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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

The improving admission picture at Reed certainly looks good, especially in the higher education world, where admission selectivity is seen as a crucial marker of quality and prestige.

But is it “Reed-good”?

For most of its history, Reed’s position on admission was that the college didn’t want or need to be selective. The argument went like this: students who apply understand Reed’s distinctive character, and by applying, they essentially self-select to become Reedies. The “sink-or-swim” approach to academic work of many professors reinforced that attitude: if you could make it through the intellectual gauntlet, all the better; if you couldn’t, you probably weren’t cut out for Reed anyway.

As a result, the college barely bothered to do any marketing. When a prospective student inquired for more information, the admission office mailed them a course catalog and nothing else.

In the early 1980s, Reed was receiving fewer than 1,000 applications for approximately 300 spots in the incoming class; one year, more than 90 percent of applicants were accepted. The college was even less selective earlier in its history, although reliable statistics are not available. “There were a few years when we were accepting students we didn’t want to accept,” says Barbara Amen, who served as associate dean of admission from 1980 until the mid-1990s and now directs Reed’s Master of Liberal Studies (MALS) program.

Amen concedes that many of the marginal students the college used to admit ended up dropping out or transferring. But she points out that some of those riskier students flourished despite the odds, helping to make Reed special. “Yes, we took in students of maybe average ability on paper,” she says, “but they had a certain intellectual curiosity and motivation. They were inspired by this place. And they no doubt developed in ways even they may not have anticipated.” Amen recalls one applicant whom she argued strongly against admitting. She was overruled. Four years later, she sat in on the student’s thesis defense. “I was humbled,” she says. “He did a great job at Reed and went on to get a Ph.D.”

Reed’s brave new admission world is viewed warily by some alumni, who worry out loud that too many students with high potential are being overlooked with the emphasis on traditional measures of achievement.

“What’s concerning,” says Konrad Alt ’81, a banking consultant and president of the Reed alumni board, “is that the college is becoming increasingly selective based on standardized criteria like SATs. There used to be a sense that the college took more chances on people outside of the mainstream, which sometimes turned out extraordinarily well, and sometimes didn’t. Now we seem to be going the same way as everybody else, and something may be getting lost.”

reed magazine logoSpring 2008