In Which I Get Defensive About Princeton, Again; or, Ivy League Admissions from Across the Rubicon

I usually think Kevin Carey is really smart and spot-on when it comes to analyzing higher ed policy. And given the poor decisions Harvard has made recently in doing damage control on its endowment losses, I thought I would really appreciate his most recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (you might need to have a subscription/be on a university network to access that link):

Harvard spent the money on many things. But not a dollar went to increasing the number of undergraduates it chose to bless with a Harvard education. In 1990 the university welcomed slightly more than 1,600 students to its freshman class. In 2008, $32-billion later, it enrolled slightly more than 1,600 freshmen.

That is remarkable stinginess. Harvard undergraduate degrees are immensely valuable, conferring a lifetime of social capital and prestige. The university receives many more highly qualified applicants than it chooses to admit. Because the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process, Harvard could presumably increase the size of its entering class by, say, 50 percent while improving the overall academic quality of the students it admits.

I have my issues with the first paragraph, but I find the second one far more problematic. Carey states as fact that “the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process.” I know, I know, there’s been bestseller after bestseller that has attempted to demonstrate the extent to which Ivy League admissions are unfair to the earnest but non-connected student who just can’t get into Harvard because s/he doesn’t know people in power. I’m sorry, but that’s just not the case. You have to meet a basic standard of academic competence to be admitted to Harvard. Or Princeton. Or any of their peer institutions. I know, I know, George W. Bush, but since about the late ’80s family connections have begun to be far less of a point on which college admissions turn. If you’re worried about nepotism, you should be taking your concerns to politics or journalism and publishing, not colleges.

One phrase of Carey’s stands out to me—maybe, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve already figured out which phrase I’m referring to: yes, it’s “underqualified children of legacies.” First of all, that’s not the right phrasing: “legacies” are the children of alumni, so unless Carey’s referring to third-generation admits (and yes, they exist, but are no more dangerous than second-generation ones), he’s at least a little confused. But to make an actual point, alumni children are not de facto less qualified than other admits. In fact, if anything, they are likely to be a very academically well-qualified constituency: their parents received a very high-quality education. They probably went on to become middle-class, if they weren’t already. The children were probably raised with encouragement to academic pursuits. They probably had a certain number of environmental advantages.

You probably know that I’m the child of a Princeton alum. And I find the insinuation that I am less entitled to be here because my mother spent 10 years on this campus pretty insulting, frankly. I wouldn’t have lasted very long here if I couldn’t engage with my professors and my peers on a higher level, and I worked very hard both throughout high school and in the admissions process to get here. I find it very hard to believe that all this places me at some greater advantage, or suggests I’m less qualified to be here, than the kid whose parents also both have graduate degrees, but got them from different universities than mine did. If there’s anything that places me at a disadvantage here at Princeton, it’s the fact that I went to a crappy California public high school with no funding, while some of my peers went to excellent public or private schools. My friends who went to Andover or Exeter or Deerfield, or Stuyvesant or Bronx Science or Boston Latin, or even Princeton High School itself, had a better secondary education than I did. That’s a pretty big leg up. And so we all have our advantages and disadvantages, and we all come here with different skills and weaknesses. But to say that the fact that my mother was here 30 years ago gives me less right to be here today? That’s just plain unfair.

I don’t hide the fact that I’m the child of an alum partly because I don’t believe it’s something of which I should have to be ashamed, but also partly because I think that, now that I’m here—however I got here—it gives me an interesting perspective. Because I know a great deal about my mother’s experience here, I can see the contrast between my Princeton and my mother’s Princeton. I see how, in the intervening 30 years, my Princeton has become much more in-line with modern progressive America. And I see how my mother was a part, however small, in making that the case. If I didn’t want to further that legacy—if I didn’t want to do all I can to make Princeton the best possible social/cultural and academic environment—I wouldn’t think very highly of myself. There’s a way to say “legacy” without ritually spitting over your shoulder. Someone ought to tell Kevin Carey.

One thought on “In Which I Get Defensive About Princeton, Again; or, Ivy League Admissions from Across the Rubicon

  1. I don’t know about Princeton but at least at Harvard, legacy admits have an average SAT score that’s only 2 points lower than non-legacy admits.

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