543 is a lot of missing people.
This number may not be immediately recognizable. Up until now, it has been put another way: 13 percent, generally followed by the word “decline.” Both statistics represent the change in early action applicants to Yale from the class of 2010 to that of 2011. The latter statistic, however, emphasizing a change in population, fails to tell the whole story.
This is, of course, the last year of early applications as we know them. Regardless of whether Yale changes its early admission policy, the combined impact of Harvard’s and Princeton’s abolition of their programs next fall will likely create one of two scenarios: Either Yale’s EA pool will be flooded with students who would have rather gone to one of those schools instead, or the practice of early application will have been so discredited that barely anyone will do it at all. In the last round of the current system, Yale may have lost: Princeton experienced an increase in the number of early applications. (Harvard had not released its numbers at time of writing.) While Yale’s low admit rate for early action has been posited as a possible cause for the decline, the rate was constant from 2005 to 2006 — the number of applicants, of course, was not.
This is significant because of what early application typically means — until next year, at least. The number of early applicants does not constitute a referendum on Yale’s global reputation. That is saved for January, when all the applications have rolled in. What it does represent is the depth of emotion individual applicants have for the college. Applying early is not a result of systemic factors, but of individual choice. This fall, 543 fewer students decided that Yale was a place so exciting that they knew it was where they needed to be. Some spark failed to ignite. The important question, then, is why, and how we can fix it.
A likely explanation not yet proposed is that this has not been a good year for Yale in the national press. Generally speaking, in the Ivies, no news is good news. The exception is the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which held good news for Princeton. Our press exposure over the last 12 months has ranged from bad — the flap surrounding the decision not to hire professor Juan Cole of Michigan, which may have been related to statements made on his blog — to worse — the alumni uproar after the New York Times article about a former Taliban official attending Yale as a nondegree student. Even Sex Week got national sneers; after a disparaging story ran on a radio show in my hometown of Cincinnati, my parents heard comments such as, “I wouldn’t let my daughter go to a school that did that.” Finally, we had the bizarre saga of E. Forbes Smiley III, chronic rare map thief and scourge of the Beinecke Rare Book Library.
These events lack the scandal of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ 2005 comment about women in the sciences, or his resignation this spring. However, Yale is not impervious to negative exposure in the same way that Harvard is. Harvard’s reputation to prospective students is built entirely on prestige — it is Harvard, and refuses to let them forget it. So what if a scandal or two breaks out? It is the most prestigious school in the world, and the diploma means no less without Summers than with him.
Yale, by contrast, has no need to build its marketing campaign to high-school students on name only. This is because, to put it plainly, Yale is actually fun; Harvard is not. For evidence, please refer to the weekend before last. The concept of fun is clearly key to Yale’s marketing strategy: Some admissions officers call us “the happy Ivy,” and the poster sent to admitted ’09ers depicted a bundle of multicolored streamers blowing past Harkness Tower under a perfect blue sky.
Fairly or not, bad press chips away at that image of happiness. But the happiness lasts long after the scandals are forgotten. Distinguishing Yale from peer institutions by marketing it as enjoyable as well as prestigious has worked well in the past. It should continue to inspire prospective students in the future.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays