As we noted a couple of weeks ago, there are two kinds of mistakes you can make in this business. But there are also a few different ways in which you can get things right. One way is to work hard, do your homework, and ask the right questions. The other way is to just hang around, and keep your eyes and ears open.

That’s the genesis of this column. I was taking some trash out the other day, still considering the consequences of the errors that led me to completely miss the addition of a cross-continental opponent — San Diego — on the Princeton University football schedule. That had gotten me thinking about the whole question of the role of varsity athletics at a college like Princeton and that led to a conversation starter with a neighbor who happened by — Tom Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton.

Espenshade’s name had just been mentioned in a letter to the editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. The letterwriter had lamented the effects of Princeton’s preferential treatment for various categories of applicants. The letter writer, a member of the Class of 1958 now living in Los Angeles, had encouraged a young woman to apply to Princeton. She was interested in creative writing and already had written a novel. She was a class officer, had a 4.0 grade point average, played on the soccer team (but apparently was not a star), and — get this — had scored a perfect 1600 on her College Boards. Nonetheless, she was denied admission. What do you make of all this, the letter writer wanted to know.

It all turns out to be a little more complicated than it first appears, but Espenshade is exactly the person to answer the question. He is conducting a detailed study of the preferences that are given to minority applicants at highly selective colleges, and comparing that to the preferences given to athletes and to “legacy” candidates, the children of alumni.

Espenshade’s research is based on admissions data from three unnamed “private research universities” (Princeton not being one of them) gleaned from the 1980s through 1997. The study quantifies what a lot of people have thought to be true. On the 1600-point scale of the SAT, the admissions process has tipped the scale in the following ways in order to ensure a diverse student body:

Being black, according to Espenshade’s data, adds about 230 points to the applicant’s board score, which means — as I interpret it — that the 1600 applicant from the California high school might look as good to an admission officer at Princeton as a kid from an inner city school who had managed to score 1370 on the boards.

Being a recruited athlete (not just a player on the high school team, of course) adds about 200 points.

Being Hispanic gets you 185 points.

Being the son or daughter of an alumnus is worth 160 points.

And, last but certainly not least, being Asian actually puts the candidate at a slight disadvantage, with about 50 points being deducted from the SAT scores. In other words, as I interpret it, if colleges treated Asian candidates on the same scale as old-fashioned white kids who happen to be smart but not otherwise distinguished (i.e. not an athlete, not an alumni child), then the Asians would be admitted in disproportionately high numbers.

Who would want that? On the other hand, what would be so bad about that? And why are those Asian kids so damned smart, anyhow? Those are all questions that deserve a column of their own, which I will deliver next week (barring any calamities).

But in the meantime, why do colleges bend their admission standards (to put it more bluntly than politically correctly) to admit a certain number of minorities, legacies, and athletes? The answer, as the Princeton Alumni Weekly article pointed out, is that such preferential treatments blaze a “path to leadership” for minorities and reap “substantial” benefits from diversity in the student body.

That’s another area of study for my neighbor. The survey data, from the National Study of College Experience funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, might also shed light on social interaction among students of diverse backgrounds.

Interestingly the president of the Mellon Foundation, William Bowen, has already gone on the record saying that with athletes, at least, the preferential admission has not paid off. Espenshade seems to be keeping an open mind: “We need more empirical evidence on this question of whether there are educational benefits to diversity,” Espenshade told the alumni magazine. “I think in principle there are, but are we realizing that full potential? Probably not.”

For what it’s worth, Princeton’s recruited football players defeated San Diego, 24-7, in a game that attracted more Princeton alumni than San Diego supporters. And Princeton won without the service of star receiver Clinton Wu, out for the season with a torn knee. Hmmm, an Asian American athlete. So much for stereotypes, as we will discuss next week.

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