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Apr. 4, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 10

Perspective

The race to college: Are great students left behind?

By Tamara Sorell ’81
Published in the April 4, 2012, issue


ILLUSTRATION: SELÇUK DEMIREL

On the day after Thanksgiving, while most future Princeton applicants were sleeping, my ­16-year-old daughter was preparing to report at 4 a.m. to her sales job and the madness of Black Friday — ­without a parent to drive her. She ­didn’t mind; she likes the independence and rewards that ­earning her own money brings, the ability to buy a smartphone and fancy sneakers that she wouldn’t get otherwise. 

She’s a successful young woman, with high grades, diverse musical and artistic talents, and leadership positions. She limits her advanced courses to the academic subjects that truly interest her, which gives her time to spend on the art classes she loves. She takes time to build a meaningful social life. She was recommended for participation in a prestigious art program, but because of the distance and her parents’ work commitments, she could not attend. 

And Black Friday was not the only day she went to work. For the past seven months, she has worked 20 to 25 hours a week at minimum wage at a local shoe store.

Still, when it came time for her to start applying to college, I advised: Don’t waste your time applying to top schools. 

My growing concerns about college admission were crystallized by two recent articles in The New York Times. The first, a finely articulated piece by Stony Brook University professor Neil Gabler (“One Percent Education”), lamented the harnessing of our finest universities by the economic elite. The second article, headlined “Bracing for $40,000 at New York City Private Schools,” described the ballooning tuition along with the growing number of applications and consulting firms charging more than $20,000 for admission advice.

What do these stories have to do with each other? Well, everything. As one mother quoted in the article about private schools remarked, parents evaluate schools based on their success at getting students into prestigious colleges. These days, I fear that admission requirements at top colleges have reached the point where students who don’t have elaborately financed résumés and top-tier academic preparation cannot compete. And while I support my daughter’s choices, I’m concerned about the loss of choice for many youngsters from lower- or middle-income families for whom responsibilities such as paid work, caring for younger siblings or older relatives, and helping at home effectively eliminate the time available to pursue elite activities that now seem to be required.

I have been on the Princeton Alumni Schools Committee for at least 10 years, and have interviewed applicants in several states. I always ask if the student ever held a job for pay; never has the answer been yes. While my sample may not be typical, it is clear that paid work is not high on the list of elite-college contenders. This is indeed a sad reflection on the qualities that top colleges seek. Working at a real job — the kind where the bosses don’t care what you think, you must deal with rude and harassing managers and customers, and you get fired if you show up late or need time off — is a valuable life experience. Keeping such a job requires higher-level executive functioning, social skills, and persistence. The experience differs from finding a boutique opportunity through family contacts, or paying to work as a “counselor in training” at a summer camp.

Today’s successful Princeton applicant often is the product of single-minded pursuit of a strong résumé and substantial parental sacrifice that is well beyond the type of attention to their children’s education that parents historically have provided. This investment of time and money has become a filter that excludes the vast majority of our talented youth: Most American families cannot afford $5,000 for “leadership” training, overseas ­eco-volunteer trips, student ambassadorships, or summer academic camps. 

The statistics of attendance by students from “middle-income” families also are misleading. When one parent’s income can support a family comfortably, the second parent — typically, the mother — can leave the workforce to dedicate herself to her children’s needs, shuttling them to lessons, tutors, and sporting activities. Such parents become the “band parents,” school-play producers, and assistant coaches; serve on committees; and engage in activities designed to further their children’s interests. The economic investment of these families may not be transparent, but is real nonetheless. On paper, such a family might well have the same “middle income” as one in which both parents work in average-wage jobs, whose children fend for themselves or babysit siblings after school. The families’ incomes may be similar; their situations are not.

Princeton’s generous financial aid is to be applauded, but here again the statistics can be misleading. According to Univer­sity statistics, 58 percent of students in the Class of 2014 receive financial aid — but that aid can extend to families earning as much as $200,000 per year. Still, nearly half the class does not qualify for — or has not applied for — aid.

I doubt that people like my sister (Class of 1984) and I would have a chance to attend a top college today. We worked weekends and summers throughout high school, had no access to Advanced Placement classes, and our extracurricular activities were limited to the offerings at our undistinguished local high school. Something along the way has shifted dramatically, and the result is winnowing of opportunity that starts long before students are old enough to apply to college. 

I do not profess to any knowledge of the mysterious inner workings of the admission office, and only can imagine how difficult it must be to sift through the mountain of talent vying for such few spots. I cannot suggest how the selection process could be shifted to consider criteria beyond the constellation of expensive achievements. I only know that this résumé arms race should be reversed.

Princeton has been a part of my identity for nearly 35 years. In addition to interviewing applicants, I have missed very few of my 30 reunions, participated on a campus career panel, and worked on a major reunion. But what is the meaning of “Princeton in the nation’s service?” It is not just about the works of the Princeton community; it also must be about who can become the community. 

Princeton has a record of leadership in promoting opportunity. Endowment funds are dedicated to financial aid. Tenure requirements have been modified to support young parents. Early-action protocols have been adjusted to include those who need to consider finances later in the process. These are hallmarks of an institution that values fairness and social evolution. It is time for Princeton to take the lead to ensure that the best education, with all that it confers, can be attained across our socioeconomic spectrum. 

I am not worried about my daughter. She will go on to receive a fine education at a public university and make a success of her life by virtue of her own qualities. I do worry, however, about the future of the society that she and all of our children are growing up into. The next generation’s leaders should include young people whose first lessons in success came from achieving balance in their lives — and yes, perhaps from selling shoes.


Tamara Sorell ’81 is a scientist living in Groton, Mass.

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7 Responses to The race to college: Are great students left behind?

Katherine Cleland '83 Says:

2012-04-02 13:28:46

I totally agree. We also advised our daughter not to bother applying to Princeton, and I'm still sad about it. She's a top student, with grades, classes and SAT's that rival my own when I was admitted to Princeton. She has only taken four AP classes, not seven, and is a varsity athlete in two sports, but isn't ranked in state or national competitions. She was a runner up at the Intel science fair, but not a winner, and she got B's in AP chemistry ... and for this well-rounded, interesting, and interested student, we knew she wouldn't have a chance. How do I know? I've served on the alumni committee and have interviewed dozens of applicants to Princeton, and came to the same conclusion. Only those elite few, many of whom are catered to or driven by parent "managers," are the ones who have enough accolades to make it in. The mature, independent students who make their own way and their own choices, either by choice or by their parents' decision not to helicopter, or by dint of the fact that their parents are too busy "just making it," are overlooked by the elite schools. These are the independent, motivated young folks, and yes, they do tend to the economically less-privileged. It's a matter of circumstance. It is such a loss for all involved. Thanks for bringing up this topic.

Melanie Papasian '03 Says:

2012-04-02 14:30:49

Wait a minute! Why are you actively discouraging your well-rounded, excellent children from applying to whatever schools they want to go to? Are you trying to protect them from rejection? Or are you limiting their options for them for some other reason? Either way, I find it distressing and disheartening that anyone would tell their children "not to bother" applying to top schools, no matter what their circumstances. By the reasoning you give, the message that is ultimately conveyed is, "Due to circumstances beyond your control, doors are closed to you." Seriously? How defeatist is that? I would worry about any future in which children are not being encouraged to at least try to get what they want -- and who are consequently learning that rejection is always worse than never having tried at all. How are you going to prove your hypothesis if you don't go through with the experiment?

Audrey Hefter Hughes '87 Says:

2012-04-03 09:37:42

What an excellent article! My well-rounded son will attend Smeal Business school at Penn State next fall. Some of his friends attempted to apply to the Ivy League and were disheartened. Of Princeton I ask only this: Stop asking me for money! Go ask the new demographics who make up your community to support your huge endowment! Many of us think it, but none have been bold enough to put that in words. Well, there it is! P.S. I hope that in the future, the "underrepresented minorities" that Princeton is working so hard to attract includes us -- hard-working, well-rounded, Americans.

Noor O'Neill Borbieva '96 Says:

2012-04-03 09:51:34

Tamara Sorell raises important issues in this piece, but perhaps she is too accepting of the admissions process. As an interviewer with the Alumni Schools Committee (who has never seen one of her interviewed students accepted) and a parent of two young children, I have increasing concerns about the quality of admissions decisions. Just how transparent is the admissions process? Who decides the criteria for admission and could more people, beyond the admissions office, be involved? Could alumni have a greater say in this process? The ASC coordinator in my state reminds her interviewers that the admissions committee does not just accept amazing individuals, it wants to "shape a class as a whole." Most of us have heard these words many times, and we know we are supposed to accept them without question. But what do these words really mean, and what do they obscure?

Susan Korones Gifford '79 Says:

2012-04-04 09:46:35

An excellent piece. But Tamara, you write, "I cannot suggest how the selection process could be shifted to consider criteria beyond the constellation of expensive achievements." I think the answer here is simple: Just shift it. Make a decision as an institution to consider character as well as accomplishments. Recognize that some students won't rise to their full height by 11th grade, and accept responsibility for building leaders, not just burnishing them. Reevaluate the entire system. Heck, they can afford it! Unfortunately, they've kind of rigged their own game. With their relentless marketing, admission departments all over have so increased the numbers of applications they have to process that I can't imagine they have time to give thoughtful consideration to each applicant, their protestations notwithstanding. Unfortunately, I don't think any of this really will stop until the marketing push does.

Tony Rodriguez '79 Says:

2012-04-04 15:19:52

I disagree with Katherine '83 that "only those elite few ... are the ones who have enough accolades to make it in." I was once one of those "independent motivated young folks who were economically less privileged" (immigrant living in Newark, N.J.), yet I managed to apply and gain admission to Princeton and other elite schools. One of my freshmen roommates claimed that I had been admitted purely on "affirmative action" grounds (1975), to which I asked him to see if I survived Princeton to graduate ... which I did magna cum laude. This opportunity still exists today for qualified students, regardless of their economic status. I volunteer in the inner city with "at-risk" youth who are trying to become the first in their family to attend any college. This year I interviewed five students, from various schools, for Princeton and none of them were admitted, but 100 percent of the inner-city "less-privileged" youth that I mentor have been admitted to "elite schools" such as Princeton, Stanford, Columbia. It certainly is more difficult today to gain admission to Princeton with the applicant pool having increased by 95 percent in the past eight years, but the system still works, despite occasional hiccups.

Murphy A. Sewall '64 Says:

2012-04-19 10:50:47

I too worry about Princeton tending toward "one percent education." This spring in Connecticut, Princeton admitted 21 of 114 (18.4%) of private/parochial school applicants, but only 5 of 75 (6.7%) from public schools. Certainly, all those admitted are wonderful young people who will do just fine as Princeton students. Still, it is very likely that the extreme tilt toward prep school applicants misses something of value. After 42 years as an educator, I'm well aware that the variation in the quality of typical public school graduates is greater than among those who attended private schools; however, I doubt that the degree of difference among the best students amounts to nearly three to one. I too have interviewed applicants for the Alumni Schools Committee for several years. Given the intensity of competition, it is not difficult to understand why most of the students I meet are not admitted. Nevertheless, in at least two cases, I'm astonished at the opportunity that Princet! on overlooked. It probably is the case that nearly all of the 189 young people from Connecticut who applied for the Class of '16 are capable of doing well academically at Princeton. As Ms. Sorrell notes, these students will find a place elsewhere and will lead successful lives. However, as her Perspective piece aptly points out, public school students have different experiences and different perspectives than their prep school counterparts. The message from Ms. Sorrell, other alumni I've communicated with who have interviewed applicants for Princeton, and me, is that the statistics suggest that Admissions is being overly swayed by essentially superficial achievements (the résumé arms race). Mainly, the result is Princeton's loss.
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