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Princeton admissions and "The Chosen"

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Fred Hargadon's response

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Feb 15 issueAlumni Letters
Last Updated: March 23, 2006:


Please print Mr. Hargadon’s reply to Karabel. It is concise, informative, and non-inflammatory. Karabel is trying to sell his book and make himself an instant authority. Hargadon is telling what has happened. Swarthmore looks like a good place to get your start.

Weston, Mass.

Editor’s note: Several readers have written to request that PAW print former dean of admission Fred Hargadon’s response in the magazine, and we are happy to report that it will run in our April 5 issue.


Having read the article/excerpt from Karabel’s book, I think it absolutely necessary that Dean Fred Hargadon’s response be published, in its entirety, in the next PAW. Dean Fred’s rebuttal, which is not only eloquent but poignant, also serves to remind readers that the college admission process is a game of sorts. To say that Dean Fred had ulterior motives in his admission practices is, in my opinion, much like blaming a tough loss in a sporting event on the referees. 

I believe that any alumnus (or non-alumnus, as is the case with my parents) would agree that having spent any time with Dean Fred, you would wholeheartedly support his intentions, methods, and, most importantly, his character, when it comes to the admission process at Princeton. Every university and college is a unique and diverse place, and Dean Fred had a vision for the type of student body he thought would best espouse the pillars of Princeton. No doubt this vision will change with every dean of admission, and the effect will be that different groups will alternate through the spotlight of admission’s favor. But to criticize a Dean Fred of doing anything less than selecting exceptional classes of students, in the best manner he knew, is in my opinion, offensive.

How many college alums can claim that their dean of admission attended their sporting, dance, or singing event? Or that their dean of admission addressed them by name and stopped to have conversations with them on campus? Or that their dean of admission sent them a happy-birthday e-mail seven years after admitting them? In my opinion the previous examples are minute (yet meaningful) illustrations of an exceptional person who played a major role in creating a sense of community on the Princeton campus by setting a very high bar through his own, everyday actions. 

I found this chapter of Karabel’s book offensive to Princeton in general and Dean Fred in particular. Princeton alumni should be reminded what an exceptional addition Fred Hargadon was, and continues to be, to the Princeton community. Lastly, alumni should take heart in Dean Fred’s response. The game of admissions, and one person’s spin on it, should not taint our own accomplishments and experiences, or our vision of Princeton.

San Francisco, Calif.


I hope that readers of this article go to the Web and read Dean Hargadon’s excellent response/rebuttal. Having been an ASC representative over the last 28 years, I had the opportunity to meet Dean Fred on several occasions. I don’t think there is a more straight-shooting, down-to-earth guy in the world. He did great things for Old Nassau and knows of which he speaks!

Reno, Nev.


Thank you for the fascinating article by Jerome Karabel about Ivy admissions. It was refreshing to see one aspect of Princeton’s recent history from an outsider’s viewpoint. Unfortunately, Karabel’s observations are focused so tightly on the admission process that he fails to take into account significant changes in the larger world ­ the nation’s economy and culture. The economic and entrepreneurial lure of Silicon Valley and the cultural and recreational lure of the Bay Area certainly influenced the growing attractiveness of Stanford to top college applicants over the last 10 to 20 years. When New Jersey (or Philadelphia) becomes a magnetic center of innovation, creativity, and cultural change, Princeton will easily draw more top students ­ with or without the University’s vast wealth, savvy admission policies, and improved programs. In the meantime, I’m glad to see Princeton thrive!

Oakland, Calif.


I applaud PAW for publishing this article, though I consider the quantitative arguments flawed and pseudo-scientific at best. I regret that you did not publish Dean Hargadon’s thoughtful, point-by-point refutation in paper form. I’m glad you made it available online, but I think you did your readers a disservice by not including it in the same issue.  

Jerome Karabel’s book title echoes the name of the book by Chaim Potok about a young man’s journey to adulthood in the context of a Hasidic Jewish community.  I wonder about a link between this and Karabel’s focus on admission statistics for Jewish applicants. As Dean Hargadon points out, religious affiliation is hard to ascertain and is not an admission criterion. More troubling is Karabel’s implication that there is a desirable percentage of students of a particular religion represented. A less-than-careful reading of his presentation could easily lead to the inference that the admission office had an anti-Semitic bias. In fact, the writer of a recent letter in another PAW issue drew exactly this conclusion.  Here, Dean Hargadon’s comments really are needed in rebuttal.

The sad and unavoidable truth is that socioeconomic background plays a bigger role in determining any student’s likelihood of admission to selective colleges than just about any other criterion. It’s more important to me that a deserving student goes to college than worry about why she chose to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. If one has earned the distinction of admission to any one, let alone several, schools of this caliber, the ultimate decision will depend on subjective factors. Here is where the Alumni Schools Committee can make the most impact.

One of the few points that Hargadon did not refute, tellingly, was the deliberate weakening of the Alumni Schools Committee’s effect on the admission process. As an ASC volunteer for 25 years, I often wonder if ASC exists just as a feel-good enterprise to make us feel useful, maintain our ties with the University, and motivate us to keep our AG participation up. ASC work, taken seriously, requires a commitment of time and effort.  Its only apparent measurable reward is whether a candidate we interviewed gets admitted and chooses to matriculate at Princeton.

For achievement-oriented people like alumni, we need to get past that single criterion and aim for something different to find ASC work satisfying:  doing a good job representing Princeton, serving as a mentor for talented young people contemplating their future lives, and recruiting the heck out of those admitted to persuade them to matriculate.  It's not enough to get them in (they’re getting in other places too, for sure!):  We want them to enroll!

I’d like to know where the ASC stands in Dean Rapelye’s view of the admission process, compared to Dean Hargadon’s view.  It would be interesting to have PAW publish a brief interview with her on this topic.

Bald Head Island, N.C.

Since when did the Princeton Alumni Weekly aspire to be the Utne Reader? Eight pages of the Feb. 15 issue are devoted to an excerpt from UC-Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen ­ eight pages of a “weekly” print magazine, published only 15 times a year due to budgetary constraints, are lavished on one scholar’s facts-fit-the-theory argument without offering another point of view.

Under its masthead, PAW promises to “review without partiality the achievements and problems of the administration.” How can reprinting this excerpt, replete with unsubstantiated bias, exercise impartiality?

In her editor’s note, Marilyn Marks *86 states she invited Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye to comment, but Rapelye declined, “because of demands of the application season.” Next, Marks turned to former dean Fred Hargadon for a response, but then buried his rebuttal on the PAW Web site.

Where’s the discourse in this “independent magazine by alumni for alumni”? How difficult would it have been to prompt a precept-like discussion on “the meaning of merit” among former deans of admission Jim Wickenden ’61, Tony Cummings *80, and Hargadon? At the very least, Marks could have given equal bandwidth to the very perpetrators of the bias and gamesmanship Karabel alleges. They would have handily dismissed the notion that Princeton introduced a “no-loan” policy in 2001 in order to become “an institution on the make” and compete with rivals Harvard and Yale.

Better yet, Marks could have referred to former president Harold Shapiro *64’s new book, A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society (Princeton University Press, 2005). Shapiro, president from 1988 to 2001, highlights the moral imperative of universities to serve society, rather than to pillage the spoils of America’s secondary schools for a perfect elite, as The Chosen purports.

Lambertville, N.J.
Former chair, Alumni Schools Committee (1986-1988)

Editor’s note: An excerpt from former president Harold Shapiro’s book was published in the Jan. 26, 2005 issue of PAW.


The excerpt from Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen, contains lots of numbers. A couple of them in this assertion make me skeptical of all the others and of the rest of his piece: “In 1990, Princeton’s endowment stood at a healthy $2.475 billion; by 2000, it had risen well over 300 percent, to $8.649 billion.”

A rise of 100 percent would have taken the endowment from $2.475 billion to $4.95 billion. A rise of 200 percent would have taken it from $2.475 billion to $7.425 billion. A rise of 300 percent would have taken it to $9.9 billion. Even if Karabel’s endowment numbers are correct, his claim of a “well over 300 percent” increase is a rather flagrant misstatement.

That this specific type of “innumeracy” is pretty common, even among professional communicators, doesn’t make it any less damaging to the author’s credibility. The damage is compounded by the fact that not only did Karabel blow it, but his book’s editor(s) at supposedly respectable Houghton Mifflin let it slide, and PAW’s editors did, too.

I used to tell my employees who created computer reports that they could not give clients reports that had typos, incorrect dates, misspellings, or other gaffes in the report titles and headings. That was because the client would have to wonder, “If they got the easy stuff wrong, how can I believe they got the rest of it right?”

How are we to believe that Karabel got the rest of it right?

Mountain City, Tenn.


The excerpt from Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen, raised several unanswered questions and begged two others.

The concentration of attention on acceptance rates of legacies, athletes, minorities, and academic 1s made it appear as though each entering class were comprised primarily of those groups. It made it appear that academic 1s were the only subgroup capable of contributing significantly to both the University’s intellectual life and the general welfare of the nation. And it failed to consider overlaps. How many of any one of the four subgroups also were members of one or more of the other? The degree of overlap would tend to lower the proportions of a class represented by the subgroups.

Karabel argues from a narrow historical range. Any Princetonian knows that the University changed greatly under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson 1879 a century ago. World War II and the GI bill revolutionized the University, forcing a democratization that placed more primacy on intelligence and perceived potential for achievement than on money and family connections. Those changes might not have been as great as elsewhere. And they may have been relatively late historically. But they were significant changes nonetheless. And they created the environment that people like Karabel could argue along the wider real-world lines of what Princeton does for the world at large.

Perhaps most significant, Karabel bases his argument on two assumptions, neither of which can be made with any certitude. He assumes that Princeton and its three main competitors get the lion’s share of the nation’s brightest high school graduates. A simple look at the mathematics says this is absurd. Fewer than 6,000 students enter the first-year class of those four undergraduate divisions each year. Close to 1.5 million members of the nation’s high school class of 2005 took the Scholastic Assessment Test last year. The top percentage of that class would thus number nearly 15,000 young people. There is simply no way that the four universities could accommodate all those students, assuming they all wanted to go to Princeton, Yale, Harvard, or Stanford.

Karabel also assumes that the four universities provide something desirable. He assumes that the four institutions give their undergraduate something they didn’t have before, something that guarantees success, accomplishment, and contribution to society later in life. Enough anecdotal evidence and one major study suggest otherwise. Success and contribution later in life are accomplishments predicated more on hard work, intelligence, ambition, vision, achievement of goals, personal charm and, yes, luck ­ the attributes that got students into Princeton and its clones in the first place ­ than they do with having gone to Princeton, Yale, Harvard, or Stanford.

At the risk of being cynical, the article’s primary virtue may have been to encourage readers to buy the book. Then they could see if Karabel deals with the wider questions. So the heart of the matter after all is money.

Nanuet, N.Y.


It’s really a pity that Dean Fred Hargadon wrote his reply to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen without reading the whole book. Admittedly, it’s not a quick read, and some reviewers have found it excessively detailed, but I think anyone associated with Princeton, Harvard, or Yale (HYP, as Dean Hargadon calls them) will find it fascinating, as I did.

Possibly due to the title’s double meaning, Dean Hagadorn calls The Chosen “a history of the discrimination once faced by Jews when applying for admission.” It is not. Karabel’s book is about how HYP developed our multifactorial selective admission system in the early 20th century to deal with “the Jewish problem” ­ the problem being that purely academic criteria let in more Jews than the institutions felt comfortable with. Karabel argues that the system HYP developed, characterized by discretion and opacity, has allowed the elite colleges to follow what he calls “ ‘the iron law of admissions’: a university will retain a particular admissions policy only so long as it produces outcomes that correspond to perceived institutional interests.”

So much is obvious. What I found most illuminating in the history Karabel recounts are not just the conflicts Dean Hargadon alludes to in his letter among the various constituencies competing for places at Princeton’s table (faculty, alumni, coaches, etc.), but those between Princeton’s short-term and long-term institutional goals.

Princeton's short-term goal is to admit a selective, motivated, brilliant group of students ­ and for a substantial number of them to pay their own way. Fortunately for Princeton, our endowment has burgeoned, which reduces the pressure to admit what used to be called “paying guests.”

Princeton’s long-term goal is even more challenging: to both choose and to predict a disproportionate number of young people who will be America’s (and the world’s) leaders a generation hence. Intellectual or scholarly leadership is fairly easy to predict: That’s what SATs and grades are for.

The real problems come in predicting economic and political leadership, the future distribution of wealth and power. How much weight should admission officers give to an applicant’s wealthy, powerful family? It would be unrealistic to say “none,” because the children of wealthy, powerful people often become wealthy and powerful themselves. It will decrease the elite universities’ prestige a generation down the line if the bearers of inherited status ­ the aristocrats, to put it bluntly ­ are seen to rise to the top without having to go to a top school.

It would be interesting to hear Dean Hargadon’s take on these issues: whether he thought about Princeton’s long-term goals while he was dean of admission, and what he thought those goals were. In particular, what feedback was there from admission results into the admission process? One reason people on the outside tend to obsess about the US News rankings and other “trivia” is that at least it measures something. How did (or does) Princeton admissions measure their success? To what extent do they look back at the admission policies of a generation or more ago, when the leaders of today were applying to Princeton, to figure out what worked and what didn’t?

I hope that other Princetonians do take the time to read The Chosen and discuss it here, and the interesting and important issues it raises about education, meritocracy, American society, and the (real or ideal) roles of elite universities in a democracy.

In particular, Karabel thinks the elite universities should drop any preference for legacy applicants. That preference matters insofar as a Princeton education matters: If education is a road to power in a democracy, favoritism toward the children of the powerful is fundamentally aristocratic.

Karabel also argues that HYP and their peers need to figure out a way to increase the real, economic diversity of their student body. It’s not just that the enormous expense of a school like Princeton turns many applicants away: As Dean Hargadon says, Princeton has made great efforts to ensure that anyone admitted can come, regardless of family means. The problem is that becoming a successful applicant today requires an enormous investment of time, energy, and cultural capital over many years. Basically, it’s extremely difficult for low-income families to give their children the training necessary for them to get into Princeton and do well.

Princetonians are not going to solve the structural problems of meritocracy on our own, but we can at least acknowledge and discuss them ­ in the nation’s service.

Pennington, N.J.


During the past decades, nearly all college-bound young people who have asked me for an opinion about schools to which they might apply have been interested in the strength of individual departments ­ not in evaluations of institutions as a whole.  Your (fascinating) article, “Chosen for Princeton,” didn’t discuss this group of applicants.

The students with whom I have talked are probably atypical, but I think they represent a group that’s important to keep in mind when looking at small percentage differences among institutions.  Most high school graduates are not yet sure in which department they want to major at college, it is true; but those who already are thinking of careers in medicine or engineering or international affairs (usually as a result of family influence) want to find colleges that will give them the best possible preparation. 

Even though this group of “early deciders” may be small, it is sufficiently large to affect the distribution of applicants among the most prestigious universities by several percentage points. I think this fact works in favor of large institutions and against smaller ones that have many departments with only a few faculty members.  A student contemplating a particular career, say, in astronomy, is more likely to favor a college with a dozen star-gazers over one with only two or three.   

You probably have already guessed my conclusion.  Admission office people are wasting time looking at small percentage differences among institutions unless they also take into account the perceived quality of individual departments and schools.  Obviously (to me), the gains of Princeton in recent years have been due to the rapid and impressive quality increases in several units of the University’s component parts. The fact that Princeton is so much smaller than Harvard or Yale makes these modest percentage increases even more significant.       

Washington, D.C.                     


The excerpt printed in the Feb. 15 PAW from The Chosen, Jerome Karabel’s book about Ivy League admission policies, mentions nothing about Princeton’s initial outreach to high school juniors or seniors, perhaps because it is nonexistent. (I have no experience with athletic recruiting, and so cannot comment about that.) And if Princeton wants to compete for the best students, it has to communicate to distinguished applicants that the University is a welcoming and inclusive place to live and learn.

Through the good graces of the College Board, my son had received brochures from many fine institutions by the end of his junior year in high school, but not from Princeton. On the one hand these marketing tools aren’t much more than an expensive bag of glossy recyclables, but they do get kids thinking about the possibilities, and Princeton’s policy — at that time, at least — of sending information only upon request, and only in the fall of an applicant’s senior year, may discourage some outstanding students from thinking seriously about applying.

Perhaps my son would still have picked Harvard over Princeton even if the University had taken a more active approach in identifying and appealing to prospective applicants. But with what seems like studied disinterest, Princeton seems not to understand the consequences of failing to recruit academically gifted students. When someone doesn’t feel wanted, they may decide to go elsewhere.

Belmont, Mass.


I found Professor Karabel’s article on admissions fascinating, challenging, and a bit disturbing, even though I have long felt that Princeton, the other Ivies, and, yes, Stanford and perhaps three dozen other outstanding undergraduate colleges across the country have so many first-rate applicants that they cannot possibly admit them all. In that sense there’s a tempest-in-a-teapot quality to the issue.

Nevertheless, I am glad that you have invited Fred Hargadon to respond (at, and I would urge that you print his comments in PAW and not only on the Web. I ask partly in fairness to him and partly as a concession to old-timers like me who prefer the printed page to a screen.

Shaw Island, Wash.


Former dean of admission Fred Hargadon’s long ramble still fails to answer two questions. Why has the percentage of Jewish students remained basically static since I attended in 1960–64, when there was an apparent 10 percent quota? Why are other minority groups who suffered from discrimination being sought in large numbers, and indeed being given preferential treatment under the rubric of “diversity,” while Jews are not? For too many years Princeton has had the reputation of being relatively inhospitable to Jews, and, unfortunately, Mr. Hargadon did not see the need to remedy this perception during his long tenure.

New York, N.Y.


PAW forum:
Princeton admissions and "The Chosen"

Read an excerpt of "The Chosen"

Alumni letters

Fred Hargadon's response

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