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Is meritocracy in Princeton admissions really a sham?: A response to Rohit Narayanan ’24

<h5>Morrison Hall, home of the University Office of Admission.</h5>
<h6>Nick Donnoli / Office of Communications</h6>
Morrison Hall, home of the University Office of Admission.
Nick Donnoli / Office of Communications

In a recent column, Rohit Narayanan ’24 argues that “Princeton [should] eliminate its admissions department and form an admissions collective with other private colleges of similar size, expense, and offerings.” For Narayanan, it seems, meritocracy in the college admissions process is a sham. Drawing an analogy between the college admissions process and Princeton’s residential college system, he claims that it is easy to see why the current general admissions process is “absurd,” especially given that elite colleges do not randomly assign students among themselves.

As I understand it, two claims underlie Narayanan’s column: first, the current college admissions process is absurd as demonstrated by his analogy with Princeton’s residential college system. And second, his idea of “admission collectives” would resolve such an absurdity.

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I argue that, unfortunately, Narayanan’s hypothetical system is not analogous. Even if it were, his proposed solution would not address any of the supposed problems with the current admissions process. It would not make the process fairer. Even worse, it would also create plenty of new problems. I accept that the current admissions process is imperfect, but the fact that it doesn’t randomly assign students to elite schools is definitely not among its shortcomings.

To Narayanan’s first claim, differences between most colleges in the United States are deep and real, and are not “largely superficial” as in the case of Princeton’s residential colleges. Students in Princeton’s residential colleges attend the same school. They take the same classes with the same professors, have access to the same majors, live on the same campus, participate in the same extracurricular activities, benefit from the same University resources, and make friends under the same social culture and atmosphere. 

In stark contrast, however, is the difference between universities. Students attending, say, Georgetown University take different classes with different professors, rigor, and curricula than Princeton students. They have access to different majors, live almost two hundred miles away, and have different extracurricular groups. Princeton and Georgetown have a different amount of resources, different financial aid policies, different costs of living, different school cultures, and many more. 

For example, even within the mathematics department alone, Georgetown’s minimum requirements are substantially lesser in depth and complexity than Princeton’s. Granted, Georgetown is not known for mathematics, thereby constituting another substantial difference between Princeton and other elite schools. Indeed, it seems uncontroversial to me that elite universities are distinctive in a number of ways. Whether it be because of academic interest, geographic location, school culture, financial aid, or anything else, the differences between schools are nowhere near “superficial.”

Therefore, Narayanan’s purported analogy — the core of his argument — is not true. 

Taking a further look, Narayanan’s motivation for arriving at his argument seems to be the stress college applications induce on students and their parents. “Are the differences between Princeton and Georgetown and Washington University at St. Louis important enough to justify the same [stressful] system?” he asks readers.

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If we were to assume the differences between Princeton and Harvard, for example, are superficial — although I doubt that they are — would parents, teachers, employers, and the public in general create the “years of stress” that college admissions in general do? Would any parent be disappointed if their children got into Harvard but not Princeton? I doubt so. Where the extra pressure on the student is real, the differences between the relevant colleges and universities are real and substantial.

Nonetheless, even when we grant Narayanan the possibility of grouping colleges with only “superficial differences,” his proposal would not solve any problems but instead create more. If such a system existed, colleges would presumably form collectives based on the very same “ranking” system that Narayanan appears to find problematic. In this system, the same supposed problems would exist: different collectives would have different levels of prestige, different application volumes, and hence different levels of selectivity. The number of seats available at each individual school would remain the same. And, since most students who apply to Princeton also apply to, say, Harvard, in the current system, not much would change.

Yet, Narayanan’s system would create a host of new problems. Different schools have different levels of resources concentrating in different areas — academic, financial, or otherwise. How, then, would we accommodate students needing certain resources? Would we grant exceptions to students with extenuating circumstances via — you guessed it — essays? Indeed, this would create the same kind of rat race Narayanan purports to confront.

Such a system would not only take away the very natural autonomy of each institution to build its own class, to foster its own culture, and to choose students in general according to their institutional priorities, but it would also take away the student’s autonomy to choose where they want to spend — or can afford to spend — what are arguably the most important four years of their life.

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The current college admissions process undoubtedly has areas for reform. Grades on a transcript, scores on standardized tests, and even essays do not fully capture the academic and personal potential of applicants. Those coming from more privileged backgrounds have the necessary resources to leverage the process while others do not. Therefore, to make the admissions process fairer is to level the playing field by leveling students’ access to college admissions resources — quality K-12 education, access to AP/IB courses, college counseling, and so forth — not randomly assigning 18-year-olds to substantially different institutions across the U.S.

In sum, Narayanan’s analogy between the college admissions process and Princeton’s residential college system does not prove his claim that college admissions meritocracy is a “sham.” The argument presented in his column is not sound. Even if it were, his supposed solution of “admissions collectives” would not solve the problems facing college admissions but would instead exacerbate them. There exist many paths we can take in improving the college admissions process, but Narayanan is advocating for the wrong one.

Vincent Nguyen is a first-year from Houston, TX planning to concentrate in the mathematics department. He can be reached at vn8615@princeton.edu.

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