Ivy-League Admissions Isn't as Boring as 'Admission' Made It Look

What if Tina Fey & co. had focused on how stuffy colleges are chasing after free spirits these days, instead of on an undercooked plotline about motherly guilt?
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When Shirley Tilghman became Princeton University's first female president back in 2001, she announced that she wanted to see some changes to the place F. Scott Fitzgerald once called "the pleasantest country club in America."

"I would like to think we could begin to attract students with green hair," she said in an interview that summer. "We will take pink and blue and orange hair, too."

The hypothetical green-haired students were a rhetorical device, of course, a symbol of the more diverse student body that Tilghman hoped to see. To help realize that vision, the university eliminated student loans in 2001 and replaced them with grants so students, no matter what their family background, could graduate without crushing debt. Two years later, Princeton welcomed a new dean of admissions, Janet Rapelye, who like Tilghman was the first woman to hold her position. A few years after that, Princeton's admissions department teamed up with Harvard's and the University of Virginia's to visit more remote parts of the country and recruit students who might not have otherwise considered applying to a top-tier school. Princeton has also become more inclusive in idiosyncratic ways—Tilghman, for example, has judged the Princeton-hosted All-Ivy Drag Competition.

Yes, Princeton still came in second on HuffPo's list of the preppiest colleges in America a few years back, and the admission rate for students whose parents attended Princeton is still 40 percent—about four times the normal admit rate. But the school has changed under Tilghman's leadership and will continue to change no matter who is appointed as her successor when she steps down later this year.

These changes are emblematic of larger shifts in college admissions. Nearly every elite school now tries its hardest to at least look like it's racially and socioeconomically diverse. But at Princeton this change has been met with considerable resistance. Tilghman's "green hair" comment quickly became a rallying cry for campus conservatives, who worried that "what makes Princeton distinctive will be lost." One alum who graduated in the early '90s wrote, "In Tilghman, the student radicals of the 1960s finally have succeeded in occupying the university president's chair." Princeton represents the recent evolution in higher education, and also its backlash.

The changes at Princeton have been met with considerable resistance. Tilghman's "green hair" comment quickly became a rallying cry for campus conservatives, who worried that "what makes Princeton distinctive will be lost."

Jeremiah, the intelligent high-school senior who may or may not be Tina Fey's character's son in Admission, doesn't have green hair, but otherwise he fits the profile of the type of student Tilghman wanted to reach. His parents work at a gas-station mini mart, and no one in his family has gone to college. He's, in his own words, an "autodidact": He got perfect scores on all his AP tests, despite the fact that he'd never taken an AP class and nearly failed his first years of high school. He's also kind of a weirdo. He was runner up in a New Hampshire state-wide ventriloquism competition, and he answers banal small-talk questions like, "Tell me about yourself," by launching into a treatise on what it means to be a human.

Portia Nathan (Fey), a veteran Princeton admissions officer, becomes obsessed with getting Jeremiah into the school. The movie makes clear that the reason she's pulling for him is not because she's wants to achieve the university's new mission to recruit unconventional students. Though the film is set in the present day, it makes no reference to Tilghman's dream of a green-haired student body. Portia's colleagues scoff at Jeremiah's rough edges and mediocre grades, deciding instead to grant admission to a preppy legacy and a young woman who wants to become a lawyer so she can avenge her mother's death.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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