Lonergan ’72: A vision for Brown admissions

Guest Columnist

An alien arriving in Providence from a distant planet would marvel at the inefficiency of admissions processes at Brown. Nearly 29,000 people apply, about 3,000 get accepted and about 1,600 end up on campus. How people decide to apply, the process for acceptance and the student’s decision on accepting the acceptance are a black box. Traditionally a highly selective university, Brown chooses from a very small pool of mostly U.S. high school graduates — with 94 percent of Brown applicants in the top 10 percent of their classes.

Those in the Admissions Office have a tough job: How can you evaluate the lifetime promise of an 18-year-old? Those at admissions must be scratching their heads in a lot of cases. How can you make a life-changing decision about a candidate based on a few written pages and a couple of test results?

Even less clear is how people decide to apply to Brown in the first place. Albert Einstein would not have applied to Brown. He would have had to write his essay in English, which would have been a challenge for him in pre-War Zurich and Augsburg. The Herald wouldn’t have been available to him. If he had applied, he probably would not have been accepted.

Finally, those that “get away” to rival universities or ashrams in India — hello, Steve Jobs — reflect a low yield rate and a frustrating loss of opportunity for Brown. How do people decide, after being admitted to the University, that Brown just isn’t for them? In most cases, admitted students who decide to attend Brown know as little about the University than the Admissions Office knew about them when they sent them their fat envelope.

So admissions at Brown is an inefficient, inexact, frustrating and wasteful process. What must Brown do to improve this? How can Brown find and recruit the next budding Nelson Mandelas, Mahatma Gandhis and Albert Einsteins of the world?

Admission is binary. You receive either a thin letter or a fat letter. You’re in or you’re out. It’s like a bad first date.

A better way would be to have a spectrum of ways to get to know students and for them to know Brown. I propose a system in which tens of millions of students would participate in a Brown education. Their opportunities would range from a series of free, online lectures — similar to the Khan Academy model — to certificates for attendance or passing exams, to coached courses offered and monitored by graduate and undergraduate students, to online-tutored and professor-supported courses.

Admissions should be a gradual process. Rather than sending in applications, Brown can intensify its interaction with tens of millions of students, reaching from the slums of Calcutta and the favelas of Rio to the banlieues of Paris and the barefoot classrooms of Vanuatu. As highly promising candidates emerge from first contacts, these students should be encouraged to deepen their interactions with Brown. One option is to connect “honors” high school courses directly to Brown — through both the on-site high school teachers and the honors students. Through a combination of Brown teaching and local support, Brown can provide true “honors” education prior to college admissions. Those who rise to the top, and who choose to live in Providence for four years, would form a part of the elite 1,600 full-time, on-campus, attendees.

Professional baseball teams have single-, double- and triple-A teams. They rarely bring their recruits directly to the majors. Instead, they bring them to the farm teams, coach them and watch their progress.

Moving forward, admissions should not be a binary event. Rather than waiting for applications to come over the transom, admissions should become an active process of interacting with millions. Rather than issuing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision, Brown should offer a spectrum of admissions opportunities. And students who are accepted to Brown will know a good deal more about the University than they do under the current process.

Admissions should be a process, not a milestone or a deadline.


John Lonergan ’72 is a graduate of Harvard Business School and a Silicon valley entrepreneur. He wants you to engage with these issues at 

  • Hmm

    I’m glad I read this. I often see your comments in this website and now I have confirmed you are an idiot