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.

(The committee's dismissal of Jeremiah feels particularly unrealistic as Princeton has long had a weakness for "autodidacts," even before Tilghman's day. Case in point James Hogue, a con artist who managed to get into Princeton in the '80s by pretending to be a self-taught orphan by the name of Alexi Indris-Santana.)

Portia's advocacy of Jeremiah is instead borne out of motherly guilt. She believes he's the son she gave up for adoption a decade and a half ago, and the movie implies that she hopes to absolve her guilt by helping him get an Ivy League education. This isn't really all that compelling as a motivating factor, as we never learn much about Portia's emotional state when she gave birth (other than her determination that she was "not ready to be a mother") or her relationship with the baby's father (other than that he'd moved on to someone else by the time she realized she was pregnant) or how she has felt about the incident over the intervening years. Has she felt guilty all along? Does her long-term boyfriend know? Has she ever considered reaching out to her son before? The movie's other plotlines—her mother's vague insistence that Portia has squandered her talents by becoming an admissions officer, her passionless relationship with her boyfriend, Jeremiah's teacher's compulsive wanderlust—are similarly underdeveloped.

I'm not the only one who was disappointed by Admission. The movie made a measly $6.4 million this weekend, and will probably end up serving as another example of Fey's failure to dominate movies the way she has dominated TV. In light of that, it's hard not to see the film as a missed chance to focus on the real changes in the Ivy League admissions over the past 10 years, rather than a half-baked tale of a woman's fledgling relationship with her maybe son.

The story could have taken on a similar arc: The admissions dean instructs his staff to start going after green-haired kids, initiating a mad scramble to find the most out-of-the box students imaginable. Conscientious employee that she is, Portia follows orders and seeks out an unconventional high school in New Hampshire, where she finds Jeremiah. Initially she's compelled to recruit him for cynical reasons: He so obviously fits the image of the student her boss wants. But soon she realizes what a great kid he is and becomes genuinely invested in him and his admission to the university, resolving to battle her colleagues' petty objections at any cost. And she falls in love with his teacher. And she makes peace with her mother. Etc. Along the way, the movie gets to examine the recent evolution of elite college admissions, offering an inside look at what happens when radicals invade the country club.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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