“I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
I don’t recall ever proactively soliciting comments for these columns, but I do have a request for you: Would you please tell me why I’m so enraged over the pathetic Hollywood-cum-mega-rich college admission scandal? It’s not like I — and you — didn’t know there were such goings-on, although some of the sordid details are surprising, morbidly fascinating, and worthy of some pointed psychoanalysis. It’s not as if the blatant venality of the involved adults is a shock, as any preacher or journalist would be happy to confirm for you in loving detail. It’s not even the Schadenfreude of watching our colleagues in New Haven twist in the wind, managing to sully not only themselves, but also Ivy League athletics and most Ivy administrators, by managing to completely ignore blatant lies, in writing, readily debunked via public information in the very age of TMI. C’mon, man.
It’s probably somewhat deeper and more removed than that, away from the busy activities of the current admission season with campus visits and the May 1 reply date on the way. I think it goes back to how we all got to this point in the first place — thus becoming fair game for a history lesson. A lesson that may or may not be hugely profound, but in any case seems not to have been learned very well by almost anyone.
In olden times, you (the young faithful male Presbyterian and possibly a Princeton legacy) went in and chatted in Greek and Latin with the president, and you were in. By 1826, with the College having gotten itself into a passel of trouble, the Alumni Association with celebrity head James Madison 1771 was organized to drum up support, i.e. bucks.
The creator of the Alumni Association, John Maclean Jr. 1816, by 1853 was the president of the College, and created (apparently out of his own brain, because there were essentially no precedents in America) a scholarship drive to raise the huge sum of $100,000 for 100 scholarships for needy students, notably not bricks and mortar. Whether this has anything to do with the 1852 parliamentary commissions that recommended democratizing student bodies at Oxford and Cambridge is a fascinating question, but there seems to be no evidence. The drive reached 60 percent of its fundraising goal.
Written admission examinations were instituted after the Civil War, and then, as the affluent alumni began to spread throughout the country pursuing their affluence, were given in cities outside Princeton, especially those in the West where there were few recent immigrants, i.e. minorities. The College Entrance Examination Board was created in 1900; Princeton required its written test of all applicants by 1915. It was notoriously geared toward prep-school students then, but has been evolving ever since, becoming the SAT in 1926, to a constant chorus of various detractors from left and right.
The Ivy schools essentially created intercollegiate athletics in the latter half of the 19th century. Whether this had deleterious effects on admission standards is a murky question, but the academic records of the five football All-American Poe brothers at Princeton in the 1890s would strongly suggest it. Knute Rockne was hired by Notre Dame in 1918; professional coaches for many college sports were a fixture by the 1920s. Princeton now has coaches in more than 30 sports, and each may recommend a certain number of preferred candidates to its admission office, with suitable documentation.
With a rush of interested applicants following the American awakening in World War I, Princeton was faced with either limiting enrollment or seeing the collegial nature of the undergraduate college dissipate. The trustees’ reaction was decisive: They built a pile of new dormitories and created the dean of admission. The dorms are landmarks to this day; the dean was catastrophic. Radcliffe Heermance, not even an alum, ran admission from 1922-50, seemingly in an attempt to perpetuate the 19th century. He made sure black students couldn’t gain so much as a toehold on campus, and kept Jewish students below a 3 percent threshold where they were powerless and often social lepers. He created a binary system of admission whereby grades and test scores were only half the battle; “character” counted as much, allowing even genius applicants to be hosed for not being sufficiently sociable to mix well with preppy Princetonians. Our stereotypical misperception of admission as “turning people down” comes from him and the clueless administrators and trustees who allowed him to flourish.
In the Depressed 1930s, with the number of students who could afford Princeton thinning by the day, Alumni Schools Committees formed and strengthened around the country to find acceptable candidates and send them to Heermance. After World War II, they included young alumni and veterans who were not so sympathetic to his narrow vision of Princeton, and began pressuring him to accept a broader range of students, including more from public high schools. As with most volunteer alumni support at Princeton, their sense of entitlement began to emerge.
Although the Ivy schools as a group had publicly stated their opposition to athletic scholarships earlier, the 1950s with television money coming on the scene, and the 1960s with college basketball beginning to rival football as a popular sport equal to the pros, drove them over the edge, forming a formal conference, essentially renouncing merit scholarships of all types in favor of need-based student aid, and knowingly turning their backs on big-time football.
Princeton completed its first broad-based, big-money capital fund drive in 1962, the hugely impactful $53 million campaign. Whatever gentility had been involved in major fundraising before (and likely contributed to its mixed results) was gone, and the ascendance of the alumni records office assured.
The sea change in admissions happened in 1964 under President Bob Goheen ’40 *48. Instead of accepting Heermance’s legendary “well-rounded boy,” Director of Admission Alden Dunham III ’53 was instructed to create a “well-rounded class,” with many academic stars and many non-academic stars, but necessarily fewer applicants who were just pretty good at both. With tweaks, this pertains today.
The Ivy League threw in the towel on an honor system for recruited athletes in 1985 with the institution of the Academic Index, a fearsomely complex computation with a simple goal: The predicted academic performance of a college’s athletes had to be within a standard deviation of the student body as a whole, and in any individual case above a certain minimum. The league’s short-term performance in basketball and football took hits.
Princeton conducted hugely successful capital drives in 1981-86 ($410 million), 1995-2000 ($1.14 billion), and 2007-2012 ($1.88 billion). Gifts from alums — or anyone else — with younger children were certainly not disqualified. As a result, Princeton adopted an aggressive grant-only financial aid policy that benefits lower and middle-class students, eliminating student loans, and has been at the leading edge of all colleges for 20 years.
In conjunction with the upgrades in faculty and facilities flowing from this largesse, the 30 years of the admission office beginning in 1988 served to advance Princeton from a respected national university with a peculiarly evocative image to (arguably) the pre-eminent undergraduate educational institution in the world. It began with 15 years of the passionately personal touch of Fred Hargadon, previously of Stanford, who seemingly knew the name of every student he admitted and attended almost every athletic event on campus, but paradoxically presided over a reduction in athletic slots; and continued with 15 years of Janet Rapelye, formerly of Wellesley, who returned to more of a committee format and dramatically broadened proactive outreach for more socioeconomic diversity. Meanwhile over that period, the number of applicants increased from 12,606 to 35,370, placing undreamed-of pressure on the admission office and even the Alumni Schools Committee — which prides itself on conversing with essentially every applicant — to handle the onslaught with no degradation in quality. Despite the expansion of the undergraduate body, today Princeton admits about 100 fewer applicants than in 1988 because of much higher yield.
With all that going on, Princeton for the last 30 years has been the unchallenged best sports performer of any non-athletic-scholarship college in the country, even earning 69 national championships of various sorts. A significant number of the 200 or so recruited athletes per class might not have been admitted without their special skills, but to be scrupulously fair that is likely true of some applicants who are published poets or opera singers or biochemists with experiments on the Space Shuttle as well.
So what am I ticked off about? In part it reflects the many thousands of people, over a couple centuries really, who have learned from serious mistakes and then variously done their honest best to try being matchmakers of superb student with superb opportunity, in essentially impossible circumstances. They don’t actually turn anyone away, they just have the limited ability to accept very few, but are eternally faced with, “Why don’t you like Snookums?” They try to craft the future of a global institution — not the next four years, more like the next 70 — via forced choices between apples from Kenosha, Wis., and oranges from Malawi, and are hounded by snowplow parents pleading, “What club does Snookums have to join to get in?”
And then, apparently, it all goes across the line and the checkbooks come out. “What is a slot for Snookums worth to you?” This is not capitalism, friends, this is abuse. Outright abuse perpetrated on the institutions and the hapless students, conveniently dollar-denominated. And so I guess my inner Howard Beale rises to the top, and the seething returns. Help me out on this one, please.