Ethical College Admissions: Should a University Have Trade Secrets?

Jim Jump considers why Princeton and other competitive colleges don't want their internal admissions mechanisms shared.

July 10, 2017

Is admitting a freshman class like making sausage? Does knowing how it’s made make it less savory and appealing? Does each highly selective admissions office have its own secret recipe?

Those are only a few of the questions arising from a lawsuit filed  in March in a federal court. The lawsuit is a “reverse Freedom of Information Act” suit filed by Princeton University against the U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights. It seeks to prevent release of documents related to Princeton’s admissions process in response to a FOIA request by Students for Fair Admission, a group founded by Edward Blum to challenge race-based affirmative action programs at leading colleges and universities. 

The documents in question were originally requested by the Office for Civil Rights as part of its seven-year investigation into whether Princeton’s admissions policies and procedures were discriminatory against Asian and Asian- American applicants. In 2015 the Department of Education closed the investigation, finding insufficient evidence of racial discrimination.

Students for Fair Admission subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Act request for 1,729 documents Princeton had turned over to the OCR. Just over half of those documents were released earlier this year after the Department of Education denied Princeton’s request for an FOIA exemption. The lawsuit seeks to prevent release of the remaining 861 documents.

Of course the very fact that Princeton filed the suit constitutes a victory for Students for Fair Admission. If the most obvious motivation for the FOIA request was the hope of finding a “smoking gun” among the documents that might lead to litigation, the collateral benefit was putting a prominent institution of higher learning in the position of publicly advocating for secrecy and the suppression of knowledge.

In the lawsuit Princeton argues against release of the documents on two fronts, corresponding to what it describes as two different types found in the trove of documents.   

The first type of document is from admission files for individual applicants provided by Princeton to OCR. Princeton argues that release constitutes invasion of personal privacy even though the Department of Education is redacting much of the information that might identify individual applicants.

The more interesting argument involves the second type of document, pertaining to the Princeton admissions process itself, including information about how applicants are evaluated and how the university conducts its admissions operation. The lawsuit describes these as information about Princeton’s “proprietary admissions processes,” and argues that they are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests through FOIA Exemption 4, “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential.” Princeton claims that each of the documents about the admissions process was marked as exempt when submitted and that the Department of Education never challenged that characterization.

The larger argument is that release of admissions-related documents places Princeton at a “substantial competitive disadvantage.” But is that the case? Are there trade secrets in admission? Is Princeton utilizing recruiting strategies or reading applications in a way that is fundamentally different than Harvard, Yale, and Stanford? I have never worked in any of those admission offices, so I can’t know for sure, but the description of admission policies and procedures as “proprietary” is odd.

Not as odd, however, as one of the examples of possible harm cited in the lawsuit. Princeton argues that releasing the office documents would: “Permit applicants and their advisers who become aware of these materials to tailor applications to what they would perceive to be the admissions priorities and preferences of the university. These applicants (as distinct from other applicants) would use the disclosed materials to create applications that they believed fit what the university was looking for in admitted applicants. The university’s ability to see applicants’ true records and promise and make fair comparisons would be substantially hampered by this tailoring of applications to the university’s perceived criteria for admissions.”

That can be interpreted two different ways. I hope it reflects a concern that release of internal admissions documents might feed a false narrative that there is a secret admissions formula at schools like Princeton. That might lead to a cottage industry of application “packagers” or “tailors” charging big bucks to help applicants game the system by producing the formulaic Princeton application. If that is the concern, then stating loud and clear that there is no such thing as a “right” application in a hyper-selective, holistic admissions process might be a better approach than keeping information about what Princeton looks for secret.

The other possible interpretation is that Princeton is arguing that the admissions process shouldn’t be transparent, that applicants and college counselors should have no clue what selective colleges value. That would be both ironic and unfortunate. The new successor ethical document to the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice lists “Truth and Transparency” as one of the foremost principles guiding the practice of college admission and college counseling. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Steering Committee drafting the new document and a loud voice arguing that the document should be built around guiding ethical principles.)

If Princeton’s argument is grounded in concern about competitive disadvantage from releasing the documents, then where does the competitive disadvantage lie? What Princeton “trade secrets” might allow places like Duke, Brown, and Columbia to leapfrog Princeton in the pecking order of prestige?

Princeton is in an admissions market matched by only two or three other universities, with an admit rate of 6.5 percent and a yield rate of 68.6 percent a year ago. There were more than 29,000 applications for Princeton’s Class of 2020 (the class that matriculated last fall). If Princeton were to see a decline of 10,000 applications, it would still have an admit rate in single digits. That’s rarified air. All but a handful of colleges and universities would love to be that disadvantaged.

Does Princeton have something to hide? That was Edward Blum’s question when the lawsuit was filed.  I’m guessing not, but language about “trade secrets” and “proprietary admissions policies” brings back memories of government secrecy under the guise of national security when the real concern is embarrassment. In any case, admissions policies and procedures, like computer software, should be “open source.”


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach, and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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