilghmans 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 havent 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 Im sure that ED admission parameters compare to the universitys
historic admission norms, the relative merits of each ED applicant cant
be compared to those of RD applicants who as yet havent 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 shouldnt
need this type of hierarchical adulation to feel that its 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.
I read with interest President Tilghman's letter (Presidents 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 nations 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
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
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.