Taliban at Yale, and Advice for Princeton

Everyone seems worked up about Yale admitting an official of the Taliban as a student.  While I find the guy in question pretty bankrupt, I'm not sure I am very excited about starting down the path of vetting potential college applicants against some political extremism standard.  I am sure there are any number of Ivy League freshmen whose beliefs I would find horrifying, but I don't feel the need to start culling them out.  I do find it odd that Yale would have recruited this guy like he was some kind of rock star, and celebrated his choice of Yale as if he was some prize. 

As I have written to my Alma mater Princeton on any number of occasions, I think that Ivy League schools are making a huge mistake which is tangentially related to Yale's Taliban student.  If the University of Texas had accepted him as one of 10,000 or so in their freshman class, there would not be so much outcry.  But this is an Ivy League school, with 20,000 or more kids competing for 1500 freshman spots.  Every parent tends to think, "so my kid with straight A's and a 1350 SAT and 200 hours of community service got turned down at Yale so a misogynist fascist with a 4th grade education can attend?"

Instead of arguing about admitting one less Taliban guy, I urge Ivy League schools to find a way to bring their higher quality of education to many more people.  Princeton, Harvard, and Yale each have endowments over $10 billion each, and they use this money every year to increase the education intensity to the same 1500 people per class.  Every time I go back to visit campus, I see more buildings, equipment, facilities, professors for the same 1500 folks.  Enough!  At some point there has got to be a diminishing return.  It is time for someone in the Ivy League to take the leadership to redefine their mission away from the current facilities arms race with the other Ivy's and towards a mission to broaden their reach in the country.  Instead of yet more molecular biology equipment for the same 1500 people per class, lets find a way to bring a Princeton education to, say, 6000 people a class.  Lets quadruple the size of the Ivy League.

Of course, the Ivy League conservatives (which means, in this context, everyone who graduated before this year and all of the faculty) fear this change.  The last thing the faculty, who we know to be in charge of the asylum from the whole Sommers affair, want is to have more students to teach -- they want the toys.  And alumni fear that somehow the "essential essence" of the university might be lost, though everyone made that same argument when these schools went coed and few today would argue to reverse this decision.   Administrators argue that the freshman pool would be diluted, sort of like the argument about pitching in baseball after expansion.  But one only has to look at admissions numbers to see that quadrupling the freshman class size would cause the Ivy's to lower their standards to... about where they were when I got in!  (If your SAT scores are in the 98th percentile you still have only a 10% chance of getting into Princeton or Harvard.)  The fact is that the pool of high school students in the upper echelons and Ivy-ready has grown tremendously in the past few years, causing Ivy's to narrow their admissions qualifications to near ridiculous levels, with average SAT scores in the stratosphere, hundreds of hours of community service, multiple sports letters, and consultant-aided choices of special activities to differentiate students from the crowd (e.g. bagpipes or falconry).

I understand that this is difficult -- just the issue of physical space is daunting.  But these are the leading Universities in the world.  Surely there is enough brainpower to figure it out if the mission is accepted.  The University of California has of late been doing a lot of interesting things to bring college education to the masses, and dealing with the fact that the number of people who can afford the cost and time of a college degree has increased exponentially.  I think the Ivy League needs to work through the same exercise at the top end of the bell curve.  They need to address a similar near exponential expansion in the number of students who are "Ivy-ready."


  1. Silent-Fire:

    Having attended a very small school for undergraduate, and a large Ivy League school for graduate work, I have to say that I don't think increasing the class size is a good idea. In a larger school, freshman lectures get bigger, it's harder for faculty and students to really get to know each other, and there's less of a sense of community. Also, the problems with the administration seem to increase, as there are more layers between the students, and the people making policies.

    Perhaps they could split off some of their endowment to create another Ivy League level school, but increasing class size will have negative affects on the community.

  2. eddie:

    Ivy-league quality educations are already available for the masses. There's nothing particularly magical about Calculus, Philosophy, or Asian Studies that makes the professors at Harvard so much better able to teach the topics than any number of professors at any number of schools.

    What an Ivy-league school provides that can't be replicated elsewhere is prestige. That prestige is not obtained through the education one gets in college, but by passing the college's admission criteria. A Harvard diploma says that you were one of the top few thousand students in high school; it says little about your college education. However, that fact alone is enough to open many doors that remain closed to others. Economists call this the signaling model of college education.

    The salient characteristic of exclusive colleges is exclusivity. By definition that cannot be offered more widely.

  3. BridgetB:


    ....And then after abut 5 years in the workforce that diploma wont mean diddly squat, as far as competition for jobs goes.

    Prestige is not only horribly expensive but has quickly diminishing returns.


  4. Zoran Lazarevic:

    >> I urge Ivy League schools to find a way to bring
    >> their higher quality of education to many more people.

    Dear Coyote,
    We are unfortunately mistaken that the goal of Ivy League schools is to educate. Oh, no. The goal of those schools is to SELECT the best students. For the most thorough explanation of why this is desirable and of how this came to be, please read Malcolm Gladwell's great article "GETTING IN - The social logic of Ivy League admissions." (http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/051010crat_atlarge)

    Thus, the imperative of Ivy League schools is to be selective, not to water down its student body by admitting everyone who wants to attend.

  5. TVH:

    Coyote, as your classmate @ Princeton ('84), I wholeheartedly agree with your thesis. However, those who have made comments are also quite correct, unfortunately. Perhaps a new breed like U of Phoenix (online) but marketed as a "next-generation, online Ivy-equivalent for the masses" is a business opportunity. Call me if you want to work on a business plan with me...

  6. Chris Yeh:

    Part of the appeal of an elite school is the fact that you're in a "target-rich environment." Most of the people you're going to meet and learn from are also smart, successful, and likely to go far in life.

    It's been said of places like HBS and Stanford Business School that if they taught absolutely nothing to their students and just let them golf and drink beer for two years, that they'd still be almost as successful just because of the power of the admissions filter.

  7. Kevin:

    Eddie hit the nail on the head:

    "The salient characteristic of exclusive colleges is exclusivity. By definition that cannot be offered more widely."

    W didn't get into Yale on the strength of his SAT scores or his high-school transcript. John Kerry may have but I'm sure there were more qualified candidates and he was connected, anyway, so the point is moot. My niece was just rejected by Yale: 4.+ GPA, 1500+ SATs, speaks five languages, every AP course offered by her CT high school, grandchild of a West Virginia hillbilly that went to college on the GI bill and made good, at least until the corporation that financed his pension with its own stock went bankrupt.

    Yale provides little more than an expensive club membership to ensure the continuation of the American plutocracy. They only admit the few outsiders to maintain the pretense of a meritocracy so they can continue to collect endowment money from corporations and the hoipolloi and tax dollars from every level of government.

    "The cream of American youth: rich and thick."

  8. Cary Johnson:

    My children are heavily in debt, as far as student loans are concerned. Both went to the University of Minnesota. One has a PHD in aerospace and works at the University and the other works out of her home for the Dept of Commerce, after working at the Dept in DC for 2 years. Both are paid well. What bothers me is the feel good mentality of certain people in this country that want to give a former Taliban a "free" education. I don't have a college education and at 64 am really disturbed about this. Could this school not have found someone from one of the families whose spouses were killed in the 9/11.

  9. Jacob Denz:

    Yeah, the Ivy League schools are supposed to be very selective. Increasing the size of the class would decrease the interest in the school because it would be easier to get in. As a high school senior who was accepted to Princeton University (and plans to attend) I have to say that my interest in Princeton was due largely to the fact that it is a very, very selective university. There are plenty of nonselective schools out there...