Generation F?

November 10th, 2010

I enjoyed the photo of the wide-eyed freshmen passing through the open Van Wickle Gates ("Meet the Class of 2014," Elms, September/October). Based on the accompanying statistics, it's clear that the class of 2014 reflects Brown's proud commitment to achievement and diversity.

That said, I have a question—or perhaps it's more of a gripe—about one of those statistics. According to the article, 14 percent of the class of 2014 has been deemed "first-generation college." This would be interesting if the metric being used weren't so misleading. Brown—like other top schools for whom "first generation" status has become so trendy—has a rather loose definition of the term. A well-off applicant whose four grandparents possess PhDs would be considered first generation as long as her parents were college dropouts. (If Harvard dropout Bill Gates had married Boston University dropout Nina Totenberg, for example, their children would fit the definition because their parents never graduated from college.) Conversely, an applicant with a truly hardscrabble upbringing—illiterate grandparents, high-school-dropout dad, but a mom who earned her college degree at night school—would not be considered first generation.

None of this would really matter if applicants weren't gaming the admissions process. I have a friend who is on the endowment committee of another Ivy League college, and he tells me that more and more applicants are dumbing-down their parents' academic credentials in order to improve their odds of acceptance. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Brown's admission office does not routinely verify applicants' claims of first-generation status.

I think it's wonderful that Brown is making a concerted effort to recruit from economically disadvantaged regions and high schools where enrollment in a four-year college is more the exception than the rule. However, these noble efforts are undermined when the metric being used to judge success is not only flawed but punishes applicants whose parents have fought to earn the diploma to which their sons and daughters now aspire.

Jon Birger '90
Larchmont, N.Y.

Dean of Admission James Miller replies: I appreciate Mr. Birger's recognition of the College's efforts to sustain and broaden the distinction and diversity of our undergraduates. It is important to note that much of our success is directly attributable to Brown's adoption of a need-blind admission policy nearly a decade ago and to the dramatic expansion of our aid programs in 2008.

Mr. Birger is correct: we cannot prove that a parent did not attend college, and I cannot envision a practical process for doing so, since it remains hard to prove a negative. But in the admission process we can and do consider students' life experiences and what they make of the opportunities available to them, a process that involves a thorough and thoughtful evaluation of their full candidacies, not a tally of which boxes are marked on an application or what level of parental education is reported to an admission committee.

Nationally, the first-generation metric will remain subject to interpretation and nuance. But it is, as well, a useful and instructive longitudinal marker for Brown, and can serve as a valuable reminder that talent flourishes in myriad circumstances and in myriad places.

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Related Issue
November/December 2010