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Princeton Follows Harvard, Banning Early Admissions

By Alan Finder

High school seniors begin a new college application season amid growing signs that the nation’s top colleges and universities have deep misgivings about the sanity and fairness of the annual admissions frenzy.

A week after Harvard abandoned early admissions as a program that puts low-income students at a disadvantage, Princeton followed suit on Monday, saying it hoped other universities would do the same. “I think it’s important for there to be momentum, because I think it’s the right decision,” said Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton’s president.

Their moves come after the presidents of Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Barnard, and seven other selective liberal arts colleges, usually fierce competitors for students, also put early admissions on the table for discussion at a two-day session in June in which they voiced their profound unease about the world they helped create.

At the meeting in New York, the presidents said they spelled out their concerns on everything from families’ paying of thousands of dollars for private college counselors, to obstacles for low-income applicants, to the tactics some colleges use to rise in the US News & World Report rankings. They spoke of efforts to drive up a college’s number of applications, so it can turn away a greater proportion of students and appear more selective, or to distribute merit aid to lure students who are top notch but not financially needy.

“It just feels ugly, the way it is now,” said one of the participants, Robert Weisbuch, the president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., while reviewing the sessions a few weeks later. “How do we remain competitive, which is a good thing in many ways, and yet at the same time try to make more rational and less fetishized this whole process for students and families?”

“Some of the behavior that institutions engage in is quite unbelievable,” said Patrick T. Harker, dean of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are perverse behaviors that get generated where people do things to drive the rankings.”

Some colleges and universities have already taken action on their own. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., said last month that its senior executives would no longer participate in an annual survey sent out by US News, which asks university officials to assess other colleges.

At Amherst College, officials increased the number of working-class and low-income students in the freshman class that enrolled weeks ago from 15 percent to 20 percent.

The University of Delaware said in May that it would eliminate early admission. Princeton, in announcing its decision on Monday, said it agreed with Harvard that early admissions forced low-income students to commit to the university before they could compare financial aid offers from various universities.

“It’s the right decision for universities in terms of equity,” Tilghman said. “It’s the right decision for the high school students, for their parents and for their guidance counselors, who have found the two-tier system to be fraught with complexity and that has encouraged a gaming of the system that I don’t think is good for any of us.” Princeton’s decision will affect the class entering in 2008. In addition, each year officials from a loose association of 40 small, less well-known liberal arts colleges tour the country together, marketing their colleges as alternatives to high-pressure, high prestige institutions. The event is known as the Colleges that Change Lives tour, after a book with that title by Loren Pope that was published in 1996 and was reissued this year in a revised version.

“I’m not a believer in selectivity,” Pope, a former private college counselor, said. “I think it’s phony.”

“Now everybody is obsessed with the idea of getting into a name-brand school,” he said. “The universities cannot do nearly as good a job as the colleges I like.”

The presidents of the 11 colleges represented at the New York meeting are discussing the creation of a statement of principles; the possibility of agreeing to reduce their use of early admission and merit aid, which is based on grades and test scores, not financial need; and whether they could commit to ensuring that at least 20 percent of entering freshmen are from working-class or poor households.

“Do we really need to be part of this arms race in merit aid?” said Colin Diver, the president of Reed College in Portland, Ore. “Do we need to participate in this scramble to increase the number of students to whom we say no?”

“I talk to lots of presidents who would love to disarm,” Diver said, “but they’re afraid to do it unilaterally.”

They are also considering creating a new set of statistics to measure their educational standing. The proposed standards would be available to the public, but the individual measurements would not be combined to produce an overall score, as in the ranking guides.

“There’s the data, make of it what you will,” said Douglas C. Bennett, president of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and another participant in the New York session, describing the ethos of the proposal.

“I dislike intensely and have been pretty sharply critical of efforts to rank institutions on a single scale,” Bennett said.

Brian Kelly, the executive editor of US News & World Report, said the magazine’s rankings appear to satisfy a deep hunger from students and parents for unbiased, accurate information about colleges. “I see this as a pure exercise in consumer journalism,” Kelly said. “There is a tremendous demand for this. Fortunately, we have been able to create a model that’s sustained itself.”

“This is data that these guys collected 20 years ago and didn’t make public,” he added.

It is far from clear whether the college presidents can act in concert without being accused of collusive behavior, in violation of federal anti-trust laws. Two dozen elite universities signed a consent decree in 1991, in which they promised to no longer exchange information on the amount of financial aid being offered to specific students. The Justice Department had been investigating the sharing of such information as a possible antitrust violation.

Anthony W. Marx, the president of Amherst College, said he thought the group should initiate a discussion with the Justice Department about what forms of collective action might be permissible.

“Competition is important and strengthens us and can spread our net,” Marx said. “But if it’s designed to drive us in a way that’s self-serving and not in society’s interest, then that’s a problem.”

The catalyst for the New York meeting was Lloyd Thacker, a former college admissions officer and high school guidance counselor who argues that the aggressive strategies of corporate competition, including marketing, branding, and image making, have compromised education.

“As educators, we would not design a system that looks like this,” Thacker said. “Colleges are businesses, yes they are, but they are businesses of a certain kind. They are public trusts.”

“We’ve sharpened our business acumen by confusing what is good for business with what is good for education,” he said.

Many of the presidents said one of their goals would be to instill in high school seniors a sense that which college they attend does not determine the course of the rest of their lives. “It’s not God’s judgment on your soul,” Weisbuch of Drew University said. Not all of the presidents agree on what needs fixing in college admissions. Many of the most prestigious colleges do not offer merit aid, and some of the less selective institutions are still determined to increase their number of applicants each year, to find more good students and achieve a broader mix in their freshman classes. But many of them believe it is time to take some risks.

“If we can’t behave well,” said Thomas H. Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, “then who can?”