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Volume 11, No. 3—April 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Revenge of the Nerds
by Christopher Shea

The University of Chicago is not the only prestigious school to have considered expanding its undergraduate enrollment. Princeton also has a plan to admit additional students. But Princeton's goal is very different from Chicago's: to lure a greater number of intellectuals—especially those interested in the arts and humanities—and dilute its otherwise enviable concentration of overachieving student-athlete types.

In January 2000, a committee of Princeton trustees recommended expanding the student body over several years from forty-six hundred to fifty-one hundred students—almost the size of Yale. Princeton is now almost ludicrously selective, the committee noted, admitting just 12 percent of applicants last year, down from about 40 percent in the 1950s. (Among the Ivies, only Harvard is as selective; Cornell, the least selective, admits 33 percent.) The committee contended that an enrollment increase would allow the university to tap into a deep pool of desirable applicants who are currently being turned away merely for want of space.

The Princeton committee wants to add more students, but it does not want more of the same kind it already has. It may seem counterintuitive, but many at Princeton think that their highly selective school has too few students dedicated to the arts and the life of the mind. The reason for this is that Princeton fills a large percentage of its very few slots with students who, though unquestionably bright, are not being selected solely for their commitment to their intellect.

Consider: According to the recent book The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton), an astonishing 22 percent of male students at Princeton are varsity athletes, who get preferential treatment in admissions. (In general, Ivy League universities have more sports teams than other schools. Princeton has roughly 540 male varsity athletes, making up 22 percent of male enrollment; the University of Michigan, by contrast, has only 362 male athletes, a mere 3 percent of its male students.) The university also privileges applicants who are traditional affirmative-action candidates and children of alumni. Students in any of these groups may happen to be devoted intellectuals—but that is not the primary reason for their selection. With a smaller freshman class than most Ivies, Princeton is simply juggling too many competing demands to accommodate nonminority, nonlegacy brainiacs who lack ferocious backhands.

The Princeton committee has essentially proposed that the 125 new slots per year be reserved for nonathletes. "Because the number of student athletes is determined by the Ivy League-mandated size of varsity programs," the committee report reasons, "this category is not expected to grow" if more students are admitted. To attract the type of student it wants, Princeton has introduced an outreach program. Last fall, the school flew nearly seventy outstanding high-school students to the campus to participate in sample courses taught by professors like Anthony Grafton, the Renaissance historian, and Michael Cadden, the director of Princeton's program in theater and dance.

Extra admissions slots may also help with another embarrassing issue at Princeton: a falloff in Jewish enrollment. Whereas at least a quarter of the students at both Yale and Harvard are Jewish, the proportion of Jewish students at Princeton has dropped from 18 to 10 percent since the early 1980s. It seems that Jewish applicants are relatively unlikely to fall under any of the categories that receive extra attention during Princeton's admissions process.

Princeton's full slate of trustees will take up the committee's proposal this month, but the plan's supporters should proceed with caution: The athletics lobby is powerful. Even the famously cerebral Swarthmore ran into opposition when, citing admissions concerns, it killed its football program last December. Swarthmore trustee and former National Football League president Neil Austrian was even quoted in The New York Times accusing nonathlete students of apathy: "They don't give back," he said. "They are just passing through."

Christopher Shea

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