Why Are We Pouring Money Into a Black Box? Why Are We Subjecting Our Young People to a Process with Such Little Transparency? Why Are We Risking Our Economy On It All?
Forgive me for making the same basic point I made in somewhat more profane terms recently, but via a reader I learn that Princeton intends to make its application process even more opaque - and, of course, in the name of fairness and diversity, and certainly not for their own cynical self-interest:
“The Office of Admission considers each student holistically within the context of their setting to build a dynamic university community,” said a statement released by the university Thursday. “Given this, data points such as overall admission rates and average SAT scores shouldn’t influence a prospective student’s decision about whether to apply to Princeton. We know this information raises the anxiety level of prospective students and their families and, unfortunately, may discourage some prospective students from applying. For this reason, we have in recent years stopped reporting the annual admission rate, as well as the admission rate by SAT score range and average GPA. We have now made the decision not to release admission data during the early action, regular decision and transfer admission cycles. Instead, we will publish an announcement later in 2022 that focuses on the enrolled students who will join Princeton as the Class of 2026.”
If we were to ponder the unthinkable and consider the self-evidently absurd notion that Princeton has less than entirely pure motives, what might the actual impetus for this change be? Well, the idea that you must pursue academic excellence first and foremost in your admissions decisions - which, for the record, is a core foundational idea on which this whole exquisitely expensive house of cards is built, as transparently bogus as it is - has long been a thorn in the side of these institutions, which want to secure wealthy future donors and to leave the door wide open for celebrity applicants. (I assure you, if Timothee Chalamet had a 1.8 GPA and an arrest record as long as your arm, Harvard would find a pretext to let him in. I promise.) These institutions started out as finishing schools where the wealthy elite learned to play bocce, so it’s not like there was some halcyon past. But there has been a real sea change in the kinds of students they’d like to accept in recent years. They don’t want the pocket protector crowd anymore. Those kids can go to CalTech. They’d rather have The Right Kind of student, which yes maybe includes more Black faces (and definitely fewer Asian ones), but more importantly means people who more closely resemble the kind of elites they’d like to produce - photogenic, successful, academically elite but not lame math nerds, progressive, classy, tasteful, refined. And sure to donate. Very very important that they donate, because these Ivies are so broke.
Princeton still requires the SAT. How much does it matter? You don’t know, and you can’t know. Neither can the kids who break their backs to get in or the parents who develop ulcers over it. They keep such information close to their chest, even as people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on application fees annually for the tiny chance to attend. The answer is almost certainly that the amount the SAT matters is entirely variable, depending on how badly they want a student, and how badly they want that student depends on money, on prestige, and on cobbling together a little phony diversity for the brochure. And for this untold thousands of young people work their asses off and invest all their hopes, and on its basis we decide who goes on to affluence and professional success.
It’s hard for me to overstate the absolute audacity of these schools insisting on even less transparency. Princeton is an institution that sits on a $37.7 billion dollar endowment, for which it has enjoyed an annual 12.7% return over the past decade. This is an astronomical sum of money, but then, when you’re exempt from the large majority of taxes that apply to most human institutions, it’s a little bit easier. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of people getting Pell grants but they’re handing out Stafford loans, federally underwritten, and they receive hundreds of millions in federal research funds. Typically there are all manner of other means through which taxpayer dollars are making their way onto a given college campus. And for our money and our trouble we get a tiny number of elites graduating into affluence and a school that thinks that the way they choose students just isn’t our business. Imagine, cruising through life as a tax-free entity with an endowment the size of the GDP of Uganda, and being expected to open your books to the taxpayers. The very thought.
I guess for many people the SAT is such a visceral nexus of anxiety and insecurity, even decades after they took it, that they are simply incapable of critical thinking about this issue. And so they never pause to ask, “could these existentially elite institutions, which deepen inequality and further the interests of the moneyed and powerful at every turn, perhaps be getting rid of the SAT for reasons other than a pure and sincere commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity?” I would argue that, if you really care about our poorer and Blacker teenagers, you would feel even greater need to be ruthlessly cynical in understanding the institutions that you naively think will save them. But that complicates the liberal message now, which is just “the SAT is racist.” And there’s nothing a liberal likes more than moral simplicity, the ability to deliver a sermon with as little nuance and complexity as possible. These things combine, I guess, to leave these social justice warriors acting as useful idiots for some of the whitest, most elitist, least accountable institutions I can imagine. I will never, ever understand it. But hey. Maybe a slightly different flavor of rich kid will get into Princeton now. Baby steps, my friends, baby steps.