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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

College Admissions and the Public Interest by Chris Peterson SM '13

In 1966, B. Alden Thresher, an economist and the first ever Director of Admissions at MIT, wrote a short book called College Admissions and the Public Interest. It’s a longstanding handbook of the admissions profession, and one of those texts that reads basically as true today as it did more than 50 years ago. What I love about CAPI (as it’s called) is the honesty and integrity with which B.A.T. wrote, which values I hope (and think) still guide our office today. I know it’s been a big influence on Stu, and on many other people in our office too.

The book has been out of print for decades, but for our new website, the College Board agreed to publish it as a free PDF for anyone who wants to read it. Now that it’s up, I wanted to direct people to it.

The foreword sums it up well:

College Admissions and the Public Interest continues to help admissions professionals grapple with the central questions facing them every day: Who should be admitted to college, and why? Thresher’s insight anticipated today’s higher education admissions arena and the lengths to which American families will go to ensure the lifelong success of their sons and daughters. Yet Thresher’s words do not promote a particular issue or ideology. Instead, his reflections encourage insight, honor nuance, and reinforce the reason why all of us entered this profession in the first place: the students.

Despite the variety of challenges facing higher education admissions — the rising cost of college, increased competition, fewer counselors per student, insufficient financial aid — Thresher keeps us focused on the bigger picture: the public interest. He stresses that all of our processes and policies mean little if the outcome of our efforts do not address what every college and university has articulated in its mission: to serve as a force for the betterment of society.

The key for Thresher is the identification of, and reliance on, fundamental principles: children before adults; liberty over tyranny; one person, one vote; education over ignorance.

and I’ve always loved BAT’s preface too:

This essay deals with some of the broader aspects of the college admissions process in the United States. It will not tell the reader how to get into college or how to run a college admissions office. Having spent some years in charge of a selective admissions operation, the author is keenly aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait for anyone who presumes to select from among large numbers of promising youngsters those who will prove best qualified for any given life work, or even to identify those who will finish a four-year undergraduate course.

The central thesis of these pages is threefold: first, one cannot tell by looking at a toad how far he will jump; second, the process of admission to college is more sociologically than intellectually determined; and third, to understand the process, one must look beyond the purview of the individual college and consider the interaction of all institutions with the society that generates and sustains them.

Perhaps these comments may aid admissions and guidance people by directing their attention beyond the normal boundaries of their daily concerns or help concerned citizens who, having been through the college admissions process with their children, may wish to look more broadly at the educational enterprise in the light of the public interest. I’ve also embedded it (via Google PDF reader) below.

Just wanted to let people here know that this long-out-of-print treasure is now freely available. I also embedded it (using Google’s PDF viewer to load the College Board’s file below).