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Updated: U. may join First Lady’s initiative to increase low-income students’ access to higher education

Princeton is in conversations with the White House about taking part in a new educational initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama ’85 that seeks to increase low-income students’ access to higher education.

Nevertheless, some administrators and faculty said they appreciated the motives behind the new initiative but expressed skepticism about the potential impacts of the initiative if applied to Princeton, noting that the University has already taken a number of measures to recruit low-income students and is already actively working to improve those measures.

Obama announced the initiative in November in a speech at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. She argued for the need to admit more low-income students to colleges and universities in order to raise the proportion of Americans graduating from college. Although details of the initiative have not been made officially available, these may include funding and incentives for colleges to increase their numbers of low-income students, according to Inside Higher Education. Administrators from several colleges nationwide reportedly have met with White House staffers regarding the initiative. Following initial publication of this article, University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 wrote a Letter to the Editor noting that University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has been in communication with the White House about the effort.

Speaking to an audience of Bell students, the University’s high-profile alumna framed the dilemmas facing low-income students in terms of her own experience applying to Princeton.

“I decided I was going to Princeton. But I quickly realized that for me, a kid like me, getting into Princeton wasn’t just going to happen on its own,” Obama said, explaining the financial and educational constraints on low-income students, according to a transcript of the speech she gave in November.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the immediate college enrollment rate for low-income students in 2011 was 53.5 percent, compared to 82.4 percent for high-income students.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Reactions to Obama’s initiative

“I certainly applaud [Obama] for doing this work,” Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye said in an interview. “It is important, and I’m thrilled that she is using her position to talk about this issue.”

Rapelye said she hoped the initiative would increase federal funding for student loans and financial aid, noting that the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which allowed over 2.2 million military veterans to attend college, could provide a model for Obama’s efforts.

But Rapelye also explained that she doubted the viability of the initiative.

“Something like the GI Bill that really made a statement and allowed students to go to college for the first time, I’d be thrilled if something had come up like that,” Rapelye said. “In this political environment, I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”

Politics professor and department chair Nolan McCarty, who said he comes from a “low-income family,” added that simple tactics might be the most effective for Princeton to increase the proportion of low-income students in its student body, rather than participating in a government initiative or expanding college-oriented programming that has proven successful in metropolitan areas.

He noted that one of the most significant obstacles facing low-income students was a lack of access to adults who can accurately inform them about applying to college.

“Before we start talk about tracking [low-income students] into special programs and academies and all these things that are going to cost you a lot of money, we ought to just find ways to reach out to them and make them understand that [attending an elite college] is an option, and that it’s a realistic option,” McCarty said.

McCarty said that while the University might not be the target audience for the Obama initiative, Obama would be successful in increasing college graduation rates if she improved the situation at public universities.

“I think in general what the government needs to do is to continue or to stop the decline of state support and state-supported institutions,” McCarty said. “The first-order thing is to strengthen state institutions, where most students are most likely to attend.”

William G. Bowen GS ’58, a former University president who has written a book on increasing graduation rates at public universities, noted that focusing attention on public universities, which have lower graduation rates than private colleges, would yield the greatest returns to any initiative to increase graduation rates.

Recalling a conversation with a dean at Ohio State University, a public institution, Bowen said that he believed public universities in particular had a problem with a culture where failing to graduate on time wasn’t stigmatized.

A 2012 University of Tennessee study found that undergraduates who fail to graduate in four years earn significantly less per year than other students.

Princeton “has to do more” to recruit low-income students

The University and the federal government have different definitions for what they consider low income.

For the University, “low-income” students are those whose family’s income is under $60,000, independently of the size of the family.

But for the federal government, which considers low-income status to be variable by family size, a family of four is currently considered low-income at or below an annual income of $35,325.

Low-income students comprise between 15.8 and 19.6 percent of the current classes enrolled at Princeton, according to the Office of Admission. The Class of 2014 has the smallest number of low-income students while the Class of 2017 has the largest.

Currently, the University offers a no-loan financial aid program that started with the Class of 2002. Low-income students made up 7.7 percent of the Class of 2001, roughly half compared to current levels.

Despite the steadily increasing percentage of low-income students in successive classes, McCarty called on the University to act independently of national initiatives to further diversify the student body.

“If Princeton wants to have a diverse student body that reflects the society we live in, you can take the gap between median income, about $60,000,” McCarty said, explaining that the percentage of low-income students attending universities like Princeton is still not representative of this group as a percentage of the national population.

“I mean, 50 percent of families fall into a category that only 19 percent of Princeton students fall in, so that’s probably one of the biggest discrepancies in terms of proportionality that you could find,” he added.

McCarty noted that the University has made fairly extensive gains in recruiting low-income students from urban areas, but it still needs to look to states like Oklahoma and Kansas to increase the proportion of low-income students in its student body.

“I don’t think you can tell schools there to develop programs. They have so many other constraints,” he said. “I think that Princeton has to do more. I think if there were a football player in Odessa, Texas, Princeton would find them, but if there were a future scientist there, they’re not looking very far.”

Bowen said that the University could do more to help low-income college applicants by using its alumni to talk to high school students about their college options, even if they wouldn’t be candidates for admission to Princeton.

“That might be one way that Princeton can help with this national problem is with their armies of ambassadors out there, who can communicate the right message, even to kids who are not Princeton-bound,” he said.

However, he noted that in the grand scheme of things, were Princeton to attract more low-income students, it would have little to no effect on the overall number of low-income students attending colleges in the United States.

“The big issues from a policy standpoint for the country are not a Princeton matter,” he said.

But he argued that Princeton’s capacity to admit more low-income students was constrained by the fact that not enough low-income students are applying to selective colleges. Obama has asserted that well-qualified, low-income students face barriers in applying to and enrolling at institutions that are not as competitive as the ones to which they could be accepted, the so-called problem of “undermatching.”

Rapelye cited the difficulty of low-income student identification as a hindrance to the University’s attempts to attract low-income students. She said that the tendency of Princeton-eligible, low-income students to come from a wide variety of high schools and areas makes it difficult to recruit from one year to the next.

But Rapelye noted the importance of nonprofit organizations in the University’s recruitment of low-income students, naming community-based organizations like Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and QuestBridge. The Office of Admission also partners with the Princeton University Preparatory Program, a competitive, tuition-free program that provides college counseling, academic enrichment programs and field trips to academically qualified Mercer County high school students.

Rapelye said that University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has made focusing attention on low-income students in the admission process a priority.

“I know President Eisgruber feels very strongly that we should be reaching out to students from low-income backgrounds,” Rapelye said.

In his September installation address, Eisgruber argued that colleges in general should work to make higher education affordable for low-income students, including by providing adequate financial aid.

University financial aid “a huge factor” in recruitment of low-income students

Brittney Watkins ’16, who said she was targeted by the University’s outreach efforts through Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, explained that the University’s financial aid contributes to the success of the University’s recruiting efforts.

“The aid is a huge factor and a lot of the reason people come here,” Watkins said. “That was their defining factor, that Princeton was basically free,” Watkins said.

Undergraduate financial aid director Robin Moscato noted that the University has taken additional steps to help low-income families navigate the process of applying for financial aid and said she felt that University financial aid was adequate, explaining that the University replaced student loans with grant funding over a decade ago.

Moscato added that the University replaced the College Scholarship Service profile with the shorter and free Princeton Financial Aid Application because it felt that the CSS document was too cumbersome and charged a fee to send it to colleges.

She also said that the Financial Aid Office works with the Office of Admission to recruit low-income students.

“What the Financial Aid Office really tries to do is to present the data in a format that the admissions office can use to communicate [Princeton's affordability] in its outreach efforts,” she said.

Unlike most of its peer institutions, the University does not require the CSS profile as part of its financial aid application.

Despite the University’s generous financial aid, however, Watkins said that coming to Princeton still required adjustment.

“It can be a culture shock at times coming here,” Watkins said. “Even the $10,000 chairs in Lewis Library, somebody told me that after I was sitting in one, and I just freaked out, like somebody spends $10,000 on one chair.”

A 2009 University Press Club blog post states that 33 “Egg” chairs, made by Republic of Fritz Hansen, exist in Lewis Library. The chairs each had a retail value of $5,934 in 2009, although the post notes that bulk prices may have been lower.

Staff writer Lorenzo Quiogue contributed reporting. 

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misattributed a statement regarding the University’s involvement in the White House initiative to University Provost David Lee GS ’99. Lee had not commented directly on the University’s involvement in the initiative. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.  

Editor’s Note: This article initially reported that the University was not planning on participating in the White House initiative. This was based on information learned in interviews with senior University administrators. Following publication of this article, University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 submitted a Letter to the Editor indicating that the University was, in fact, in conversations with the White House about the initiative. This article has been updated to reflect this information. 

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