Given that Princeton University has once again been ranked the No. 1 national university by U.S. News and World Report (for the seventh straight year, according to information posted on the university’s website), this seems like a good time to pay attention to the latest and greatest of the best and the brightest: The newly minted freshmen arriving now at the school and appearing soon in the windshield of your car, as they join the older classes in their oblivious, head-in-trees, cars-be-damned, crossings of Washington Road and Nassau Street.
Those mindless looks as they jaywalk through traffic notwithstanding, the Class of 2010 is no ordinary bunch of dummies.
Here are some of the vital statistics on the new class. As one might expect of a college held in such high esteem, there were no shortage of candidates for the class. A record 17,563 students applied, and admission was offered to just 10.2 percent of them — 1,792. Of them about 1,200 have enrolled.
Sheer brainpower apparently did not guarantee admission to this elite group. Of the 17,000-plus applicants more than 7,000 had high school grade averages of A- or better, combined with scores of 700 or higher on each of the three sections of the SATs. That means those 7,000-plus super applicants would have had less than a 1 in 4 chance of being admitted, even if the university had focused only on them in the selection process.
Obviously it did not. The 1,792 offered admission included 51 percent who would require financial aid, and the university expects that number to rise to 54 percent by the time they are enrolled. Some 44 percent of those offered admission identified themselves as being from minority backgrounds, including bi-racial or multi-racial. While Princeton still bends over backwards to admit children of alumni, such “legacies” constitute only 9.9 percent of those offered admission.
“We paid particular attention to students from families where no one had a college degree,” said the dean of admission, Janet Rapelye, in a press statement. In addition, the university over the past three years has admitted more students from low income families than ever before.
Given all these credentials, before they have even stepped foot on campus, I wondered if we could learn something from these freshmen, some tip or trick that would help us navigate the high tech, evolving information age in which we all must swim. The university’s Freshman Academic Guide, posted on the website, offered a glimmer of hope in a six-page treatise titled “Strategies for Academic Success.”
But it contained no silver bullets. Instead it was the same old, same old that was preached 41 years ago when I arrived as a freshman — schedule your time wisely, take good notes in classes and lectures, start writing papers early, and don’t cram for exams — preached but rarely practiced in my sorry case.
If you probe the university website closely enough, you begin to suspect that these best and brightest aren’t all that different from the relative dullards of a generation or two ago. A section titled “Personal Difficulties and Individual Growth,” the university tells the incoming freshmen: “A significant percentage of all students use the Counseling Center sometime during their four years at Princeton” . . . where “the most frequent complaints are depression and anxiety.”
In my day at Princeton there was a dean of students. Today there is not only a dean of undergraduate students but also a vice president for campus life, both of whom co-signed a somber letter of warning to members of the incoming class and their parents earlier in the summer. The subject: Fraternities and sororities, and the dean and vice-president put their administrative weight against them. “They can contribute to a sense of social exclusiveness” and they place “an excessive emphasis on alcohol,” the administrators wrote. The university “asked the fraternities and sororities to defer rush until students have been here for several months, but they have declined,” reported the administrators.
In other words, the best and the brightest will fall for a keg of beer as quickly as the kid entering the community college a few miles down the road.
In the past three years Princeton has started what it hopes will become a new tradition. It’s the annual “Pre-Rade,” a welcoming ceremony for freshmen that has alumni dressed in Reunions outfits cheering them on as they march from Opening Exercises through FitzRandolph Gate in front of Nassau Hall. With all the feel-good capital generated by the P-Rade and alumni reunions in the spring, why shouldn’t the university play that card again in the fall? Think of it as the Princeton version of Christmas in July.
This year’s “Pre-Rade” will be Sunday, September 10, at around 4 p.m., with the Alumni Association serving light refreshments afterward in Maclean House (not too much emphasis on alcohol, we can presume).
I’m tempted to show up and offer the new class some encouragement. Expectations are high and the road is long. But even if I don’t attend the Pre-rade, I will drive carefully on Washington Road and Nassau Street. These are the latest and greatest of the best and the brightest, no ordinary dummies, and if all goes well they will be paying my social security in the near future.