Spring at Princeton brings many things: blossoming trees, scrambling seniors and waves of prefrosh, to name a few. It also brings the same series of news articles in The Daily Princetonian and collegiate news sources across the country: What were this year’s acceptance rates?
In truth, the Ivy League administrations, students and alumni bear these low percentages as badges of distinction, marks of quality for their university. There’s a kind of competition about it: Who will have the lowest rates this year? Lower acceptances rates are generally something celebrated by those currently residing in the confines of the Orange Bubble.
But think about what we’re actually celebrating. Admission is a zero-sum game. When you have an acceptance rate of 7 percent, you’ve rejected 93 percent of your applicants. Although we admitted 1,931 students for the Class of 2017, we rejected over 24,000 hopefuls. For many of these students, a significant portion of the past four years of their lives, and potentially many years before that, has been dedicated to the quest for admission. The rejection letters that they receive are the ends of that quest and something that I feel ought not be taken lightly.
So as far as I can tell, a good part of the admission process is fairly subjective. With so many highly qualified high school students seeking a Princeton education, many more than the roughly 1,300 students that constitute an incoming class would have been absolutely fine at Princeton. Just because we managed to earn a place at this University doesn’t actually mean that we deserved it any more than some of those who were rejected. Before we start gloating over ever-falling numbers, we should note that we each could have very well been on the other side of that statistic.
What really got me thinking about this issue is the glaring double standard that the administration seems to imply in its pursuit of lower acceptance rates. On one hand, the University’s administration is up in arms trying to reduce the prevalence of exclusive groups on campus, whether they be eating clubs, Greek organizations or extracurriculars. On the other hand, the administration takes pride in making Princeton as exclusive an institution as possible. How can you celebrate exclusivity in one form while seeking its annulment in another? The administration and students alike cannot decry exclusivity in extracurriculars and the eating clubs while simultaneously lauding our low acceptance rates without being hypocrites themselves.
What makes this double standard all the more jarring are the stakes in the different scenarios. If you aren’t accepted into an eating club or don’t make the cut for an a cappella group, it could have a large impact on the development of your social life over the next couple of years, but not much more than that. I’ve spoken with alumni who come back for their fifth, 10th and 20th Reunions who confirm that any social distinctions that seemed so important during their undergrad years have faded into the stream of time.
In stark contrast, if you are rejected from the University, it can have a profound impact on the path your life will take. I don’t claim that a Princeton student’s life will be any better or worse than a non-Princetonian’s; I am simply stating that the experiences had at Princeton and doors opened by Princeton could result in a dramatically different life than what might have been. In rejecting students, the University is irrevocably changing their lives.
The administration spends great time and energy evaluating how it can reduce the sting of exclusivity on campus while ignoring and even lauding the exclusivity willfully maintained through the admission process. It behooves us all, I believe, to think about the consequences of our exclusivity and not be so gleeful about our numbers.
I am not arguing that Princeton should not attempt to lower its acceptance rates. I recognize that an enormous part of a University’s reputation and prestige is related to how many people it turns away and that Princeton has an image and a ranking to maintain. Moreover, I understand that Princeton’s resources are finite and that it can only support a specific number of students. What I am arguing for is that we take a moment to reflect on the other, darker side of admission statistics and those who will not be able to pursue their collegiate dreams in quite the same way as we can. Maybe then we won’t be so hasty to chalk them off as a virtue.
Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.