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Former dean reflects in book on 100,000 admission decisions
STANFORD -- In her seven years as dean of undergraduate admissions at Stanford University, Jean Fetter saw few cases as highly publicized as the one that vexed Harvard admissions officials earlier this spring.
That case -- in which Harvard rescinded a student's acceptance after learning that she had killed her mother four years earlier -- "was extreme," Fetter says, "but it does bring into focus the complexity of the college admissions process."
In her new book, Questions and Admissions: Reflections on 100,000 Admissions Decisions at Stanford (Stanford University Press), Fetter, now assistant to Stanford President Gerhard Casper, offers a rare insider's look at "the imperfect art and constant balancing act" that goes into choosing a college freshman class.
While the book deals chiefly with Stanford's process for selecting undergraduates from 1984 and 1991, it also covers topics relevant to many four-year colleges throughout the United States. Among them: the use and abuse of standardized tests; special considerations such as extracurricular talents and alumni parents; the underlying philosophical issues and practical applications of affirmative action policies; and the multitude of issues associated with recruiting varsity athletes.
The most poignant chapter reviews some of the ethical dilemmas that Fetter faced during her time as dean, ranging from the case of a white student who purposefully misrepresented himself as African American (he was caught and his admission revoked) to cases in which she had to decide whether to admit students with terminal illnesses.
Fetter herself would have been a prime candidate for Stanford admission. Originally from Swansea, Wales, she earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees in physics from Oxford University and was captain of its women's varsity basketball team.
After teaching physics at San Jose State, she came to Stanford in 1975 as associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, and later served as assistant to university President Richard W. Lyman. She succeeded longtime dean of admissions Fred Hargadon in 1984.
During her time as dean, Fetter saw the number of freshman applicants climb from 15,600 in 1984 to a record 17,652 in 1985, followed by a gradual decline to 13,000 as the number of high school graduates nationwide decreased.
At the same time, grades and SAT scores of admitted students showed consistent improvement, while the total percentage of African American, Mexican American, Native American and Asian American students in each class grew from 27 percent to 41.3 percent (primarily due to the increase in Asian Americans).
Looking back on her days as "Dean Jean," as she was known on campus, Fetter says the question of what gained an applicant admission to Stanford was not the one that presented the most difficult dilemmas and challenges of her job. Rather, she says, "it was how ill informed were the participants in the college admissions process."
Parents, for example, often were surprised to learn that many selective colleges practice need-blind admissions (without concern about a student's ability to pay), while many high school seniors, particularly those from large public and rural high schools, did not even know the application deadlines of the colleges to which they planned to apply.
Among the worst proliferators of myth were well- meaning Stanford alumni. Fetter recalls one evening at dinner in a San Francisco restaurant "where the tables were so intimately placed as to impose enforced eavesdropping." She listened aghast as a Stanford alumnus, obviously unaware of the identity of his better- informed neighbors, described to an out-of-town visitor his almost totally incorrect interpretation of the selection process for Stanford undergraduates.
"Miss Manners' etiquette books offer no guidance on how the eavesdropper should react in such circumstances, and I opted for the perhaps cowardly part of not spoiling anyone's dinner," she says. "I have had some regrets."
In an effort to better inform prospective college applicants and their parents, teachers and guidance counselors about the process, Fetter begins her book with a detailed explanation of Stanford's admissions criteria, and how those criteria are applied in the grueling selection process that runs each year from December through March.
All Stanford applicants, she explains, are given two ratings on a five-point scale: one for academic achievement (based on courses, grades and SAT scores), and another for extracurricular achievement (students such as Olympic medalists or Westinghouse Science Prize winners, who have achieved national prominence or awards, are rated 1; those who have achieved state or regional prominence are rated 2, etc.).
Based on those rankings and color-coded remarks from two or more admissions readers, about 20 to 25 percent of the competitive files are placed in the admit category, 45 to 50 percent are denied, and the remaining 30 to 35 percent are placed in a "swim" category for further review. The winnowing process continues with further readings until the admit pool is filled.
While it sounds simple in theory, the process exacts a heavy personal toll on readers, who must examine 2,000 to 3,000 files apiece during the three-month selection process. The difficulties are best illustrated by an experiment she tried in her first year as dean.
"In an effort to involve more faculty in the selection of the freshman class, I invited 10 highly respected emeriti (reasoning that they would have more time available than faculty who had not retired) to join us in the reading of freshman applications. The seven who accepted my invitation were each asked to read 100 files and were given the usual assignment of designating 20 to 25 percent as admits, 45 to 50 percent as denies, and the remaining 35 percent or so as swims.
"With the best intentions in the world, they put closer to 80 percent in the swim category. Even for faculty with significant experience in teaching Stanford students, it was enormously difficult to make distinctions within a random set of 100 applicants, most of whom seemed eminently qualified to be Stanford students.
"Multiply this assignment by 150 to produce a typical freshman applicant pool, and you have some measure of the dilemmas encountered by a new member of the admissions staff."
Undoubtedly the most difficult section in the book to write was the one Fetter tackled first: the chapter on affirmative action. "It seems best to begin with my personal view," she writes. "I believe that many minority students, institutions in which they have enrolled, and society at large have all benefited from the practice of affirmative action in college admissions. I am glad to have participated in these efforts, and I am proud of the results."
Explaining those efforts to critics, though, seemed at times like an unending task. The subject was consistently among the top three or four topics of disgruntled letter writers.
"Even after seven years in the job, I never ceased to be amazed at the unabashed confidence of the complaining correspondents, none of whom had ever read a single application for admission or even informed themselves on the policies and procedures of the office, not to mention other relevant facts," Fetter recalls.
"In responding to an angry surgeon who had written with a similar complaint, I asked how he would feel if I came into his operating room and told him how to conduct the operation. For some reason, the profession of admissions is considered one in which a critical layperson, whose solitary qualification is having had a son or daughter go through the application process, becomes an instant expert."
In practice, she says, affirmative action at Stanford is primarily an effort to encourage the applications of strong African American, Mexican American and Native American candidates, as determined by their scores on the SAT and ACT. Personal letters are sent to students whose names and addresses are purchased through the College Board's minority search service; students who indicate an interest (about 30 percent) are sent publications describing Stanford and its various ethnic communities and services.
The recruitment correspondence is supplemented by high school visits, college nights and regional meetings, together with special phone calls and mailings to guidance counselors. In addition, some groups of students, notably the Mexican American students, conduct their own minority outreach programs, encouraging high school students to prepare themselves for college, while highlighting Stanford in particular.
Once a minority student's application arrives at Stanford, it receives at least one of its readings from the appropriate minority director in undergraduate admissions. "The write-ups from the minority directors were very influential and helpful to the dean with the authority for the final decision on applications," Fetter writes. "However, they were not always decisive."
On the oft-repeated question, "Does Stanford have different (meaning lower) standards for minority students?" Fetter notes that all admitted students, regardless of ethnicity, must show a high probability of completing a degree course at Stanford and high academic achievement, as supported by high school references. Beyond that, she says, there is no "unambiguous, monosyllabic answer" to the question.
"It is just not that simple a process," Fetter writes. She cites the examples of a bilingual high school senior living in a rural area whose first language is Spanish, or the quadrilingual 17-year old raised in the Netherlands, whose first language is Chinese.
"How would you score on the verbal SAT," she asks, "if you tackled the test under these circumstances? Or consider another example: A nationally ranked athlete with a grade-point average of 3.5, when we could admit all 4.0 applicants, is not 'unqualified' to be in our admitted class."
Quality, Fetter writes, "is assessed in ways beyond the quantitative measures. Grade-point averages in particular vary with the high school, the difficulty of the student's program, and even the state. In short, the overall records of all members of the admitted class are distinguished, and those toward the lower ends of the quantitative distributions offer compelling characteristics and experiences that make them desirable members of the entering class. So the short answer to the hypothetical critic of differing standards for different students must be: Sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Fetter concludes her chapter by giving some detailed responses to some of the arguments that are frequently leveled at affirmative action:
While the practice of selective admissions is, "among other things, an imperfect and constant balancing act," Fetter writes, the balancing can seem particularly delicate in the case of varsity athletics.
In any given year, about 600 Stanford undergraduates are varsity athletes, and the university has earned 45 championships in NCAA competition since 1980.
Unlike at many big-time sports schools, though, prospective varsity athletes at Stanford are considered through fundamentally the same admissions process as every other applicant. While the Department of Athletics may designate outstanding athletes for special attention, the dean of undergraduate admissions retains final authority over all admissions.
"Along with this significant responsibility comes the potential wrath of the alumni and fans, and sometimes the press, when the season closes with a losing record," Fetter writes. "As someone once noted, when the Stanford team performs well, the coach gets a lot of credit; when the team performs badly, the dean of undergraduate admissions is held responsible."
At no time was this more apparent than the highly publicized case of Chris Munk, a young basketball player from Riordan High School in San Francisco who applied to Stanford in 1985.
Tom Davis, then the men's basketball coach, considered Munk "a potentially singular force in varsity basketball, someone who could propel men's basketball at Stanford to the forefront of NCAA competition, a height untouched since 1942, when the team won its only national championship."
"I think it is fair to say that I spent more time on this one file than on almost any other in seven years as dean," Fetter writes. "I read and reread the complete application; discussed it with my colleagues in Undergraduate Admissions, slept on it, discussed it with a specially convened group of faculty who were well-informed on athletics. . . . But consultation and reflection have their limits, and the final decision clearly rested with me. The time had come, and it was not a pleasant moment."
Fetter decided against approving the admission; Munk subsequently was awarded a basketball scholarship at the University of Southern California, and Tom Davis left Stanford a few weeks later, to be basketball coach at the University of Iowa.
Other cases involving athletics still trouble her. She particularly remembers the letter from a mother whose son, who had graduated second in his high school class, was denied admission, while his classmate, a football player with less stellar academic credentials, got in. "Mrs. P" questioned the university's priorities. "That was not an easy letter to answer," Fetter says. "The question of institutional priorities raised by Mrs. P. was extended to challenge Stanford's award of athletic scholarships when it awarded no scholarships solely for academic merit. [The university has since decided to give $1,500 research grants to top freshman scholars.]
"The answer had to be one based on pragmatism; we do play college athletics in the PAC 10, and we could not compete without following the same basic rules that our athletic competitors do."
There were many other letters that Fetter received while she was dean, ranging from the mild ("Could you please read my application again and make sure you didn't make a mistake?") to the much stronger ("I am outraged at Stanford's admissions policies and decisions!") to the strongest ("I am immediately ceasing to offer any further support to Stanford") to the rare ("I am consulting with my attorney about a charge of discrimination against my son").
Harder still were the times when she had to deny admission to the sons and daughters of Stanford faculty and staff members, many of whom she knew. "That was very, very painful," she says quietly in an interview. "Even today, there are at least two people on campus who, when they pass, treat me as if I'm non- existent."
Given the nature of the parental bond, Fetter says, it is not surprising to see mothers and fathers represent their young sons and daughters with such ferocity and pride. As a member of the Stanford Alumni Association's executive board once put it 40 years ago, "No matter how you put it, there just isn't any diplomatic way of telling me my kid is stupid -- even if he is."
Still, she says, there are some things that students and parents can do to keep the pain in perspective.
"No one should be disappointed in the college admissions process if they plan well, both academically and financially," Fetter stresses. "What you hope to have in hand is three or four offers of admission come April 1 of the senior year. The worst kind of case is a modest student who has applied only to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and MIT, who ends up with four denial letters.
"I don't think there's such a thing as a unique match between a college and a student," she adds, "and I don't like to see someone saying, 'This college is my first choice, this is the only place I can go.' Putting all your eggs in one basket, the college of your first choice, can cause unnecessary disappointment."
Students also need to be realistic in their expectations, she says. "There are 26,000 high schools in this country, each with a valedictorian heading off to college. It's not a criticism of your son or daughter if they are not admitted to a particular school, and it's not a judgment of character.
"My advice for parents, fundamentally, is that you must remember that these are your children's lives, not yours. Be supportive, encouraging and helpful, but try not to live your life again through your son or daughter in the college admissions process. I realize that's easier said than done, having done it twice myself.
"When I became dean, Sandra Day O'Connor had just been appointed to the Supreme Court, and she said something which I found actually helped me as I went through the years. Essentially, it was this: 'You do your very best in making a decision and you move on.' "
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