Early admissions dropped
Less than a week after rival Harvard shocked the world of elite college admissions by dropping early admission, Princeton announced yesterday that it would follow suit, abandoning its own program beginning next year.
Though a decision on whether the University would scrap its Early Decision program had been expected in the coming weeks, President Tilghman's announcement — met by strong applause when it was made yesterday at a faculty meeting — came sooner than expected.
"I think it will make the admissions process far more fair and equitable," Tilghman, once an ardent defender of Early Decision, said in an interview after the meeting. "Early Decision was advantaging those who were already advantaged." Princeton's decision effectively demonstrates that, as far as University administrators are concerned, the decades-old balance between competitiveness and fairness in the admissions process has shifted, and that officials have sufficient confidence to risk impressive admissions figures for the sake of leveling the playing field.
"It was a decision made with recognition that selectivity ratios and yield percentages may change, but that the underlying moral obligation to equalize the admissions process is more important," said Young Alumni Trustee Matt Margolin '05, who, like other members of the board, was briefed on the decision over the weekend.
"It was invigorating to see the president and dean of admissions put the equalization of admissions ahead of something like the U.S. News & World Report ranking," he said.
Early admission programs have historically been criticized for disadvantaging minority applicants and students from low-income backgrounds. Critics have argued that such applicants are less likely to be aware of the opportunity to apply early — which often yields a better chance at admission — and that if admitted, poorer applicants don't have the opportunity to compare financial aid packages before committing to one school.
Unlike Harvard's program, which allowed students to apply to other schools after being accepted early, Princeton's Early Decision program required accepted students to matriculate after being accepted. Starting with the Class of 2012, however, all applicants to the University will be evaluated together in the regular decision pool.
'It takes courage'
Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye herself acknowledged the possibility that the move may hurt Princeton's No. 1 ranking in the much-hyped U.S. News & World Report annual survey of the best colleges, where Princeton has won the top spot for seven straight years.
"We may need to tolerate how outside organizations choose to judge us," including possibly "not being number one," Rapelye said in an interview after the announcement, nodding to the possibility that potential applicants could be lost to other colleges which choose to maintain their early admission programs.
But, Rapelye added, signaling her confidence in the ability of Princeton to take a risk by abandoning Early Decision, "we're in a position of strength, and it takes courage, but it's the right thing to do."
The University's yield — the percentage of admitted students who choose to matriculate — is likely to be the metric most significantly affected by the move to a single admission program. Since early admits are locked into attending Princeton and make up about half of each class, their high yield gives Princeton's overall figure a boost.
Princeton's yield has traditionally hovered in the high 60s, while, at roughly 80 percent, Harvard boasts the highest yield in the nation among elite colleges, a fact that has added to the school's prestige.
Rapelye, however, said that despite the change, her office will continue to have a deep pool from which to draw talented students who will choose to attend Princeton. "Out of the 17,000 students that apply, 7,000 have 700s on their SATs and A averages," she said.
Rapelye also said that the University's admissions strategy is likely to change, with her office employing a waitlist for the first time in years. "One strategy we might use is to be quite conservative with admits and then admit several hundred students from the waitlist."
Applause from all quarters
The University's decision was met with praise from high school guidance counselors and college admissions experts, who said it was a bold move that will benefit applicants.
"Princeton's decision was incredibly important because someone has to be the second mover," said Christopher Avery, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite."
Avery added that Princeton's choice "solidifies Harvard's position," making it more likely that Harvard won't backtrack on its commitment to a regular decision-only pool. "If Princeton had not made this decision, Harvard might have had to go back if no one else followed," he said.
Jerome Karabel, author of "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," agreed that the decision showed courage on Princeton's part.
"It's a true act of educational statesmanship because it is not without risk," Karabel said in an email. "It fits well with Princeton's growing emphasis on social inclusion. It's the right thing to do."
Sharon Cueso, college counselor at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Calif., said she was "totally supportive" of the decision and thought it was done "for the right reasons."
"I was glad to see it happen so quickly," she said. "I respect them for not just testing the waters."
Most faculty members also expressed support for the decision, arguing that the benefits outweigh the risks. "I doubt that it will affect the kind of people who apply," newly-appointed Dean of Engineering Vincent Poor said. "I think that the people who apply early will still apply."
Some faculty members, however, said they held minor reservations.
"If some kids can't get it together to apply early, I'm not sure they should be going to Princeton," Slavic Languages and Literatures professor Leonard Babby said. "It's not necessarily a good thing."
A decision is made
Nassau Hall officials said the decision to abandon Early Decision has quietly been in the works for a number of years.
"We began discussing Early Decision in the first set of meetings with Janet Rapelye and [Dean of the College] Nancy Malkiel," Tilghman said. "We discussed whether binding Early Decision serves the best interests of students and the University, and whether it attracts the very best class."
There were also concerns about minority students and those from low-income homes. "The decision allows the process to be more fair, by addressing every application at the same time," Rapelye said. "Minority students and financial aid applicants are not well represented in the early pool, and we need to reach out to them."
Tilghman added that administrators did not want to make the decision early in Rapelye's career at Princeton, and had "essentially been biding [its] time."
Once Harvard eliminated early admissions, however, the decision became feasible. "The fact that Harvard announced last week enabled us to do it. It would have been a different move to make unilaterally," Malkiel said in an interview.
Now that both Harvard and Princeton have abandoned early admissions, many wonder whether other universities will follow suit.
Yale President Richard Levin has said that his school will defer any decision on its admissions policy until after Harvard's move takes effect, according to a story in yesterday's Yale Daily News, which ran before the Princeton announcement was made.
Officials at Brown and MIT said they have no plans to change their policy, while officials at Stanford said they're open to change.
Avery, the professor at Harvard, suggested two potential scenarios that might result from the University's decision. If other elite universities also eliminate early admission programs, "it would make the process much simpler for students" — and ultimately reward schools like Harvard and Princeton.
But if the dust settles with only Princeton and Harvard eliminating their programs, "students who feel under the most pressure might choose schools with early decision programs rather than Harvard or Princeton," leaving administrators in Cambridge and Princeton regretting — and possibly reconsidering — their decisions.
Though Karabel said he was not sure how other top colleges would react, he noted they would experience "greater pressure" to make a decision.
Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter '80, who was in attendance at the faculty meeting, agreed, saying that other top institutions "have known about the effects of Early Decision, but didn't want to go first. Our move is every bit as important in terms of other schools following suit."
Rapelye acknowledged, however, that schools considering a shift away from early admissions may face greater challenges than those that face Harvard and Princeton.
"There is a possibility other schools may choose to follow, but others may not have the same applicant pool, admissions staff or endowments for financial aid," she said. "I hope that those who can, think about their admissions program."
Cueso, the guidance counselor, said that for students' sake, she hoped more colleges would follow suit. A college admissions world free of early admission would "push discussions later in the year, and that would be great," she said. "I'd love for more students to experience their senior years."
Princetonian senior writer Katherine Hamilton contributed reporting to this article.
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