One of the mixed benefits of being an alumnus of Princeton University — besides the closet full of orange-and-black clothing that’s only color-appropriate around Halloween — is that I have been able to play a minor role in the grand American reckoning known as the college admissions process.
Princeton, like many other universities, taps alumni volunteers to interview applicants who live in their region — Brooklyn, in my case. We ask applicants questions about their academic work, their extracurriculars, their background, anything they want Princeton admissions officers to know. The applicants ask us questions too — about life on campus, about academic competition, about whether we’d do it all over again. I answer them as best I can while reminding them that it has been so long since I was a college student — 17 years — that AOL Instant Messenger was the cutting-edge way to communicate. Later, I write up my impressions of the applicant, including a note of how highly I’d recommend them as a future member of the Princeton community. And then I send it off to be threshed in the great admissions machine at Princeton’s Morrison Hall.
Of the couple dozen students I’ve interviewed over the past few years — most of whom seemed far more qualified than I was as a high school senior — only one has been admitted. That’s hardly unusual. In the spring of 1997, when I was admitted to Princeton, the university accepted 12.6 percent of applicants. Last year, just 5.5 percent made the cut. That’s in line with other elite schools. Harvard College last year accepted just 4.6 percent of applicants and Stanford University a minuscule 4.3 percent. Even as college enrollments nationwide have fallen for five straight years — in part because there are fewer college-age students now that millennials have aged out — it has become tougher than ever to gain a spot at schools like Princeton and Harvard. And that puts a bright spotlight on the question of who gets in — and who doesn’t.
What if I told you there was a way to increase your chances of getting into Harvard by five times?
Recently, that spotlight has been pointed at the Federal District Court in Boston, where Harvard is fighting a lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), an organization representing an anonymous group of Asian-American plaintiffs who were rejected from the college. SFFA claims that Harvard unfairly discriminates against Asians, putting an artificial cap on their numbers. Harvard argues that its “holistic” admissions process — which it says takes into account nonacademic factors like personality and leadership, and which is broadly similar to the policies of other elite universities — is needed to produce a diverse student body and that those policies don’t discriminate against Asian-Americans.
The politics of the case are complicated. The plaintiffs may be Asian-American, but the motivating force of the trial is a white lawyer whose ultimate aim is to end any consideration of race in college admissions. Whatever the results in Boston — a ruling is expected next year — most observers predict the case will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. There, Justice Anthony Kennedy — who cast the deciding vote in a case two years ago that upheld the use of racial diversity in college admissions — has been replaced by the more conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Harvard may be the focus of the case, but the ultimate outcome will reverberate across the country and could even end affirmative action in colleges.
I believe it would be a grave mistake for the Supreme Court to strike down the consideration of race in college admissions; it’s a policy that seeks to right historical wrongs and introduce needed diversity to U.S. colleges. But the Harvard lawsuit has laid bare the uncomfortable realities of how our elite universities choose their student bodies. If the Supreme Court acts — and even if it doesn’t — we will need to rethink a process that is undermined by unfairness.
Harvard and the other Ivy League universities that have backed it argue that it’s impossible to make their selections based solely on more objective criteria like grades and test scores. More than 8,000 domestic applicants to Harvard last year had a perfect grade-point average, more than 3,400 had perfect SAT math scores, and more than 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores. All of those figures are higher than the total number of applicants granted admission: 1,962. Even if such rankings were perfectly fair — and there is compelling evidence that they are not — they would not be sufficient to dictate the final selections.
Picking a student body in a way that is seen as just without sacrificing diversity won’t be easy, not when there are far more qualified applicants than there are available spots. It may be impossible. But there is at least one way to make the system more fair for everyone.