Light on the Hill, Volume II

Miller, Russell


Admisssions and enrollment policies for the undergraduate division of Arts and Sciences naturally determined to a major extent the nature and character of the bulk of the Tufts student body. The Wessell administration followed closely the recommendations by the Admissions Committee of the Tufts-Carnegie Self-Study completed in 1958. The very first one listed was to

permit very little, or no expansion of degree enrollments for the next decade.

With the exception of Jackson College the institution, in terms of facilities, was in fact considered already over-expanded by then. Further increase might adversely affect the academic quality of the student body, which was already higher for Jackson students than for Liberal Arts and Engineering, partly because of the more restrictive enrollment limits in relation to applications.

There was much attention paid to presenting an honest and accurate picture of the institution to prospective students and their parents. One recommendation later carried out was to create a standing Committee on Undergraduate Admissions to deal with policy matters and to act as an advisor to the Dean of Admissions.

Tufts had long been a selective institution in its admissions policies. The number who were actually admitted was always far less than the number of those who applied. The criteria were those generally followed by most private institutions of higher education although the emphasis on particular criteria tended to vary from time to time and from school to school.

President Wessell pointed with special pride to the high quality of the undergraduate student body as measured by Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and opened almost every faculty meeting at the beginning of the school year with an oral report extolling the relatively high scores of entering classes in Arts and Sciences. He also kept the trustees fully informed, and called attention to the fact that in i 958-59 the median score on the SAT for undergraduates was in


the top 5 percent of entering students nationwide; the percentage was the same in 1964.

A profile of entering students prepared by the Office of Admissions in 1961 indicated that, as compared with twenty-three other selective Eastern liberal arts institutions, Tufts ranked about the middle in mean SAT scores and slightly above the middle in terms of the secondary school class rank of entering students. Translated into numerical terms, the average SAT verbal scores for Liberal Arts and Jackson students were 595,and 630 for mathematical (quantitative) aptitude. The SAT verbal scores of men tended to be lower than those of Jackson, while the reverse was true for the mathematical scores. This was particularly evident among engineering students. The highest scores in Liberal Arts and Jackson recorded during the Wessell administration were in 1961-62, when the Admissions Office reported that the scores of entering students were in excess of 6io for both verbal and mathematical sections of the test.

Even in the face of a national decline in SAT scores in the 197os, Tufts was able to report in 1975 that, with a nationwide average which had declined to 434, the scores of its newly admitted students averaged better than 550 for the three undergraduate colleges. Its reputation as a highly selective institution remained unchallenged if test scores alone were considered.

As to Tufts' record in recruiting students with high secondary school class rankings, a record was reached in i 961, when an impressive 77 percent of incoming Liberal Arts students were in the first quintile. Even more impressive was the 86. percentage for Jackson students ? a significant increase for both sets of students in less than a decade. However, the rank in secondary school of accepted students declined significantly to less than 40 percent in the first quintile in 1968. This was in large part a reflection of a 20 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment for the decade ending that year, necessitated by increased dependence on tuition as a source of income. Even earlier there had been a growing attrition rate. It had amounted to io percent in 1962 and had resulted in a special faculty meeting to consider the problem. President Wessell seemed less impressed than heretofore with the rather mechanistic three-point criteria for predictability of academic success (the two SAT scores and class rank) introduced by John C. Palmer, who had been appointed Dean of Undergraduate Admissions in 1959. Wessell warned in 1963 that SAT's should not be overrated as a part of the admissions formula. He called for more broadly based criteria and even suggested the admission of a small percentage of ?calculated risks? whose talents


were measured by other than conventional academic criteria. (It is difficult if not impossible to determine statistically whether this policy was ever actually carried out.)

Part of the general broadening of the entire admissions process was the introduction in 196 1-62 of the policy of training undergraduates in a two-year program to assist in admissions so that they could serve as recruiters when they became alumni. There were over 175 alumni representatives involved in student recruitment in 1963-64, with contacts made in thirty-eight states and six foreign countries. A brief experiment was tried of using selected faculty as interviewers, but it was abandoned when it was realized how time-consuming the process was. There was also no convincing proof that interviews, as such, made a significant contribution to the selection of desirable prospective students. Procedures in the Admissions Office were restructured in i 970-71 in such a way that Liberal Arts and Jackson applications were integrated into one file, and the practice of a separate officer to handle Jackson applications was abandoned.

One weapon in the arsenal of the Admissions Office was a widely distributed and very popular sound motion picture (in full color) entitled

How One College Educates,

first produced in 1954. It went through several editings for length (and relevance) and was redone and updated completely in 1972.

An especially sensitive area in admissions policy was the handling of so-called


; that is, those students who were in some way related to alumni or were the children of faculty or staff. Children in the latter two categories were given either tuition remission if admitted to an undergraduate program or reduction of tuition if admitted to one of Tufts' graduate professional programs. The perception prevailed that, somehow, such students were "special cases" and should be treated accordingly. There tended to be a higher percentage of legacies in Liberal Arts than in Jackson. Some pressure always existed from alumni to admit their offspring, although its intensity varied from year to year. The trustees were particularly aware of this because one-third of them were automatically alumni by charter authorization and the majority of charter (formerly life) members have also been Tufts alumni. (Thirteen of the twenty charter and life trustees in 1985 were Tufts graduates.)

The percentage of acceptance of legacies tended to be somewhat higher than for other applicants. In 1973 a study of admissions policies was conducted by the trustees and revealed that there were 645 legacy applications to the three colleges making up Arts and Sciences, and 44 percent were admitted, as compared to 30 percent


for all applicants. As to actual enrollment of those admitted, the total was 62 percent as compared to 43 percent of all those accepted. In the decade between 1962 and 1972 the acceptance rate was 42 percent among legacies, those actually attending comprising slightly less than 14 percent of each entering class during that decade.

One trustee complained in 1975 of a "bad relationship" existing between the Admissions Office and the alumni, arguing that too many academically qualified legacies were being turned down and that there was too much indifference about offering explanations for failure to be admitted. The only solution seemed to be a "conscious effort" to pay greater attention to legacies.

The first attempt to codify admission policies pertaining to legacies was adopted by the trustee Educational Policy Committee in 1975. The idea of preferential treatment was opposed by the Dean of Admissions. However, he made one concession to legacies. The records of those rejected in the normal course of events were kept on file, under federal regulations, for three years, while those of legacies were retained for five years. He made a second concession by increasing, between 1966 and i 976, the proportion of acceptances


to applications so that the total came closer to 50 percent than 40 percent.

Applications to the College of Liberal Arts jumped from 1,700 in 1960 to 3,500 in 1967. In January ?959 the trustees voted to increase Jackson enrollment to 700 as facilities permitted. Applications doubled, from 1,300 in 1960 to 2,500 in 1967. Tufts had, according to the Dean of Admissions, the "largest applicant-matriculation ratio in the country."

The institution had recorded the largest undergraduate entering class in its history in i 968 ? a number exceeded a year later. And the tradition of a quality student body of which President Wessell had always been so proud, was still being generally maintained. In a nation-wide survey of the 2,319 degree-granting post-secondary educational institutions existing in the United States in 1968, Tufts ranked among the top 70 as measured by SAT scores of entering students.[1]  The policy of selectivity during the Hallowell years was best illustrated by statistics for 1971-72. The ratio of Liberal Arts and Jackson applications to admissions was i 1 to 1, while that for Engineering was 4 to 1.

However, such figures can be quite deceptive when it came down to those who actually attended. Of the 1,700 Liberal Arts applicants in 1960 only 300 actually registered. The proportion was even more skewed for Jackson. Of the 1,300 who applied in 1960, only 175 first- year students actually entered the institution. The disparity was even greater four years later; of more than 1,800 applications, only 203 enrolled. Not only was there but a distant relation between the number of applications and those who actually appeared, but over- and under-enrollments occurred more than once. The most dramatic instance of miscalculation was in i when the expected 31 percent attendance rate of first-year applicants jumped to 49 percent, with a corresponding increase in enrollment amounting to some 200 students. The housing emergency that resulted from the ?bulge class? of 1981 necessitated the (expensive) leasing of two floors of a hotel in Cambridge and special arrangements for transportation and resident advisers.

It was this annual gamble that turned prematurely gray the heads of most admissions officers, who had to balance such constraints as optimum enrollment figures in each college with such


imponderables as alumni pressures and the uncertainties arising out of the vagaries of individual decisions and multiple applications. The average number of applications to various institutions was three per person. This included one or more alternate choices on which to fall back in case first and second choices did not materialize. The Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, appointed in 1976, reported that as many as eight applications were submitted to as many institutions. As the competitive position of Tufts tended to rise over the years in relation to other first-class institutions, and as the number of applications increased, the gap between acceptances and undergraduate enrollments became greater and greater.

In Arts and Sciences there were in 1959 (in round numbers), 3,300 applicants, only 720 actually enrolled; in 1964, 5,300 applicants and 700 enrolled; and in 1969, 7,400 applicants and 850 enrolled. The acceptance rate between i and i averaged 38 percent, the lowest (30 percent) in 1979. A relative decline in the ratio of acceptances to applicants in 1975 was attributed to inadequate financial aid. The device of a "waiting list" was increasingly used. However, there was some comfort in the fact that, as of 1976, the number of those admitted who listed Tufts as their first choice reached an all- time high.

In the early 1970S there was a steady decline in SAT scores all over the nation which attracted considerable public attention. For the first time in many years the numerical mean fell below 6oo at Tufts (in 1973). This was a reflection not only of a national phenomenon (including increased administration of tests in the eleventh grade), but of heightened enrollment of minorities. The institution in this respect shared the same experience as many another.

The admissions picture was considerably clouded in the mid196os by a considered decision to increase the social, geographic, and ethnic diversity of the undergraduate student body. Tufts thus put itself in the somewhat contradictory position of attempting simultaneously to select the most academically able students. After Palmer?s retirement in 1976 more emphasis was placed by the new Dean of Undergraduate Admissions (Michael Behnke) on such criteria as extracurricular activities and secondary school leadership records than on narrowly academic criteria. One effort intensified by the incoming dean was to counterbalance the disproportion between acceptances and enrollment and increase the "yield" by emphasizing the desirability of so-called "early decision," whereby the prospective student made at least a moral commitment to attend Tufts if accepted. The entire admissions system had, by the 1970s and 1980s, become an


intricate, complex, and highly sophisticated operation in an educational world competing with increasing intensity for good students.


[1] A.W. Astin and C.B.T. Lee, The Invisible Colleges (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1972), p.4.

  • Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University, was published in 1986, covering the years from 1952 to 1986. This doucument was created from the 1986 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume II.
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 Title Page
1. Setting the Stage for the Second Century
2. Long-Range Planning
3. Bricks and Mortar 1952-1967
4. The End of Theological Education at Tufts
5. Ever-Widening Curricula for Liberal Arts and Engineering
6. Jackson College: A Search for Identity
7. Defining the Role of the College of Special Studies
8. The Arts and Sciences Faculty I
9. The Arts and Sciences Faculty II
10. The Central Library
11. The Changing Character of the Student Body
12. Fraternities and Sororities at Tufts: A Cyclical History
13. A Beehive of Activity: From Trustees to Students
14. From Wessell to Hallowell
15. The Hallowell Administration: Years of Trial and Tribulation
16. The Hallowell Administration: Continued Trial and Tribulation
17. Educational Ventures, Successful and Otherwise
18. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
19. Medical and Dental Education I
20. Medical and Dental Education II
21. Taking Stock of the University in the 1960s and 1970s
22. The Mayer Administration: A Preliminary View
23. The Mayer Administration: Consolidation and Expansion