February 15, 2006: Features

“Princeton: Wealth, Image, and the Battle for Institutional Mobility” from The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel. Copyright © 2005 by Jerome Karabel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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(Illustrations by Serge Bloch)

Illustrations by Serge BlochThe Chosen
A new book tackles the history of admissions and opportunity in the Ivy League

In a massive book published late last year, Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel takes on the touchy subject of admissions at America’s most elite universities. The heart of Karabel’s story in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” begins in the gentlemanly 1920s, after the universities had begun to raise admission standards. The problem was the result of this meritocracy: a growing number of high-scoring Jewish applicants. Elite universities feared that they would face the same fate as Columbia, where the sons of Protestant New York — the source of great financial support — had abandoned a university they viewed as overrun by Jewish immigrants.

The universities’ solution, Karabel argues, originated at Princeton which, though it had few Jewish students, wanted to maintain its small size. In 1921, President John G. Hibben 1882 announced that enrollment would be limited to “that number which we can properly accommodate and still maintain the character of our Princeton life and educational policy,” and the University determined that admissions should be based on “scholarship and character.” Karabel writes: “Princeton thus became the first of the Big Three to build enormous discretion into the very heart of the admissions process — a landmark innovation that Yale and Harvard would soon adopt to their own purposes.” Princeton reserved the right to refuse to admit any student deemed to be deficient in “character,” regardless of intellectual achievements, and to accept “exceptional” cases with weak academics.

Today, the discretion once employed to exclude Jewish and other “undesirable” students is used to attain different goals. Karabel considers the more recent history of Princeton admissions in this excerpt, “Princeton: Wealth, Image, and the Battle for Institutional Mobility.” (Click here to read comments from former admission dean Fred Hargadon.)
— Eds.

Illustrations by Serge BlochIn the mid-1970s, Princeton was one of the nation’s best-endowed universities, but it was not the almost unimaginably wealthy institution it has since become. Indeed, in 1976, Old Nassau was lagging behind its rivals in the financial packages it offered, reporting that its “self-help expectations continue to be very high in comparison with those of many of our major competitors, let alone most of the colleges and universities in the country.” As late as 1997, an internal study of students who declined Princeton’s offer of admission found that “the number and the percentage of students choosing to decline admission ... in order to enter non-Ivy-MIT institutions (which are not bound by any financial aid-overlap agreements) reached their highest levels in five years.” Overall, the study revealed that “the number and percentage of students declining Princeton’s offer of admission who cited financial reasons for their decisions rose dramatically from 139 or 11.7 percent last year to its highest level in five years (i.e., 180 or 16.2 percent).”

Since the late 1950s, Princeton had also suffered from a relatively low yield rate. In 1974, the proportion of admits choosing to enroll dropped below 50 percent for the first time, where it remained in 1975 and 1976 (when it reached an all-time low of 47 percent). Princeton was doing particularly poorly in direct competition with Harvard; in 1977, of 540 applicants admitted by both institutions, 81 percent chose Harvard. Yale, too, continued to rank ahead of Princeton, attracting 55 percent of 350 joint admits. Even Stanford, which had been behind Princeton in head-to-head competition in the early 1970s, had pulled even; in both 1976 and 1977, the number choosing its rising California rival was virtually identical (61 vs. 62 in 1976, with a tie at 62 in 1977). If these trends continued, there was a very real possibility that Princeton would soon slip to the fourth position among the nation’s elite private colleges.

Particularly distressing, especially to the faculty, was Princeton’s inability to enroll the most brilliant students — the kind of students with dazzling records whose stock had soared with the rise of meritocracy over the previous quarter century. In 1979, Princeton attracted just 34 percent of the 457 academic “1”s it had admitted. Worse still, “the yield for 2/1s [students with nonacademic ratings of “2” and academic ratings of “1”] was only 18 percent.” In an era in which the most valued currency was sheer academic brilliance, Princeton was largely unsuccessful in attracting the very best young scholars.

In truth, Princeton was ambivalent about the admission of the scholastically brilliant. Responding to faculty complaints about the increasing rate of rejection for academic “1”s (from 9 percent in 1977 to 30 percent in 1981), Dean of Admission James Wickenden [’61] stood his ground: “It is my strong feeling that we should not automatically admit all Academic ‘1s’. While these candidates have superb SAT scores and transcripts unblemished by Bs, some have such limited interests that one wonders about the contribution they would make to a residential college community.” In 1985, the new dean of admission, Anthony M. Cummings [*80], put it this way: “Princeton has always wanted to train the next generation of leaders. We look for qualities of leadership and integrity as well as intellectual qualities.”

Illustrations by Serge BlochThis was the same rationale that [Harvard admission dean Wilbur] Bender had articulated in the 1950s for limiting the number of “intellectuals” at Harvard but with one crucial difference: While Harvard was a magnet for the academically brilliant, Princeton continued to have problems convincing those academic “1”s it did admit to come. In addition to suffering from its small-town location, Princeton was handicapped by its eating clubs, which had shown surprising resilience after declining sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The club system was still harmful to its efforts to recruit Jewish students and racial minorities, and in his Report to the President in 1980, Dean Wickenden bluntly stated, “A less discriminatory selection process for the clubs would have enormous public relations benefits for the University.” In 1983, Wickenden’s last year as dean, 269 of 485 of the admitted academic “1”s chose to enroll elsewhere. Two years later, with the definition of an academic “1” narrowed to require that the applicant excel in all scholastic areas and not just one (such as physics or mathematics), the number of “1”s admitted dropped sharply to 256, with just 42 percent enrolling at Princeton.

Amid widespread faculty concern about Princeton’s inability — or unwillingness — to attract more brilliant students, the University also faced a wave of negative publicity about alleged discrimination against Asian Americans. In 1981, Dean Wickenden had privately reported that he was “concerned about Asian Americans being admitted at the lowest rate of all minorities in spite of the fact that the academic credentials of this group are much stronger than those of the other sub-groups.” By 1985, 17 percent of all applicants to Princeton were admitted, but only 14 percent of Asian Americans. But a Princeton study that was never made public concluded that, though Asian Americans had higher academic ratings than whites in four of the five years examined, there was no bias. “One of the things working against Asian-American” applicants, said Cummings, was that they were underrepresented among groups given preference for admission, such as alumni children, athletes, and blacks. This was essentially the same argument that Harvard made a few years later, though it was careful to leave the higher admission rate for blacks (29 percent in 1987 compared to 15 percent for all Harvard applicants) out of the discussion.

There was truth to Cummings’ claim that Asian Americans were hurt by Princeton’s preferential admissions policies for legacies, athletes, and historically underrepresented minorities, but in fact all groups falling outside these three categories suffered from reduced chances of admission in what was increasingly a zero-sum game. With roughly one Princeton freshman in six the child of an alumnus, Princeton’s policy of preferential treatment for legacies was especially consequential. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, their admission rate was well over double that of other applicants. In some years, the ratio reached more than 3–1; In 1985, for example, 47.8 percent of alumni children but only 15.5 percent of nonlegacy candidates were admitted.

As with legacies, Princeton’s policy toward athletes was still one of strong preference. In 1979, Wickenden provided a fine-grained description of how the process worked: “Because the admission staff alone cannot determine which of the applicants are likely to make the greatest contribution to the athletic programs of the University, we rely upon the assessments of the various coaches. The Department of Athletics provides names of athletically talented candidates in each sport, with an assessment of each individual’s athletic ability. As in all other cases, the Admission Committee is not bound by these evaluations, but they are referred to frequently as we make fine distinctions among fairly similar candidates.” In 1978, Princeton admitted 422 “well-identified” student athletes, of whom 259 enrolled. This meant that over 22 percent of the freshman class was made up of athletes — a number that dwarfed the 194 legacies who enrolled that year. Though the Ivy League had decided to raise the academic quality of admitted athletes in 1979 and in 1981 had established an Academic Index (consisting of SATs, achievement tests, and a converted rank score) to facilitate comparisons between institutions, the problem persisted. Among the Ivy League colleges, Wickenden reported, Princeton made a “relatively good showing”; nevertheless, as he forthrightly admitted, Princeton was still failing to live up to the most basic tenet of the 1954 Ivy agreement: “the academic credentials of the admitted athletes ... [should be] representative of the class as a whole.”

Illustrations by Serge BlochMinorities were the smallest of the three groups receiving special consideration, but they nevertheless constituted a sizable segment of the freshman class — roughly 13 to 15 percent between 1980 and 1985. As with legacies and athletes, many minority applicants would no doubt have been admitted without any preferential treatment. Yet given its starkly racist past, Princeton felt a special responsibility to guarantee that its student body would be racially diverse. Indeed, the most critical single measure of progress at Princeton — and the best hope for changing its image — was the number of black students it enrolled. In this regard, Princeton fared relatively well; in 1984, for example, 9 percent of all freshmen were black, compared to 8 percent at Harvard and 6 percent at Yale. Princeton also did well in terms of attracting highly qualified black students; in 1985, the combined SAT score for African-American freshmen was 1208, compared to 1240 at Harvard, which historically had a far better reputation among blacks. Nevertheless, the yield rate among African-American admits was on the decline in the mid-1980s. In 1987, just 33 percent of admitted black students chose to enroll at Princeton — a striking contrast to the 64 percent rate among blacks at Harvard.

Long an issue, Princeton’s position vis-à-vis its competitors was becoming an institutional obsession by the mid-1980s. Among the school’s many concerns was its low yield: 55 percent in 1983, compared to 71 percent at Harvard, 61 percent at Stanford, and 58 percent at Yale. Particularly worrisome was its declining status compared with Stanford. In 1985, the annual report of the dean of admission referred to “the extraordinary emergence of Stanford as competition for large numbers of commonly admitted students.” That year’s statistics revealed that Stanford was winning the competition, with 155 students admitted at both institutions choosing to enroll at Stanford, compared to only 102 matriculating at Princeton.

At the same time, Princeton was making modest gains in its competition with its New Haven rival. Though Yale attracted more joint admits than Princeton (135 of 229 in 1985), this ratio was better than the one a few years earlier and was the lowest number of admits lost to Yale at any time in the previous decade. Moreover, Princeton had virtually pulled even with Yale in the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled (163 vs. 167 in 1985) — one of many signs that it had been doing better than in earlier years in attracting top scholars.

By 1987, Cummings reported that “we have considerably narrowed the difference in our competitive position relative to Yale,” but Stanford was enrolling “fully three-fifths of the common admittees.” After four years as dean of admission, Cummings insisted that “it would be difficult to maintain that there are appreciable differences in competitive position among Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.” He concluded: “While Harvard continues to enjoy preeminence, its three principal peer institutions jointly occupy the ‘number two’ position.” But this interpretation was rather questionable, for Princeton continued to lag behind Harvard, Stanford, and Yale in the competition for joint admits and, as of 1987, still had the lowest yield among the four institutions.

It was in this context that Princeton went outside the ranks of its own faculty in selecting a president for the first time since 1868. In a move freighted with symbolism, Princeton selected Harold Shapiro [*64], a Jew and a naturalized immigrant born in Montreal, as its president in April 1987. For a school long considered a citadel of anti-Semitism, the decision to end its uninterrupted line of WASP presidents was a further sign that it was serious about its commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. The symbolism was not lost among Princeton’s Jews. “This shows that Princeton has come a long way,” said the president of Hillel, Arie Katz [’89], who added, “If you would have asked Jewish students at Princeton in the 1960s if they could picture Princeton with a Jewish president, I’m sure they would have said no.”

Shapiro, an economist with a 1956 A.B. from McGill and a 1964 Ph.D. from Princeton, had been a professor of economics at the University of Michigan before assuming its presidency in 1980. There he developed a reputation for handling racial tensions well — an important factor in Princeton’s decision to hire him. Like his predecessor, William Bowen [*58], Shapiro was a respected professional economist and a moderate liberal politically.

When he took office in January 1988, Shapiro inherited one of the nation’s leading universities but one that, despite Cummings’ protestations to the contrary, stood behind Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. The person who had presided over Stanford’s Office of Admission during its meteoric rise was Fred Hargadon. In April 1988, Hargadon was named Princeton’s new dean of admission by Shapiro, then in only his fourth month in office.

The son of a first-generation Irish immigrant with an eighth-grade education, Fred Hargadon was Princeton’s first dean of admission without a Princeton degree. He grew up in a small town just outside Philadelphia where his father worked in an automobile factory, and after high school he worked and was then drafted. Hargadon seemed on a working-class trajectory, but after his stint in the Army he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at nearby Haverford College. Following some graduate work in Russian studies at Harvard and Cornell, he taught political science at Swarthmore, where he moved to the admission office, soon becoming its head. Hargadon might have stayed at Swarthmore permanently, but was recruited in 1969 by Stanford to serve as its dean of admission. He stayed at Stanford for 15 years, leaving in 1984 to become a senior executive at the College Board.

Though hailed by Shapiro as “the best person in admissions in America ... the dean of admission deans,” even Hargadon could not immediately alter Princeton’s competitive position. In fact, during his first year in office, Princeton’s situation actually deteriorated a bit, with the proportion of joint admits choosing Yale over Princeton rising to 61 percent in 1989, up from 54 percent a year earlier. Meanwhile, Old Nassau continued to lag behind Stanford and Harvard, which attracted, respectively, 66 percent and 77 percent of joint admits. While well ahead of such rivals as MIT and Brown, Princeton still was fourth in its appeal to the most sought-after students.

According to Shapiro, an important factor in Hargadon’s selection was his outstanding record in attracting more women and minorities to Stanford. Although convincing more blacks and Hispanics to come to Princeton proved difficult, the number of women increased rapidly. Explicitly rejecting the argument that the prominence of science and engineering accounted for the relatively low number of Princeton women, Hargadon set out to enlarge the pool of female applicants and to ensure that they would receive equal treatment in the admissions process. Between 1988 and 1994, the proportion of female applicants grew from 40 to 44 percent, and their percentage of the freshman class rose from 39 to 44 percent.

Hargadon was struck in his first year by how different Princeton was from Stanford from the viewpoint of an admissions dean. Stanford had roughly 1,600 places to fill, compared to no more than 1,150 at Princeton. At the same time, the pressures to admit students from important constituencies — whether alumni children, athletes, minorities, engineers, or potential scholars — were similar at the two institutions. What this meant in practice was that a high proportion of the class at Princeton was filled with members of politically powerful constituencies even though “unaffiliated candidates” (as Hargadon called them) constituted the largest segment of the applicant pool. As a consequence, admissions at Princeton had a more intensely zero-sum character than at Stanford, and the power of organized constituencies effectively limited the latitude of the dean of admission.

A savvy administrator, Hargadon quickly realized that he would have to enlarge his zone of discretion if he was to place his own imprint on the Princeton student body. One of his first moves was to put more distance between the Office of Admission and the powerful Alumni Schools Committees (ASCs), which interviewed about half of all applicants. Noting that “Stanford didn’t have anything like them,” Hargadon publicly took the position that the ASCs were a great resource — “2,000 people out there to help get a lot of messages out.” Privately, however, he expressed concern about their lack of racial and gender diversity. “It is perhaps inevitable,” he wrote, “that the relationships between such a large volunteer effort and the admission office are frequently characterized by a certain amount of tension.” This tension was exacerbated by his decision to break tradition by not sending out to ASC members “likely” and “unlikely” cards on the candidates interviewed until very late in the process and by a corresponding reduction in the time ASC members and the Admissions Office staff spent on the phone while they were reading applications. Both these changes expanded the autonomy of the Admission Office and were consistent with Hargadon’s view that the ASCs needed greater clarity on “the extent and the limits to the role that they play in admissions.”

Hargadon also increased the discretion of the Admission Office and, in particular, its senior staff, including himself. In one of several reforms of the admissions process, Hargadon changed the system of review for final decisions, requiring that all applicants, after readings by two staff members, have their files forwarded for review by the dean and other senior admissions officers. With a 17-member admissions staff, this reform meant that power was concentrated among the officers with the closest ties to the administration and the most experience. In the end, no one would be admitted or denied without the direct involvement of Hargadon himself or his most trusted lieutenants.

Another important reform was a change in the system of evaluating applicants. While every candidate still received both an academic and a nonacademic rating, Hargadon’s view was that there needed to be a more sharply drawn “line between the evaluation of an applicant’s credentials and the decision whether to offer that applicant admission.” The problem was most acute in the case of those candidates rated as academic “1”s — a group of particular importance to the faculty, who pressured the Admission Office to accept virtually all of them. Hargadon’s solution was to massively expand the category, rendering it effectively impossible to admit all of the candidates receiving the revised academic “1” rating.

Hargadon claimed that the reason for relaxing the standards for an academic “1” was to facilitate efforts “to discern the intellectually inclined among the much larger group of extremely able applicants to be found among the [academic] 2s or 3s,” but it also had the effect of increasing the power of the Admission Office compared to that of the faculty. Under Hargadon’s predecessor, receiving an academic “1” essentially guaranteed admission; in 1988, 98 percent of such candidates had been offered a place in the class, and in 1987, the figure had literally been 100 percent. This had been a crucial concession to the faculty. But what seemed self-evidently reasonable to faculty was, from Hargadon’s point of view, an encroachment on his discretion as dean. Complaining of the faculty’s tendency to place “so much emphasis on the applicant-admit ratio” among academic “1”s, Hargadon did not hesitate to exercise his discretion to turn down some of the most brilliant applicants. In 1989 — when, even under the expanded definition, academic “1”s still constituted the top 6 percent of all applicants — well over a third of these outstanding scholars were rejected.

Hargadon’s reforms did not lead to any significant changes in the number of legacies, athletes, or minorities, but they did have an effect on the composition of the student body. Among the most visible changes was a decline in the number of Jewish students to the lowest level seen since the 1960s. The decline had begun before Hargadon arrived, dropping from a peak of around 20 percent in the late 1970s to about 15 percent in the mid-1980s. Beginning in 1986, the numbers began to fall further, declining to about 13 or 14 percent in the 1986–1988 period, the last three years of the Cummings era. After Hargadon’s arrival, the rate of decline began to accelerate, with the proportion of Jews falling to 12 percent in 1989 and 10 percent in 1990.

By the early 1990s, when the trend became visible, concerned faculty organized a meeting with Dean Hargadon. Hargadon said that he firmly opposed discrimination against any group and did not even know the religion of applicants to Princeton. But the critical question, as a number of faculty pointed out, concerned not his intentions (which they presumed to be good) but whether the policies he pursued had the unintended effect of reducing the number of Jewish students. In offering his own explanation for the downturn, Hargadon noted that the proportion of Jews among all college applicants had declined, dropping to 2 percent, according to data from the American Council on Education and Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA. But this could not explain why Princeton’s closest rivals enrolled so many more Jews — 29 percent at Yale and 21 percent at Harvard, according to statistics provided by Hillel. Nor did Princeton’s small-town setting provide a compelling explanation; after all, Amherst College, an important competitor, was also in a small town, but its Jewish enrollment was 16 percent.

It is possible that the drop in Jewish enrollment may simply have reflected Princeton’s declining attractiveness among Jewish students rather than any change in admissions policy. According to Edward Feld, Princeton’s campus rabbi from 1973 to 1992, there was a “shift in the student mood back to the older Princeton” in the 1980s — a shift symbolized by “the reinvigoration of the clubs [which] brought back a sort of older style at Princeton which was more conservative, more elitist.” This resurgence was particularly unwelcome to many women, especially those with feminist sensibilities, and may explain why in the 1990s 12 percent of the men were Jewish while the figure for women was only about 8 percent. In the 1970s, the nadir of the eating clubs’ influence and membership, 16 percent of men but 18 percent of women were Jewish.

Yet the most powerful force responsible for the declining percentage of Jews at Princeton was, in all likelihood, subtle but consequential changes in admissions criteria. Among the faculty, there was a widespread perception that Hargadon placed greater emphasis on a number of factors — athletic ability, geographic diversity, and increased recruitment at suburban high schools — that had the effect, albeit not the intent, of reducing the number of Jews. According to The Daily Princetonian, a number of professors believed that the decline in the number of Jews was “inevitably linked to . . . an overall decline in the intellectual quality of the student body” — a perception reinforced by Hargadon’s willingness to reject a much higher proportion of academic “1”s than his predecessor.

Overall, the admissions policy under Hargadon placed slightly less emphasis on purely academic qualifications and a bit more on nonacademic factors — a formula that harmed groups whose primary strengths were intellectual. Jews were not the only group affected. Asian Americans also presented profiles whose strongest component was a high level of scholastic accomplishment. Hargadon recognized this; in a Princeton Alumni Weekly interview, he acknowledged that many Asian-American families encouraged their children to concentrate on academics and that Princeton’s emphasis on “energy level outside the class, or taking part in activities ... has turned out for many Asian-American students to be a handicap.” Not surprisingly, the gap in the admission rates for Asian Americans and whites grew during Hargadon’s tenure; 86 percent of the admission rate of whites in the half-decade before his arrival, the Asian-American rate dropped to 70 percent during his first five years in office.

Not particularly popular with the faculty, Hargadon remained focused on Princeton’s competitive position. But six years into his term, Princeton remained well behind Harvard and Stanford (though gaining on Yale). In 1994, it was still losing more than 43 percent of its admits — 885 students — to other institutions. And as had long been the case, most of these students enrolled at one of Princeton’s three main rivals: Harvard (274), Stanford (126), or Yale (91).

Since the 1970s, Princeton — like Harvard and Yale — had offered applicants the “early action” option. This system did not work well for Princeton, however, where 142 of the early action admits matriculated at another institution in 1994. Recognizing this, Hargadon announced in early 1995 that Princeton was replacing its early action program with an early decision program of the type offered by less prestigious competitors. For Princeton, which was already filling nearly half the freshman class with early action admissions, the move to early decision was a sure-fire way to increase its yield, which lagged 18 points behind Harvard (57 vs. 75 percent in 1994).

The benefits of early decision to Princeton were immediately visible: The yield, which stood at 57 percent from 1992 through 1994 and 60 percent in 1995, soared to 66 percent in 1996. Almost half of all freshmen — 556 students — were admitted under early decision, and every single one of them enrolled. Meanwhile, the number of students lost to Princeton’s main rivals plummeted by over 30 percent, from 414 in 1995 to 286 in 1996.

The move to early decision served the institutional interests of Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, for it increased their yields and stabilized their “market share” of top students by limiting the competition. But it did not serve the interests of students, who could not compare financial packages from different institutions. There was, moreover, a growing perception that colleges favored early decision applicants over regular candidates for admission — a concern powerfully reinforced by the same 2001 study of 14 highly selective colleges that had turned Yale’s president, Richard Levin, against early decision. The study’s conclusion, which was reported in The New York Times, was that applying early was worth the equivalent of an extra 100 SAT points in increasing the likelihood of gaining admission. If any students were well served by the growth of early decision programs, they were the economically and culturally privileged candidates from the best private and public schools — a powerful irony for universities publicly committed to the ideals of inclusion and “diversity.”

Like most other universities with early decision programs — Cornell and Penn being notable exceptions — Princeton has generally maintained that it gives no preference to early decision candidates. Until recently, it was impossible to assess this claim definitively, though the fact that early decision candidates were admitted to Princeton at a rate three to four times higher than other applicants aroused suspicion. The final version of the Harvard study of early admissions (published as The Early Admissions Game) confirmed these suspicions. Reporting results on early versus regular applicants in 1999–2000 at some of the nation’s most selective universities, including Harvard, the study found that the sheer fact of applying early conferred a substantial advantage at all of them save MIT, where the benefit was modest. But at Princeton the advantage — well over 100 points — was particularly large. For a hypothetical Princeton early decision applicant who was average in terms of activities and type of high school attended, the increase in admission rate conferred by applying early was the highest of any of the institutions studied: 68 vs. 10 percent. At Harvard and Yale, in contrast, the gap was much smaller: 29 vs. 11 percent at Harvard (early action) and 44 vs. 18 percent at Yale (early decision).

Princeton’s choice to fill almost half its class through early decision applicants may have been unfair to regular candidates, but it boosted Old Nassau’s competitive position. By 2000, Princeton’s yield rate had risen to 69 percent (three points higher than Yale’s), and the number of students lost to Yale had dropped to 56. Perhaps because it had benefited so greatly from its extensive use of early decision, Princeton was more deeply committed to the policy than its New Haven counterpart.

In December 2001, the different postures of Yale and Princeton became publicly visible when Yale’s Richard Levin suggested that perhaps early decision “doesn’t benefit students at all” and declared, “If we got rid of it, it would be a good thing.” The split between the two ancient rivals escalated in late 2002 when Yale announced that it was ending its early decision program and reverting to an early action program, which involved no binding commitments. Stanford — which had been considering such a move — announced within hours that it would do the same. Since Harvard had never abandoned early action for early decision, Princeton was now the odd man out. But far from joining its closest competitors in a de-escalation of the admissions race, Princeton’s President Shirley Tilghman — the first woman to head a member of the Big Three — insisted that Yale’s decision would have no bearing on Princeton’s policy. Old Nassau was not about to reverse a policy — even one that was in direct conflict with its professed commitment to equality of opportunity — that had improved its relative position.

A similarly hardball stance characterized Princeton’s position on the delicate matter of using financial incentives in the competition for students. Beginning in 1958, the Ivy League colleges and MIT had met annually to share financial aid data to adjust offers to commonly admitted applicants so that financial considerations would play as small a role as possible in a student’s choice. But in May 1991, the Justice Department formally charged what had come to be called the “Overlap Group” with a violation of antitrust laws prohibiting “collusion.” In response, the Ivy League institutions signed a consent agreement that ended the case against them but compelled them to stop holding the annual “Overlap Group” meetings.

At the time, many Ivy League colleges, including wealthy ones such as Yale, were struggling to maintain their policy of need-blind, full-aid admissions. But within a few years, the economic boom of the 1990s had sent their endowments soaring. All private universities benefited from this enormous accumulation of wealth, but none more than Princeton. 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 — an astonishing increase in a single decade. Yale, Harvard, and Stanford had also gained from this windfall, but Princeton was by far the richest of the three, given its much smaller size. The figures for endowment per student in 2000 offer a sense of Princeton’s extraordinary wealth: $1.321 million, vs. $1.049 million at Harvard, $0.915 million at Yale, and $0.651 million at Stanford.

Princeton did not hesitate to take advantage of its edge. Already a need-blind, full-aid institution, it announced in February 2001 that it would offer enhanced financial aid packages to make a Princeton education more “affordable.” The keystone of the new program was to eliminate all loans from financial aid packages — a symbolically powerful but relatively inexpensive way to make its offers more attractive. In fact, loans had constituted only 8 percent of Princeton’s $10 million budget for freshman financial aid in 2000 — a minuscule sum for an institution that could collect well over $300 million annually on its endowment at an interest rate of just 4 percent. Students’ families — half of whom received no scholarship assistance whatsoever — still paid the great bulk of the total expenses for room, board, and tuition: 71 percent in 2001. This was down from 77 percent in 1997 (the last year before Princeton began to improve its financial aid offers), but it was not nearly as dramatic a change as the public fanfare that accompanied Princeton’s announcement suggested.

Though modest, these improvements that Princeton introduced into its aid packages in 2001 achieved the desired impact. Princeton’s yield rate, which had been hovering around 68 percent for several years, rose to 71 percent in 2001 and to 74 percent in 2002. This was the highest yield that Old Nassau had seen in more than 50 years, and it placed just behind Harvard at 79 percent in 2002. At the same time, the number of admits choosing to enroll at Princeton’s closest competitors dropped to the lowest levels in memory. In 2002, Princeton lost only 142 admits to Harvard, 51 to Stanford, and just 39 to Yale — a combined decline of more than 40 percent from 1995, the last year before the adoption of early decision. The most visible symbol of the success of the new policy was that Princeton vaulted in 2001 to the number-one position in the U.S. News annual rankings and remained there in 2002 and 2003.

To be sure, the top U.S. News ranking did not mean that Princeton had passed Harvard in the competition for the nation’s top students. But it did mean that it had narrowed the gap with Harvard and that it had in some ways pulled ahead of Yale, if not Stanford. Yet it had done so in good part by deploying its tremendous financial resources, in the process violating a well-established norm among elite private universities that “buying” students constituted a serious impropriety. Nevertheless, Princeton was in no mood to abandon the very policies that had advanced its relative standing.

In response, Yale and Stanford — both of them well endowed but neither quite as wealthy as Princeton — tried to reassert the traditional norm. In a statement signed by 26 other leading private colleges and universities, Yale and Stanford reaffirmed their commitment to need-blind admissions and to ensuring that low-income students could attend their institutions. They also explicitly denounced the growing trend toward merit-based rather than need-based aid and the related trend of using financial means to compete for the most desirable students. The signatories read like a Who’s Who of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, including not only Yale and Stanford but also Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Swarthmore, Rice, Northwestern, Williams, Chicago, and Amherst. Conspicuously absent, however, were the nation’s two wealthiest universities, Princeton and Harvard. Able to make offers that their competitors could not match, they were not going to be bound by musty notions of gentlemanly behavior. Had Yale and Stanford possessed the same resources, there is little reason to believe that they would not have done the same.

By century’s end, an intense preoccupation with competitive position had become, more than ever, a driving force in admissions policy at all four institutions. But at Princeton, the issue had become a genuine obsession. So it was perhaps not entirely coincidental that, in April 2002, an associate dean of admissions at Old Nassau was caught breaking into Yale’s confidential on-line admission system. Claiming that he had entered the site only to assess the security of such systems, his real purpose seems to have been to snoop on several Yale applicants who had also applied to Princeton — one of whom was a Houston high school senior named Lauren Bush, a niece of President Bush.

In its account of the incident, The Wall Street Journal noted that “Yale and Princeton in particular have been intensely competitive in recent years, lobbing financial aid changes back and forth in a contest in which Princeton is widely considered to be more aggressive, even as it has become more generous.” Not long before a magnet for the languid gentlemen so brilliantly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald [’17], even Princeton had now become an institution on the make. end of article


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Princeton admissions and "The Chosen"
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