Web Exclusives: PawPlus

October 11, 2006:
Princeton's action to end early-decision: What it will mean
A Q&A with Admission Dean Janet Rapelye

For a story on Princeton's action published in the Oct. 11, 2006, issue of PAW, click here.

Two days after Princeton’s Sept. 18 announcement that the University would eliminate its early-decision admission program, Admission Dean Janet Rapelye met with PAW’s managing editor, Ray Ollwerther ’71, to discuss the impact of the change. (An abridged version of this interview was published in the Oct. 11, 2006, issue of PAW.)

What has been the initial reaction to the early-decision announcement?

There are many people who have seen the merits of early decision and have liked the program, and I understand why they like it – I liked it, too. But we had outgrown early decision in terms of what we were trying to achieve in the class. This doesn’t solve everything, nor should it. The majority of college counselors are actually very happy that this is happening. Some counselors are dismayed that this is happening, because those were good college counselors who were able to help their students through this process in a wise way. But that’s a very small percentage of students out there, and keeping a program just for those students didn’t seem to be a choice that made sense for us. So I think the folks we’ve heard from initially feel either very strongly for or very strongly against. And I think our alumni – some are in favor and some are not. I hope that we are able to answer their questions about where their concerns are and allay some of their fears that might be there – I am quite convinced that we will be able to enroll the very best class for Princeton, and send a message to the outside world that we care about equity and fairness.

Will this affect the recruiting of athletes?

I’ve been asked about athletics this week, and it was something that we gave quite a bit of thought to. We have 38 Division I sports, and we care about the recruitment of those scholar-athletes; we want the very best scholar-athletes to come to Princeton and not go to our competitors. The vehicle we’ve been using for many years is the “likely letter” … I’ve had already this week a number of conversations with the athletic director’s office and with [athletic director] Gary Walters [’67], and I’m meeting with the coaches tomorrow [Sept. 21] because I think that it’s very important that I meet with them right away. The reason is that I want to make sure that they understand that this was a decision that was right for the University and that we want to do everything we can to support the coaches in their recruitment efforts. And while I know that this is a change, there may be some silver linings here and we will work very hard this year to find new ways of communications, should we need them. The advantage is that we have a whole year to plan for this, and we are going to work hard to use that year wisely. We want our coaches to be successful. Keeping early decision just for one area – this was a much bigger decision than that. I am well aware of the challenges that go with this decision for the coaches.

Since the likely letters can be sent out Oct. 1, before action would be taken on an early-decision applicant, will things be changing much?

We have been issuing likely letters between Oct. 1 and the early-decision deadline. How it worked in the past is those students would submit an early-decision application and then they would become an early-decision applicant, and they would get their final decision in December… They would get their likely letter in October or November and would have a likely indication that they will be admitted, and it’s a very strong letter to have. They would then get their ‘admit’ letter at the end of March or early April when we send all our decision letters. This is actually how most of the football recruits have gone through the process, because they are recruited heavily in the month of January. Football has actually been operating like this, so this will probably affect football the least overall. What it means is that the coaches will then have to have conversations with students that have a likely letter, if the coaches are hoping and expecting that student to enroll. What’s different is that [before the change] they would get an early-decision decision, and the commitment was there.

Are the likely letters a strong commitment?

In the likely letter, we say that as long as you continue to perform at the same high level – the only reason I would not send [an official notice of admittance] would be if they were not achieving their high school goals. But short of an academic failure, we honor that. It’s up to the student to honor their side of the academic commitment.

What’s the biggest concern of the coaches?

That the students don’t have to make a commitment to us. And so even with a likely letter, they could still get a call from another coach at another school who perhaps could persuade them to turn their head. And I think that’s the worry – but I have great confidence in our coaches that they will continue to make this appealing place an appealing offer to that student.

Are likely letters also sent to students who are not athletes?

Likely letters can be used for other students, and in fact that is very much a part of the language of the Ivy agreement. Because we have been using early decision, we had not been using likely letters in that form in the past. But it’s very likely we’ll consider that seriously moving forward.

In what types of areas?

I think we have institutional priorities – [such as] a terrific student or a scholar. I think what we want to avoid, if we go down that path, is, in two or three years, sending as many likely letters as early-decision letters, and then we’ve defeated the whole purpose. … Likely letters could be used for many reasons you want a student to think seriously about Princeton University – a great violinist, [or] a particular talent in the creative arts.

Are likely letters an exception to the stated goal of considering all applicants at same time?

Likely letters allow us to recruit Division I athletes who are being sought-after outside of our league. We know what the Ivy standards are, but the standards and timetables for other leagues are tremendously different than ours, and we don’t have any choice over that. If we want to enroll a Division I tennis player being recruited by a bigger league or a scholarship school, we can’t wait and say, we have a different deadline and you must wait. The only way that we can make that student [know we are] quite serious about him or her is send a likely letter. Our competition isn’t just the other Ivies. Our competition for scholar-athletes is often outside the league.

How will students be able to communicate that their first-choice college is Princeton – and is that important?

Students at any point in the process can tell us that Princeton is their first choice. As we move into this new one-application deadline process, I imagine there will be students who will tell us that Princeton is their first choice, and has been their first choice for a long time. The question, does it make a difference, is a good one, because in our pool with so many thousands of fabulous students, I’m not sure it’s ever made that much difference. In early-decision they were able to state that by saying they were filing early decision. We weren’t always able to take [all] the strong students; in fact we were only taking a small proportion of the early-decision candidates, even though all the candidates told us we were their first choice.

Do desire and loyalty to Princeton make a student a stronger applicant or potential member of the Princeton community?

In all fairness, when you’re judging a high school transcript and a high school applicant, what we’re trying to do is build the very best class for Princeton. My hope is that when students get to Princeton, they are able to solidify those strong ties and that loyalty to this place. There are many students who have no ties to Princeton before they get here who didn’t understand a single thing about our institution, but were educated in the admission process and then chose us, and became some of our most loyal alumni. If you’re asking, do we have more loyal alums because of early decision, I don’t believe that, because the experience here is what allows students to build that loyalty. … I think our job is to choose the best students and the most talented students in terms of their accomplishments and then bring them here, and they form quite a powerful community. And we’ve been doing that for a long time.

Do you expect the makeup of the class to change?

My hope is that it actually changes the applicant pool more than it changes the class. But by changing the applicant pool, we have an opportunity to shape the class to a greater degree. If we are able to build a deeper and broader applicant pool in terms of students from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds,] students with more racial and ethnic diversity, we will be able to choose a more multicultural class. And that’s an important value to the University as we move forward. This is not an either/or question. We are obviously going to choose students also who … reflect much of what we have been doing in the past.

What about legacy admissions?

We are still very committed to the children of our graduates. We don’t intend to change our policy around legacies. We’ve been admitting the children of our graduates at three times the rate of everyone else and I anticipate that to be the same – I don’t see a change there. It’s not a formula; it’s not a quota; that number goes up and down depending on the quality of the pool each year, but the children of our graduates are strong candidates in and of themselves. At the same time, I am very sensitive of the fact that if we’re admitting in one year, for example, 35 percent of the children of our graduates, we’re turning down 65 percent of them. And that’s quite painful for this community, and I understand that. I’m not arguing that we should take more legacies, but the goal is not to take less. The goal is to keep that stable.

Some could say that a legacy preference seems to “advantage the advantaged.”

Well, that’s what the outside world would say, and anything that seems unfair in this process is under scrutiny. Children of our graduates tend to come from homes where the parents value education, they have made sure their children are in good schools, they have made sure their children have music lessons and other advantages, and for those children who have taken advantage of those advantages, they are as strong as any other candidates in our pool. When I look at the statistics of the children of our graduates, they are as strong as the rest of the class. So I can stand up and say, we’re making the right decision for Princeton. I can’t answer for any other legacy admissions process of any other school. But for us, I can say that these are students that we would want anyway. Are we being criticized by the outside world for this? Yes. Am I criticized internally from those who would like us to take more legacies? Yes. But I think that we’ve found the balance that makes sense for us, and I think all of us feel that this is the right spot for us right now.

Doesn’t that group tend to reflect a higher average income, and thus be contrary to some of other goals that Princeton has stated?

Yes. However, some of the books that have been written recently are conflating wealth with legacy admissions. And not every child of a graduate is coming from a wealthy, wealthy family. Some of our graduates have chosen careers that are not lucrative. Some are ministers and rabbis, or museum curators, or they have chosen fields of service. And some of the children of our graduates qualify for financial aid. … Do they tend to be on the higher end of the [income] group, yes – but to make a statement about what every child of our graduates looks like is simply not true.

What is the overall enrollment rate of those who are accepted for admission?

When we look at regular decision, the yield has been somewhere around the 50 percent mark. So this decision is going to mean that our yield will change, and it is unlikely that our yield will be at the 69 to 70 to 71 percent mark again. But the yield in and of itself does not indicate quality of intellect; it only has indicated selectivity, and it’s only been a measure thrust upon us by outside organizations. And frankly, that didn’t seem to me to be a reason to hold onto early decision – or early action, because we’ve also had that in the last 35 years. In fact, we are in the strongest possible position in the world of higher education to make this decision and to say that while yield is important, it is not going to be the driving force.

Are you prepared to see Princeton drop down in the national college rankings?

It’s possible that might happen.

Might that affect the applicant pool?

With a pool of 17,000 candidates, it is possible, but again we are in the strongest possible position to say if we really care about making this process as fair as possible, [or] basing a decision on how we might be judged by an outside organization or set of outside organizations – and I don’t mean to minimize them, because they carry some weight. We are going to be able to attract a very strong and powerful applicant pool, and we are going to be able to admit superb classes. And if we don’t take this step, nobody else can. So this was also a leadership decision in the field. Harvard made the first choice – and they had to, as much as most of our graduates would like not to admit that. But when Harvard opened the door, it allowed everyone to have this conversation. And because we had done the research, and we had been thinking about this, we were poised to make the decision. And this decision reflects our values. I hope the field is able to make independent decisions, not just on how we’re judged by outside organizations.

Was it important for Princeton to act quickly after Harvard’s announcement?

We were prepared to act quickly, and in the end, we had the great good fortune that our trustees were on campus at the end of that very week, and we had a faculty meeting planned for that next Monday. That was a very happy coincidence, and made it possible for us to have the proper process, even though it happened quickly. To be able to join Harvard in this decision, as opposed to going third or fourth or fifth or sixth, yes, that was part of the decision. But we also felt it was the right decision, and that acting swiftly allowed us to say how very important it was to us. It was our opportunity to say, we want this to be as fair and equitable a process as possible, and here’s one way we can do it, given how selective we are. We are never going to make everyone happy, because we’re only admitting 10 percent of the pool.

What if no other schools drop their early admissions?

We went through that exercise, and there will be some schools that would like to, but can’t – some schools because of their financial aid policies, [and] their smaller pools, will need to be careful about it. But I think for many years there were many selective schools that didn’t have an early program, and I think we will take it one year at a time and see how it unfolds. We’ll see what our applicant pool is like; we will analyze our position every year. Our trustees wanted to be very clear that we were making a strong statement, and there was no qualifying clause in our statement that this was a pilot project. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect in the future. I think the years of having the same policy for 35 years are probably behind us. The world has changed enough and will continue to change that we will need to be agile as we move forward. But we intend to make a very solid effort here to make this work, because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

The New York Times recently published a chart projecting how selective schools would fare in competing for students with multiple acceptances. Does Princeton have its own projections like this?

Our numbers are slightly different when I look at the students we lose, and who we lose them to. Our biggest losses every year are to Yale, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. A large portion of the Stanford losses are engineers … And our biggest losses are to Harvard, and that will continue. I know that makes our graduates very uncomfortable, but that has been true forever. Again, there is no one stronger than Princeton to stand up to Harvard, and I am willing to have those admitted [student] overlaps and to try very hard to convince them to come to Princeton. And this is where we need alumni to help us – to help us convince these students that Princeton is the very best place to be an undergraduate in this country.

Won’t so-called advantaged families always have an advantage in college admissions?

What we have done is to level the playing field in terms of the process by which students would apply to Princeton – that we would not have a two-part process where we know from our research that only certain kinds of students are organized well enough, are counseled well enough, to be in that pool. This is not a case of one kind of student is better or worse than another kind of student. We value the students who are coming from families who have given them many advantages, and they have risen to those challenges and have excelled at a high level. What we are doing is making it a process where it is just as easy for that student to apply as it is for a student from a low-income family where they do not have the support, either at home or at their school, to know early in their senior year how they want to organize their college process. My hope is that we will be able to have a more diverse class, and that every student will have an equal shot at the class. So this isn’t about how we choose the class, it’s about how we attract them and how we allow them to apply.

The new class of freshmen is the most diverse in Princeton’s history; doesn’t this show that the present system is working?

Only a very small proportion of our minority students were applying early decision; only a very small proportion of students who needed financial aid were applying for early decision. It doesn’t mean that’s how we were choosing them; it’s how they were applying to us. They weren’t even in the running. They didn’t have the opportunity to be in that early pool. [Early decision is ending] so that we can look at everybody at the same time and look at school groups together and look at students from every background at the same time, and not in a two-part process that advantaged students who only can do it because they have the kind of counseling and help to get there.

What will this mean for the admission office?

This is going to mean more work for us. The advantage is that we will have more time to travel and recruit students in the month of November, both in this country and around the world. We will have a greater influx during that January-February-March timeframe, and April is going to be an even more competitive month than it’s been. It is going to require probably more staff members and more work when we get to that point. This was not necessarily the easier decision for us, but it was the right decision for us.

You’ve said you plan to be conservative in the number of students admitted, and to use the wait list to achieved the desired number of enrolled students.

Right, we’ll try to underadmit on the first round, and then go to the wait list so we can get the right number there. Because of the wonderful planning we’ve been doing on this campus, we know exactly how many beds we will have available for the next 10 years. We can’t afford to overenroll. Because the yield will be very unpredictable for the first year or two or three, we’ll need to use the wait list in ways that we haven’t. And that’s fine – there will be excellent candidates out there, and for those who would like to wait for us, we are going to be able to probably have spots for them.

Had Princeton already decided to end early decision, but was simply waiting for the right time to announce it?

Frankly, I never thought I would have the opportunity to make this decision. I thought we might be here for 10 more years and never have the opportunity to do this. The Justice Department ruling in the 1990s stated that [Ivy schools] could not have conversations together that would limit choices in the future, and we took that very seriously. So while we’d done the research, and weighed everything, we hadn’t actually made up our minds. But when Harvard made the surprising announcement that they were giving up their early program, it seemed to us to be an opportunity that we needed to seize. All we had done was collect the data and analyze it. But we hadn’t made this choice yet.

Is Princeton taking a risk in making this move?

Yes! But the choice here is take complete competitive advantage of this [Harvard’s decision on early admission], and ignore the fact that we are not providing an opportunity for students from low-income backgrounds to be part of a process, or to say we really care about every student having the same chance of being admitted, and we will put competitive advantage aside for the moment. Because competitive advantage in this case feels selfish, and that’s not as educators what we’re trying to do. END