What’s changed — and what hasn’t — in selecting undergraduates

Ricardo Barros

During Janet Rapelye’s 15 years as dean of admission, the number of applicants has nearly tripled to 35,370; the class size has grown by 11 percent; the first transfer students since 1990 were admitted; and binding early-decision ended, to be followed several years later by the current nonbinding early-action program. As she prepared to move to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education as president Nov. 1, she sat down with PAW in her Morrison Hall office to talk about Princeton admissions. 

The following is an expanded version of the interview published in the Oct. 24, 2018, issue.

How has your concept of the ideal class changed?

Well, as the applicant pool grew from between 13,000 and 14,000 to now over 35,000, there were more choices to be made. Our focus then became more directed at being more inclusive.  And during this time period, our unofficial motto changed: Sonia Sotomayor [’76]’s suggestion of “in the nation's service and the service of humanity.”  I think, while a subtle change, it was something that allowed our thinking to have a broader view. Staff members are traveling throughout the world now. 

How has the student body changed during your tenure? 

Certainly, the class is more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. It was between 20 and 30 percent students of color when I first arrived, and this class [of 2022] is almost 45 percent students of color. We have more international students — we’re hovering around the 12 to 13 percent mark. In 2003, it was a much smaller percentage of the class. First-generation students have more than doubled in terms of numbers from then until now. And the Pell-eligible students have changed from 7.2 percent for the Class of ’08 to 20 percent of this class. 

Has Princeton’s image changed? 

The part that remains the same at Princeton is that we are always looking for intellectual curiosity and academic excellence.

“What we’ve tried to do is to help the outside world understand that Princeton is accessible.”

— Janet Rapelye

What we’ve tried to do is to help the outside world understand that Princeton is accessible. If your parents had not gone to college, if you had not gone to a school where you knew anybody who had attended a place like Princeton, Princeton wasn’t even on your radar. And we’ve tried to reach out to those students and make sure that if they have the talent and the academic background and they are high-achieving students, that this very well might be the right place for them — and that we have the financial resources to support them all four years. 

This country is changing dramatically. By 2025 or so, half the high school population will be students of color, and the other half will be white. We care about diversity because it is important that students from every background have an opportunity to study at this level. We also care about diversity because this is the world that they are coming from and they are going to be going into. 

Do you think the no-loan financial policy has accomplished its goals?

I think it has given us the foundation to do the work that we have needed to do. That decision, made by the trustees, was one of the best decisions that a university could have made in the last 20 years. 

How big is the admissions staff?

Full-time staff is about 44, including readers and recruiters, officers who read and recruit.  We have application assistants who help process the applications electronically and make sure everything is connected in the right way. We have a team of technology experts in the office.  And we hire between 35 and 40 outside readers; they work full time for us between November to March. We also have about 10 seasonal staff who prepare applications to be read.

Early-action applications have been increasing steadily. It’s often pointed out that the odds of getting in are better if you’re an early applicant. How representative of the general applicant pool are those who apply early? 

I know the myth out there is it’s easier to get in early action. And for us, that isn’t true. We apply exactly the same standards we apply in regular decision. 

Looking at the college admissions process nationally, does anything concern you? 

I worry about the families who don’t know that Princeton is an option for their student. I also am concerned about the families who focus only on the most selective schools. If students are willing to spread a wide net and consider what’s going to be a good fit, not necessarily the prestige, but what’s the best match academically and personally and financially, that’s important. 

Is this a time when admission policies at selective schools are being examined from every viewpoint? How do you look at the lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions?

As many universities have become more selective, the process has come under greater scrutiny. Princeton has joined with many of our peers to file an amicus brief supporting Harvard’s practice of considering race and ethnicity as one factor among many in the admissions process. 

If race were taken out as a tool, are there enough other ways to achieve the diversity that Princeton seeks to build?

We have continued to add more race-neutral ways to achieve a diverse and inclusive class — for example, looking for students from low-income backgrounds, looking for students who are Pell-eligible, and reinstituting our transfer program. But I don’t believe that we will be able to achieve the diversity we have in the class now by just using those. A few years ago, Princeton went through a compliance review with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and that agency’s determination letter has been on our website since 2015. That determination letter outlines our process quite clearly. 

Has the way Princeton looks at children of alumni as applicants changed during the time you’ve been here?

We give attention to the children of our graduates, just as we always have. We’ve gone from about 480 children of our graduates in the applicant pool to 680. When the children of our graduates apply, we now send a letter to those alumni to say we recognize that your son or daughter is in the pool, and we’re very happy they have applied. We have some FAQs that go with the letter. And then we say, this will be the last time we communicate directly with you; this process is now about how your son or daughter is going to look in the applicant pool this year. This letter has been well-received.

What has been the admit rate for children of alumni? 

It’s been hovering from 29 to 32 percent. The overall admit rate this year is at 5.5 percent. There are those who criticize this and say we shouldn’t be giving any advantage to the children of our graduates. On the other hand, their parents have cared about their educations and have helped them go to good schools, and then they have achieved at high levels, given some of those advantages. We’re also seeing more diversity within the children of our graduates. 

Do you see the Alumni Schools Committee interviews continuing as they are now, or is there any rethinking of the process?

It’s a remarkable process, and I’ve just been so appreciative of all our alumni efforts.  They help us understand the context from which the student is coming.  And we’ve worked with them to set an expectation that they are ambassadors for the University. I think your question about the future, though, is going to have to be left to a future dean.  

Has there been much of a change over time in the schools that admitted students attend if they choose not to come to Princeton?

It’s been pretty consistent. Stanford has probably a bigger presence than it did in the ’80s.  But we lose the majority of our students to Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford; it shifts within that group a little bit.

What have been the greatest challenges in your office?

How do you continue to handle the increase in the volume every year, with the same schedule and the same size staff? You just dig in and you get it done.  The time frame — from about mid-February until the end of March — is we are just working around the clock. That’s a challenge for any one of the selective admission offices. 

Another challenge is we work so hard to get the students to Princeton — whether it’s on the recruitment side or whether it’s admitting them, or once we’ve admitted them, helping them decide to come to Princeton through the Princeton Preview program or flying them in to campus — and then once they’re here, we then go on the road and start recruiting the next group of students.

And one of the challenges continues to be following the students on campus and being able to see them or to celebrate their victories when they have them on campus. Some of my most wonderful moments have been when a student writes and says, I’m in a play tonight or tomorrow night; can you come? And I’ll do everything I can to get there. Over the years, sometimes I only see one act of the play, that’s all I’ve had time to run in and see; or half of the Glee Club concert; or part of a game. But I try to get there. We’ve rejoiced in their victories.

As you look back on 15 years at Princeton, what stands out for you?

I suppose the beginning, the middle, and the end of all of this is what a privilege it has been to do the work at Princeton — that we’ve had the support, from the president and the trustees and the faculty, to do this work.  And we’ve had the financial support in order to give the financial aid for the students who need it. This has been an extraordinary opportunity to be able to find the talent in this country from every sector, and from around the world, and to know that, no matter which student we chose, we would always have the funding to bring them here.  That is so rare in higher education, and I have appreciated it every day.

What issues do you hope to focus on at the Consortium on Financing Higher Education?

COFHE provides data for the 35 colleges and universities that are members, and convenes conferences for different cohorts within the universities — so the ability to communicate and to share information [is important]. There’s also a greater sense of how can we help the selective, private institutions that are part of COFHE [including Princeton] use the research and get their message out to the outside world — being able to articulate the value of these schools to legislators and the general public and prospective students.

Interview conducted and condensed by W.R.O.