Column | Dec. 10

Fulfilling our admissions promise

Princeton does a pretty good job extending financial aid to students. It also has a fairly strong record of nominal diversity — racial, ethnic and economic — in recent history. Several of its institutions, from the admission department to eating clubs, have been shamefully late in treating humans equally, but all are presently up to speed, at least nominally. How these groups are treated once on campus could fill several books or theses, but let’s focus on academic preparedness. Having taken its place at the table of modern enlightenment, our institution suffers a common problem — in extending an offer of admission to all comers, there are practical differences in admitted students’ preparation that persist through all four years of study.

A proportion of students enter Princeton with years of specialized training — from intensive summer camps, research experience, advanced tutoring and more. Our generous and varied concentration structure means that even informal proficiency in cultures or languages can represent an essentially fair but nonetheless real structural advantage. Most students have a mix of formal and informal preparation, so how should we ensure that all students can pursue their concentration of choice?  Here are four propositions for reconciling the implicit goal of practically allowing each student access to each concentration with the reality of differences in preparation.

The main argument is for sufficient preparation across secondary schools. Preparation through calculus alone would, technically speaking, prepare students for the mathematics department (though some experience with real analysis would be preferable — here enters specialized training). Experience differentials can be seen across STEM fields — since calculus is a precursor for the engineering concentrations, which must be chosen by the end of the first year, this precludes a substantial number of students. By contrast, training in English and history form the building blocks of the social sciences, all of which have 100-level introductory courses for which no prior specialized knowledge is assumed. Yet the reality is that many secondary schools in the United States — containing brilliant individuals to whom Princeton admission is offered — do not universally prepare students for all of these subjects.

Second, Princeton should expand the Freshman Scholars Institute and have it track students across years. This is a relatively low-profile program which, on the surface, gets the balance exactly right. The program targets students from secondary schools without advanced coursework but also targets students enrolling in intensive humanities or sciences programs. The FSI is an example of active training, and it should be expanded across all four summers (starting before the freshman fall) and opened for students to access as they choose.

Third, standardize and expand intensive double-load courses designed to build proficiency within a more limited time frame than usual. Toward this end, there should be double credit across new and existing options so students don’t incur a course deficit while taking an equivalent workload. For the case of “TurboGreek,” which covers two semesters of Ancient Greek in one semester, the option lets students consolidate and concentrate their respective workloads. It also lets students backtrack and cover a year’s worth of Greek in the spring semester — and a nontrivial number of students discover their academic interests after the first semester.

Fourth, promote “boot camps” and open them to all students. A “boot camp” is an informal course taught in the summer before a fall graduate course designed to prepare entering graduate students for coursework for which they may be intellectually but not practically qualified. Currently, undergraduate students taking graduate courses are invited to participate, but that seems fairly late in the academic life cycle and generally contingent on registration in a graduate course. It stands to reason that a proportion of undergraduates would not register for these courses but would benefit from the workshop format and the training.

The elephant in the room is self-perception. To benefit from these programs, a student has to feel comfortable approaching — and admitting — the possibility that the stellar record which contributed to admission has a limited impact on future expected performance. Part of this is by design, since our shift-the-goalposts grading policy can create an environment in which the student feels deprived of benefits accrued by very similar individuals. Part of that, in turn, is the result of the academic life cycle — more experienced students tend to score more highly than less experienced students in the same courses.

An anecdote on academic life cycles: mine. I received an abysmal grade in both introductory neuroscience courses and scored above the median in the introductory graduate neuroscience course three years later. It gets better — usually. Now imagine the psychological trap mentioned above starting before the first lecture through real and perceived structural differences. Imagine it persisting through a seemingly indifferent or, in the cases outlined above, nonexistent support structure. Most importantly, imagine it not being resolved, as it generally is through experience and specialization, but instead persisting over four years. Imagine constantly playing catchup on company time instead of taking a summer to recuperate through a targeted program. It’s not fun, and it doesn’t always end.

James Di Palma-Grisi is a psychology major from Glen Rock, N.J. He can be reached at jdi@princeton.edu.


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