Maybe it’s true that higher education is wasted on the young. I have been prowling the Princeton campus in recent days trying to compare the scene today with what I remember from 45 years ago as a member of the incoming Class of 1969.
Now it’s the Class of 2014, created by the most selective admission process in university history. Of the record 26,247 applicants, Princeton accepted 2,148, meaning that less than 9 percent were admitted. Of that number 1,300 or so chose to matriculate at Princeton. As the dean of admission, Janet Rapelye, noted in a press statement: “We were impressed with the superb intellect, talent, and character the candidates presented. We had to make some extremely difficult decisions.”
My class of 825 students came from an admitted group of 1,200, chosen from about 5,200 applicants. Sons of Princeton alumni were admitted at a rate of 54 percent. The rest of us had a slightly less than 20 percent chance of being admitted — still better odds than the current crop of freshmen faced. I couldn’t locate information on the average SAT scores of my class, and the numbers aren’t in yet for the Class of 2014, but the Class of 2013 “middle 50 percent” SAT scores were 690-780 for critical reasoning, 700 to 790 for math, and 700 to 780 for writing (800 being perfect). If an applicant last year averaged less than 630 on his or her SAT components, the chance of admission dropped to 2.2 percent or less.
In my day the non-academic rating was weighed carefully. Our incoming class of 825 included 198 presidents of their high school class or student council; 73 high school football captains; and 39 basketball captains (“the Bill Bradley effect”). Almost exactly as is the case today, 60 percent of our class came from public high schools. Though I recall being intimidated by the suave preppies, our class included only 98 graduates of the elite boarding schools (Exeter, Andover, etc.), or about 12 percent. Nowadays the figure is only slightly lower, 10 percent.
For all our extracurricular strengths, however, I suspect that our class (95 percent white and 3 percent international students) was a lot slower on our feet in the classroom than the contemporary freshman class (about 60 percent white and 10 percent international).
The question, though, is whether these kids will get more than we did out of the place.
For all the differences in academic credentials, the advice provided to the incoming freshmen is remarkably similar in 2010 to what it was in 1965. Don’t be shrinking violets, Shirley Tilghman suggests in her welcoming statement to the Class of 2014. “The quest for knowledge can be taxing and, at times, daunting, but I know that all of you will embark on this quest with determination, enthusiasm, and, above all, curiosity.”
Robert F. Goheen, writing to the Class of 1969, alluded to the Baby Boom and the “keen” competition for admission that made acceptance at the college of one’s choice “an end in itself.” But he reminded the class that “Princeton is not a terminal, but a center where you can provision yourselves for a longer and more exciting journey than any you have taken before. The roads which lead from this place can take you to the frontiers of knowledge and beyond. And if, at the end of your four years here, you take a ‘road less traveled by,’ so much the better.”
Really? Forty-five years ago I probably yawned at this predictable argument for self-reliance and non-conformity. But a half dozen years ago, (prompted by an assignment from my son’s fourth grade teacher!), I took a closer look at this Robert Frost poem. Everyone will recall the beginning — “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” — and the ending:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The more critical reading suggests that the traveler is predicting that the choice will make a difference, but not one that he can say is for the better. In fact, he may be recalling the moment with a sigh, not a pumped fist. As an undergraduate majoring in English, if I had known then what I knew decades later I might have challenged the president of the university in an academic environment (as opposed to an anti-war rally, for example). But, as I said, higher education is often wasted on the young. Certainly it was wasted on me.
But not without a fight. Certainly in the 1960s the Princeton faculty’s commitment to undergraduate education rescued many a wayward freshman. Early in the fall semester of 1965, as I was buried under a pile of neglected term papers and assigned reading, I was approached — coincidentally, he made it seem — by an instructor who offered me a plan to work out of my mess.
A friend on the faculty today tells me he senses no diminution of this commitment. And it’s still a bragging point for the university. As the dean of the faculty wrote to this year’s freshmen: “Many times faculty will reach out to you, but to profit fully from the opportunities here for faculty-student contact, you will need to make many of the overtures. Do not be discouraged if a particular faculty member appears to be rushed or preoccupied. Contact with faculty outside the classroom can be one of the richest parts of your experience.”
I walk across the campus on a quiet September morning. The freshmen have already figured out how to sleep late. Judging by the posters for organizations, events, and good causes, with celebrities like George Will and Ben Bernanke dropping by the campus in the next few days, these freshmen will surely waste far less of their higher education than I did.
Whether they learn as much after their graduation as I did remains to be seen.