Few people know more about what it takes to get into one of America's top colleges than Tom Parker, Amherst's dean of admissions and financial aid. Parker, who came to Amherst after many years in the admissions office at Williams College (he's a 1969 graduate), has now spent a quarter of a century working in the rarefied environs of elite college admissions, where even outstanding applicants are routinely rejected.
Last year, for example, his office received applications from a record 6,284 students. Of these, a stunning 76% ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes, and more than half scored better than 700 on either the verbal or the math portions of the SAT. Even so, Amherst rejected 81% of those who applied.
Since last May, Parker has taken time out of his hectic schedule to periodically meet with BusinessWeek's William C. Symonds, in the converted 19th-century farmhouse where Amherst's admissions office is based. In these meetings, the energetic Parker, who typically greets visitors with a broad smile, was unusually open about how the admissions process works -- and why he thinks it needs to be changed to give low-income students a better shot at getting in. Here are edited excerpts from their conversations.
How do you sift through the mountain of applications you get?
We have 14 people here who read applications. And we still insist that two people read each application. As they do, they assign each applicant an academic rating, ranging from one (the highest rating) to seven (inadmissible). But we get very few sevens -- no more than 200 a year.
So it is tougher than ever to get in?
Yes. Over the last decade, the [competition] has gone through the roof. This is no longer selective admissions. This is hyper-selective admissions.
What does it take to rise to the top of your rankings?
Those kids have been shot out of a cannon. They are super achievers. They've had access to 8 or 12 advanced placement courses and have SATs of 750 and above [out of a perfect 800 on each test]. And many of them are not only smart academically, but they have done many other things as well.
Do most of these superstars come from affluent backgrounds?
Yes. To be that advanced, you have to have an extraordinary set of educational advantages. And in this country, just as incomes are diverging -- with the top 5% going through the roof -- the same thing is happening with educational opportunities. The affluent towns are taking care of their kids.
Of course, academic success isn't the only factor in admissions. What kind of preference do you give legacies -- the sons or daughters of alumni?
We take about half of those who apply.
That is astonishing, given that you accept fewer than 20% of all applicants. Why do they get such an advantage?
That figure is somewhat misleading, because we counsel a significant number of our legacies out of applying. It is much better to do this early in the process, rather than have alumni parents count on Amherst, and then on Apr. 1, their world is blown up [when their child gets a rejection letter]. Still, about 10% of a class is sons and daughters of alumni. Why? Because we're a private institution with a big endowment, and that was given to us by the alumni.
What kind of preference do you give athletes?
We now have 66 or 67 "athletic admits" each year [out of class of 425]. That's down from 96 in 1999, which we felt was excessive.
How do the athletes stack up academically?
On average, they rank about a 3.5 [combined SATs of 1350 to 1400]. By national standards, that's still pretty high. But we go down to 5's [SATs of 1250 to 1300] to recruit some football and hockey players.
Doesn't that compromise your academic standards?
We have to do that to be competitive. If we were to say we would no longer take any more 5s for football, the team would turn into a travesty. And with ice hockey, we would be talking about not having a team at all.
Most of your legacy admits come from pretty wealthy homes. What about the athletes?
Our athletic admits are not representative of the student body. They track towards the high end socio-economically. And that's because the kid (we recruit to play squash, for instance) was on the squash court at age 7, and playing in tournaments at age 12. And that's what you see in [wealthy towns].
So what you're saying is that the admissions process is really stacked in favor of affluent kids?
If you think this is a level playing field, forget it. The prospects who are most likely to apply, be accepted, and matriculate are affluent. They simply are. These are the students whose parents start talking to them about college in junior high, if not before.
Does that mean you'll have to use a form of affirmative action to increase the number of low-income students, just as you did for racial minorities a generation ago?
That is absolutely right. My fear is that we're evolving into a one-chance-only society. [To combat that], we're going to work harder to identify promising low-income kids and look at the obstacles they've had to overcome.
How much will you have to sacrifice your standards to increase the number of low-income students?
Let's be upfront: If we're going to do this, we're going to give up some SAT points. Right now, at institutions like Amherst, the credentials [of admitted students] are in the stratosphere. We know the sacrifice we need to make. And it's not going from 1500 [on the SAT] to 1200. It is going from 1500 to 1380 or so. To me, that is still a very smart kid.
What are you going to have to do to make sure these students succeed at Amherst?
We'll have to catch them up with the kids who've been shot out of a cannon. That is our job. And I'm optimistic. I've seen a cultural shift. Five years ago, there was a feeling that if they can't do the work, they shouldn't be here.
What difference will coming to Amherst make for these low-income students?
I really believe in the transformative power of these places. Coming here will increase their social mobility and their sense of possibility.
Why are you so committed to this cause?
I was one of the four poorest kids in my class at Williams. My Dad was a PE teacher in a private school, and my mother could not go to college because she had to work. My parents were reared in the Depression. So I was very fortunate to go to Williams. And I was a different individual by the time I graduated.
Do you think this new program of affirmative action will create a backlash?
There is a huge sense of entitlement, and the people who have this money are politically sophisticated. So maybe we'll see legislation [aimed at stopping this]. But I'm not afraid of it. I think this is an easier battle to win than racial affirmative action.
Elite colleges are usually pretty secretive about the trade-offs they make in admissions. So why are you being so open?
That secrecy makes people desperately cynical. But when you shine a light on this stuff, it is much better than people imagine. So there is not going to be any block box in this operation.