Column | Feb. 26

In the service of the nation's students

This column is the first in a series about socioeconomic diversity and low-income students at the University.

While we were holed up in dorms and libraries studying for finals, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 was out and about, visiting the home of Princeton alumna, one Michelle Obama ’85. I can’t feel too bitter about him running around in Washington, D.C., though, since he was acting in the educational interests of students at Princeton and elsewhere. Eisgruber was attending a summit on college opportunities for low-income students, where he floated important initiatives to improve access to Princeton education for lower-income students. Such initiatives are key to national economic mobility, but do not go far enough in ensuring that excellent education is available to all students, regardless of income.

Incremental initiatives

The summit was capped by the First Lady speaking about the opportunities her time at Princeton had afforded her. As Mrs. Obama said, education at a school like Princeton has a powerful effect on low-income students, due not only to the quality of education at such a school but also to the connections with other thinkers, movers and shakers that students make during our time here.

The Ivy League schools, and their admissions offices especially, are thus gatekeepers to economic and professional success. Princeton especially, with the largest per-student endowment of the Ivies, has the resources to make a marked difference in the lives of students. The policies the University and its peers take toward recruiting, preparing and educating low-income students, then, have the potential to shape the socioeconomic realities of American life as much as any government policy.

University policy can be more farsighted than government policy too. In contrast to the simplest and largest government measures to reduce inequality — progressive taxation and entitlements targeting basic necessities, such as food and medical care — access to elite education ensures that all students are given the opportunity to educate themselves. On the individual level, a student who obtains an elite education is less likely to need these entitlement programs, but the benefits go beyond the student; a Princeton-educated student is a citizen who can contribute more — economically and intellectually — to society than otherwise.

At the White House summit, President Eisgruber released a statement outlining new commitments to expanding opportunity for low-income students. This included three laudable initiatives — developing a STEM module to the Freshman Scholars Institute, expanding Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and continuing efforts to recruit low-income students. FSI is a valuable resource, preparing dozens of students for Princeton’s classes during the summer before freshman year, and adding an option for students interested in STEM careers will benefit these students — and, by extension, their future innovations, colleagues and fields. LEDA’s goal to bring students to Princeton to draw them to a selective education is creditable and dovetails with current efforts to encourage these students to apply by working with their counselors and waiving their application fees.

But these incremental initiatives are not enough.

Failing the litmus test

The lowest income used by Princeton admissions and financial aid offices — a bracket which includes as low as 15.8 percent of Princeton students — is a household income of less than $60,000 annually. As a measure for information on the University’s generous financial aid program, this is sensible — most students below this cutoff are granted full tuition, room and board, while fewer students above it are. But this is not a sensible definition of low-income in measuring economic diversity. In 2012, the annual median income for U.S. families was $51,371. This means the lowest-earning half of American families contributes as little as 15.8 percent of Princeton students. Meanwhile, in 2012 around one third of Princeton students responding to the Committee on Background and Opportunity III report reported their household incomes to be $200,000 or greater, representing a mere 3.8 percent of American households in the 2010 Census.

Lower and middle-income students are woefully underrepresented at elite institutions, particularly Princeton. U.S. News and World Report measures economic diversity of a campus by the proportion of students who are Pell Grant recipients, and Princeton measures at 12 percent – the third lowest among top-25-ranked colleges. Though Princeton has become more diverse since the 1950s, when Jewish and Asian students were rarities and all students were male, it is still severely lacking in meaningful economic diversity. In the face of these disparities, the University’s incremental efforts to improve economic diversity are nearly trivial. What we need is another paradigm shift the size of our groundbreaking no-loan financial aid program, which began for the Class of 2002. Since 2003, in the wake of this program, the University has increased its enrollment of Pell Grant students by 50 percent.

Unfortunately, since then, the University’s priorities have not been on increasing access to a wide range of low-income students. In its report last September, the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity failed to include any discussion of Princeton’s current, historical or desired economic diversity in its report, focusing instead on race and gender. This despite recognizing that “Princeton and its peers do not come close to looking like America today” and maintaining that “[i]f equality of opportunity is the bedrock on which the United States was built, diversity is the litmus test of whether this equality is being truly achieved.” The University’s ultimate goal, then, should be to have student income distribution mirror that of our nation as a whole. Of course, Princeton cannot achieve this goal alone; by the time students even begin applying for college, there is already a dismaying achievement gap along economic lines. Because of this, until we as a nation realize groundbreaking changes in primary and secondary education, Princeton will likely only be able to approach an equitable and representative income distribution.

But this does not mean we cannot make significant strides. The higher proportion of students receiving Pell grants at our peer institutions such as Columbia (30 percent), Harvard (20 percent) and MIT (20 percent) indicates that there is no lack of talented and deserving students among this demographic. In order to reach this demographic makeup, though, the Office of Admission must be proactive throughout the admissions process, not only encouraging these students to apply but also making it more likely that they get in.

opiniongraphicWEBAffirmative Action

Yes, I’m advocating for affirmative action. The Office of Admission should set and actively work towards a target proportion of low-income admits. Like the 35 percent which defines grade deflation, this need not be a strict quota, but should weigh heavily in admissions decisions, individually and as a group.

Last year’s affirmative action case “Fisher v. University of Texas” illustrates in a number of ways the need for this sort of affirmative action. Consider first, rather than the arguments in the case or the plaintiff and defendant, one of the arbiters, one of three Princeton alumni on the Supreme Court. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 has made it well known that affirmative action likely played a part in her admission to Princeton and is unapologetic — with good reason. On campus, Sotomayor struggled to adapt to Princeton’s rigors but soon became a campus leader in Latino issues, often consulted directly by then-President Bowen GS ’58. As a result of her efforts, the University expanded not only its Latino student population, but also committed to hiring Puerto Rican and Latino professors and administrators, and started running a seminar on Puerto Rican political history. Princeton benefited from Sotomayor’s presence at the same time that she benefited from its educational offerings.

Princeton, thanks to the efforts of Sotomayor and those like her, is now more diverse and more welcoming to diversity — and the University understands the importance of race-based affirmative action in this diversity. When “Fisher v. University of Texas” reached the Supreme Court last year, Princeton joined many of its peer institutions in filing an amicus brief, arguing that race-based affirmative action was still a useful tool in building diversity in the student body.

But race-based affirmative action is no longer on its own sufficient for ensuring holistic diversity within the student body. Although unfortunately race and income are still correlated in this country, many racial minorities have a significant number of successful members. As a result, strictly racial affirmative action does not target all the students it should, and some who have no need for the leg up it provides. Taken as a part of a holistic admissions policy, though, it still has a place, especially if the admissions office uses it and information gleaned from students’ personal stories to reach other underrepresented demographics — namely, the bottom half, by income, of Americans.

Yes, the University currently has a holistic admissions process, and yes, lower-income students who have overcome long odds or have compelling perspectives are already considered stronger applicants. But in light of lackluster lower-income enrollment, Princeton must make public its target enrollment numbers, and take good faith measures in making admissions decisions to reach those numbers. If currently, a little over 15 percent of Princeton students come from the lower half of American income, it should not be too much to aim for a third of all those enrolled coming from this income bracket. We may fall short, but we can make great strides nonetheless.

Paying it Forward

Here, a fair question arises: How can Princeton expect to double the enrollment of students in the bracket which gets a full grant? In light of this year’s gross tuition increase, it would be unfair to place the burden squarely on the shoulders of those who can afford to pay every cent of their way through. Some of the money could, perhaps, be made up of alumni donations galvanized by Princeton’s newfound commitment to education for Americans from all classes. Fortunately, a model for expansive free education is already being advanced in the Oregon public university system. Under the Oregon “Pay it Forward” plan, whose planning the state legislature approved last summer, students would pay no tuition whatsoever, instead dedicating a small percentage of all future income to the state university system. If the University were to give students who could not otherwise afford it the option to enter a program similar to this one, full tuition and fees need not be covered by grants — they can be covered in the future by the students themselves. Thus Princeton would literally make an investment by educating its students, and allow more lower-income students admission while staying on the forefront of financial aid. Such a program would clearly be more complicated than I can put forward right now, but it is important to understand that money should not be a problem to a creative financial aid office.

Leading the way from here

The best part of publicly aiming to admit more lower-income students? Princeton will be seen as an accessible option for the highest achievers who might not otherwise have given the Ivy League — bastion of wealth that it is — a second thought. When more talented students apply, the expanded room for such students fills itself. And if one school succeeds, other schools will follow. With enough effort, elite intuitions need no longer be elitist institutions, and can instead be ladders by which the Sonia Sotomayor’s and Michelle Obama’s of the future — driven students of all colors, genders, and identities – can enter the ranks of our leaders. Thus, Princeton acting in the service of students allows the University to act in the service of this nation and all nations, while individual students are each given the opportunity they deserve to succeed.

Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu.

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