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February 15, 2006:

‘Just plain wrong’
Former admission dean Fred Hargadon responds to ‘Chosen’ author Jerome Karabel

By Fred Hargadon

Shortly before the planned publication in PAW of an excerpt from Jerome Karabel’s book, The Chosen, the editor, Marilyn Marks, forwarded me a copy of the excerpt and invited any comments I might wish to make. Below are my comments.

While I certainly do not want to appear to be taking issue with the main core of Mr. Karabel’s book, a sociological history of discrimination at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the first half of the last century, I find the analysis he presents of contemporary admissions practices and policies at Princeton in this particular section to be so far off the mark and so dependent upon a mix of selectively chosen data and second-hand observations masquerading as scholarly research as to lead me to question the purpose of much of it having been included in his book.

This particular excerpt seems to me only somewhat tangentially related to a history of the discrimination once faced by Jews when applying for admission to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, discrimination I am glad to say was history by the time I became involved in admissions in 1964 (at Swarthmore College). After discussing the fact that Princeton’s entering freshman classes have a much lower percentage of Jewish students than do the freshman classes at Harvard and Yale and a lower percentage in the 1990s than in the mid-1980s, the author then takes it upon himself to opine on everything from how we at Princeton assign academic ratings to applicants, to our having an Early Decision program, to the University’s doing away with compulsory loans and replacing them with grant aid, and then he proceeds to suggest ulterior motives for just about everything we have done. Mr. Karabel’s suggested motives are just plain wrong.

The question of why a smaller number of entering freshmen at Princeton indicate their religious preference to be Jewish than is the case at Harvard and Yale is one we have looked at periodically beginning back in June 1992, when I made a detailed report on the subject to President Harold Shapiro, Provost Hugo Sonnenschein, and Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel. The expressed concern has not been that the percentage of Jewish students entering Princeton has been lower than either the percentage entering all colleges or the percentage entering private universities in the same year (the average respective percentages for Princeton during my 15 years as dean were 10.5 for Princeton, 1.9 nationally, and 6.3 for private universities), but rather that the percentage at Princeton lags behind the percentages reported by Harvard or Yale. (NB: Our data come from an annual survey of freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Since neither Harvard nor Yale participate in that survey and their data come from their respective Hillel organizations, the data are not precisely comparable.)

Unfortunately, the critical information in placing Princeton’s data in context (or, for that matter, Harvard’s and Yale’s) is simply not there. We have no idea how many of our applicants in any given year are Jewish nor any idea of how many of those to whom we have offered admission are Jewish. Not having that information of course makes it a field day for anyone inclined to look for some sort of bias, intended or not. No one who has spent as many years in selective admissions as I have is unaware of how often those disappointed by our admission decisions are inclined to rationalize that disappointment by claiming a bias on the part of the admission office with regard to sex, race, religion, socioeconomic status, geographical location, or even with regard to height and weight, this latter being information which, like religious preference, we neither inquire about nor take into consideration.

Alas, there appears to be an underlying assumption on the part of Mr. Karabel that there is a “right” percentage of an entering class that should be represented by Jewish students. In my memo of June 1992, referred to above, I posed the following question: “If one were to ask what, ideally, the University would prefer that those various percentages [referring to all religious preferences] be, what would be the response and on what basis would it be derived? And by what means would we attempt to achieve them?” That question is as relevant now as it was when I posed it in back in 1992.

It can’t be said often enough that the mix of a particular freshman class at Princeton, along any number of dimensions, ultimately reflects in some measure the makeup of the applicant pool in a given year and the individual decisions made by those to whom we offer admission that year (and it’s a completely different set of individuals from one year to the next!).

While it’s tempting to consider what effect, if any, changes in male/female ratio, or the percentages of freshman classes comprised of minority students and international students, may have had on the percentage of Jewish students enrolled, caution is advised. While it’s the case that during my 15 years at Princeton the percentage of females in a freshman class grew to 48 percent, the percentage of U.S. minority students grew to 28 percent, and the percentage of international students grew to almost 9 percent (not counting those international students who happened to hold dual citizenship), it’s also the case that during that same 15 years the percentage of Jewish students bounced around from year to year, going up and down in a range anywhere between 9 percent to 13 percent.

Nor do I have any idea what Mr. Karabel has in mind by suggesting that admission officers visiting more suburban schools may have negatively impacted the percentage of Jewish students enrolled. In the first place, I am not even sure that we did increase the number of suburban schools visited. I do know that we decreased the number of individual school visits and increased the number of evening sessions we held in cities across the country, inviting students, parents, and counselors from every school within commuting distance to such programs. Nor, in any event, am I aware that Jewish students aren’t to be found in suburban high schools across the country.

As for “geographic diversity,” we at Princeton cared more about the state of mind of individual applicants than the state they happened to reside in when applying. It is the case that the applicant pool at Princeton, like the applicant pools at all similar institutions, has become increasingly nationalized (even increasingly internationalized) over the past couple of decades.

One significant change I did make during my tenure at Princeton was to have the staff read applications, not by school and not by region, but randomly across the entire country. I believed it decreased the likelihood of our unconsciously favoring applicants from those schools we were most familiar with and/or had “done the most business with” over the years, and further, that by not reading applicants from the same school together, we’d be less likely to unconsciously limit the number accepted at any one school, or, on the other hand, unconsciously feel reluctant to not admit anyone from a given school in a given year. Finally, it gave every staff member an opportunity to obtain a better sense of just how many terrific students there are in places small and large across the country. In other words, we tried our best to focus on the individual applicants (which is what we promised to do when they applied) rather than on particular schools or particular geographical locations.

I don’t happen to think there is only one way to conduct a successful admissions process. In some sense, as they used to say about politics, all admissions is local. Given the set of objectives and goals of each of the three institutions I served and given the set of resources available, I did my best to run as fair and effective an admissions process as I could. Was our process the perfect or ideal one? I don’t know for sure. But it was the best approximation I could come up with given the nature of the task, the number of interested constituencies involved competing for the same number of finite spaces, and the sometimes seemingly mutually exclusive goals we were asked to achieve. As I look back on my experience, I think that what I was engaged in was what the economist Herbert Simon called “satisficing”; that is, attempting to find the best approximate solution to achieving a variety of sometimes competing goals rather than putting all of our efforts into optimizing any one of them.

When it comes to Mr. Karabel’s characterizing our admissions and financial aid policies as if they had no basis other than to compete with Harvard and Yale, all I can say is bull!

I think he reveals more about his mindset than about mine. Neither in the hundreds of talks I have given over the years, nor in anything I’ve written, have I ever referred to the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the three colleges I’ve represented or ever implied invidious distinctions between one college and another. Nor have I ever permitted my staff to do so. On the contrary, after remarking on aspects of, say, Princeton, about which I think students and their parents should be familiar (e.g., its size, its location, its JP and senior thesis requirements, its residential setup, and the like), I remind them that I am not in any way attempting to make Princeton seem better or worse than other colleges they will be considering, but rather just different in some ways. I even go so far as to name five or six Princeton faculty members who have been honored in one way or another (Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and the like) and then name the institutions where they received their undergraduate educations, none of them Ivies or Stanford, and a few of them colleges some may not have heard of.

Similarly, the tone I struck and the advice I offered in my “Letter to Prospective Applicants” was not centered on Princeton but rather was based on my trying to put myself in their shoes. That my “Letter,” last sent to prospective applicants for admission to Princeton’s Class of ’07, has continued to be reproduced for distribution by high school counselors far and wide to juniors and seniors for general advice is surely testimony to my not “marketing” one particular institution.

In short, I have never made decisions or adopted policies or processes with an eye to winning some sort of “game” with Harvard or Yale or any other college. I simply don’t believe that the Ivies or Stanford corner the market on bright and talented students. My own sense is that each of us enrolls our fair share of such students, and I doubt that there’s an experienced admissions officer at any of the Ivies who isn’t aware that thousands of students who are every bit as bright and talented as any we enroll quite happily attend hundreds of other terrific colleges that were their first choices.

My sense is that it’s only trivia nuts and obsessed spin doctors who get a kick out of keeping score on how many applicants who have received offers of admission from more than one college opt to enroll at this or that one. If colleges like HYP really mean it when they say in their press releases each year that they could have admitted one or two or three equally good classes from their applicant pools, who gives a damn about keeping “box scores” of what number of applicants with multiple offers of admissions opted for this or that college? I, for one, never have. Indeed, I have said on many occasions that I think it is the saving grace of U.S. higher education that we don’t all agree on the same one or two thousand to admit each year.

Any disappointment I have when an applicant decides not to enroll, whether it’s at Harvard or Yale or at a college I’m not familiar with, quickly passes as I realize how pleased I am by every applicant who does accept our offer of admission. As difficult as Mr. Karabel may find it to believe, especially since he’s never sat in my chair and has no inkling of what has gone through my mind, it really is that simple. In truth, when all the dust has settled on a given year’s admissions process in early May, the cloud hanging over my head at that point each year was realizing how much disappointment we’d caused for so many great kids we had to turn away.

Having spent a year at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, having served a six-year term as a member of its Visiting Committee to the College and Graduate School of Arts and Science, being a staff member of its Summer Institute on College Admissions for over 30 years now, and given my admiration for my colleagues in admissions there, I obviously hold Harvard in great respect. But I by no means consider it the only excellent university or college in the country, nor do I consider the education it offers or its freshman profile or its admissions process the litmus test by which all other colleges and universities should measure themselves. In this regard, I am clearly a fan of the “let a hundred flowers bloom” school of thought.

I feel the same way about Haverford College, where I gained a great education; and Swarthmore College, where I taught and was also dean of admission; and Stanford; and Princeton. These are all great institutions as are dozens and dozens of others across the country, based on all of the people I have met who have graduated from any number of colleges whose names don’t appear in the media as often as HYP or Stanford. Years ago I even started keeping a list on my computer of recent graduates I’d met from other colleges, some of them large public institutions, some of them small independent colleges I hadn’t heard of before, under the heading, “People we would have been lucky to enroll as undergraduates had they applied.”

As far as Early Decision vs. Early Action admissions programs are concerned, my suggesting that Princeton should change from the latter to the former had absolutely nothing to do with “competition” with other schools, improving yield, attempting to appear more selective, or any other ulterior motive attributed by Mr. Karabel, albeit his imaginings are very similar to the opinions of other critics that have appeared in the media from time to time over the years. No, I had simply reached the conclusion that Early Action didn’t make sense to me for Princeton.

For my first 20 years as an admissions dean (five at Swarthmore and 15 at Stanford), we had no early admission program of any kind. In fact, the only time I was aware of such programs in the Ivies would be when a Stanford applicant who had received a positive early nod from one or another Ivy would send a letter to that effect for inclusion in his or her Stanford application, presumably in an effort to impress us and maybe improve his or her chances for admission to Stanford. Of course, when I arrived at Princeton, an Early Action program was already in place. Well, after a few years of stopping everything on Nov. 1 to devote all of our time to reading and evaluating and making decisions on early applicants in time to let them know of our decisions the first week in December, I questioned the rationale for such a program. I asked myself why the admissions staff should drop everything on Nov. 1 to read and evaluate and make decisions on one group of applicants, so that they could be notified of our decisions a mere five weeks after the deadline for submitting their applications, those being offered admission then being given four and a half months to let us know whether they’d be enrolling or not, while the bulk of our applicants would not learn of our decisions until at least three months after the deadline for submitting their applications, those of that group being offered admissions then given about three weeks in which to let us know whether they’d be enrolling or not.

In sum, I argued that if we were to have an early admission program, an Early Decision program, involving a quid pro quo of some sort, was far more defensible. It would not only curb the increasingly evident growth trend of Early Action applications (why wouldn’t a program that enabled an applicant to have his/her cake and eat it too become more and more popular?), but by limiting applications to those committed to enrolling if offered admission, it would significantly increase the likelihood that those who sought an early decision had done their college search homework and had reached the conclusion that Princeton is the college they’d most want to attend if offered admission. I have not changed my mind on this question.

I also suggested some additional positive effects of an Early Decision program. One would be that of reducing the multiple application pipeline, since those admitted ED would be withdrawing any applications they may have already submitted to other colleges and/or not submitting any other applications at all. In other words, if we admitted 500 students ED, that would reduce the multiple application pipeline by anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 applications, assuming applicants at that time were filing, on average, anywhere from four to six applications (an average that has jumped considerably in recent years, in part because of how easy it’s become to apply to a larger number of colleges by using the Common Application). And if one further added the number of ED admits of the group of similar colleges with such programs, the number of applications by which the multiple application pipeline would be reduced would not be insignificant. I also suggested that it was even likely that a school like Princeton having an ED program might make life better for those colleges who frequently were spending a lot of staff time and effort dealing with applicants who were treating them as a backup in the event they did not gain admission to, in this case, Princeton.

I also suggested that with the increased pressure on admission offices to come up with a freshman class marked by increased diversity, the profile of our ED admits would at least give us something to build upon. I have no doubt that ED made a contribution to our enrolling successively more diverse freshman classes.

The fact that Yale requested, and I sent them, a copy of my position paper on this issue before they, too, decided to move from EA to ED at the same time, should have made it obvious to Mr. Karabel that I was not even remotely proposing ED as a means of competing with Harvard and Yale. Nor was I persuaded by the various criticisms leveled at ED, not all of them completely disinterested. For instance, I have seen no evidence that EA applicant groups or EA admit groups are significantly more heterogeneous than ED applicant or admit groups. And if I’m not mistaken, some EA schools fill the same percentage of freshman class slots with those admitted early as Princeton does with those admitted ED.

In Princeton’s experience, at least, there has been no significant difference in the academic credentials of those admitted ED and those admitted regular decision (RD). For the eight years we had ED classes while I was dean at Princeton (the Classes of ’00 through ’07), the mean SAT scores for ED and RD admits were identical for five of those years. In one year, the mean math SAT score was 10 points higher for the ED admits, and in two years, the mean verbal SAT score was 10 points lower for ED admits. So much for the mythical “100-point” ED advantage that Mr. Karabel proposes as fact.

And, finally, I would like to address the contention that students admitted ED may lose bargaining power for financial aid they might otherwise have in the event of receiving multiple offers of admission. That is worth considering, although I confess I don’t think that concern is particularly relevant to Princeton, given Princeton’s financial aid program. Moreover, for years now, the Princeton financial aid office has made it possible for students, whether they’ve applied or not, to use Princeton’s Financial Aid Estimator online, whereby students and their families can fill in a financial aid form anonymously and receive an estimate of how much financial aid they’d likely be eligible to receive at Princeton. In fact, many other colleges have referred students to Princeton’s online form for the purpose of estimating how much financial aid they’d be eligible for and comparing it with the overall costs at those colleges. But if a student intends to use multiple offers of admission to bargain for more financial aid, my advice is for that student not to apply ED.

As for my changing the range of test scores and grades for assigning an Academic 1 rating, it had nothing to do with increasing the admission office’s discretion when making admission decisions and everything to do with not automatically equating a very narrow range of high test scores as the sole determinant of academic ability and talent, let alone considering such scores, as does Mr. Karabel, as evidence of “brilliance.” (I can see the ads from the multi-million-dollar test prep industry now: “We will make you brilliant.”) The rating system we used, and still use, is the same one I used at Stanford, and I have been at this task of reading and evaluating applications long enough to have some experience with the limits of such ratings in predicting not just academic success in college and graduate or professional school, but also success in any number of fields later in life. If the policy of the University is to automatically admit those students with the highest SAT scores, why have such students complete applications at all? In that respect, the University could adopt the system used in other countries of having the performance on a single exam determine the university one attends. The SAT is not an IQ test and was never meant to be

Finally, with regard to the ulterior motive Mr. Karabel divines behind Princeton’s doing away with loans as a part of financial aid awards and replacing those with grant aid, he is just plain wrong and maligns the good intentions of Princeton. In all my years in academia, I have never seen a less self-interested decision by a board of trustees than the one made by Princeton’s trustees to do away with loans. President Shapiro had been concerned for a long time about the effect of having significant loans to pay off on the career choices graduating seniors felt they had to make each year. And he also believed that the farther down the socioeconomic ladder students’ families are, the greater the burden loans are, thus affecting the decisions such students and their families make about which colleges even to consider. In the trustee discussions I listened to when they made this decision, I never heard a word about making this decision for “competitive” purposes. In my opinion, President Shapiro and the trustees did the right thing for the right reasons, and I couldn’t be prouder of the initiative they took. Perhaps now Mr. Karabel can turn his attention to seeking ulterior motives for the changes in financial aid subsequently made by both Harvard and Yale, although I believe that they, too, did the right thing for the right reasons.

Fred Hargadon was Princeton’s dean of admission from 1988 to 2003.

PAW forum:
Princeton admissions and "The Chosen"

Read an excerpt of "The Chosen"

Alumni letters

Fred Hargadon's response

Send your views to PAW by clicking here.