Ah, the eating clubs, that uniquely Princeton institution; those sleek, elegant buildings that are the destination of a stately pilgrimage by a huge portion of Princeton Tigers every Thursday, every Saturday and some Fridays too. The eating clubs are tucked neatly out of the way on Prospect Avenue but they loom large in the collective consciousness. They dominate the social scene and whether you decide to join one or you decide to opt out of the system, every Princetonian has to deal with the eating clubs at some point. Keeping that in mind, I think it is important to think about how the eating clubs might appear to prospective students.
One major problem is that many prefrosh do not know anything about the eating clubs at all. As one naïve prospective student put it, “I know nothing beyond the fact that eating clubs are social groups.” This reaction is not all that uncommon, and this is concerning. The eating clubs play a large enough role on campus that you ought to have a good understanding of them before you commit to Princeton.
With costs that are frequently prohibitively expensive (although the Financial Aid Office does help some students with that) and the tradition of bickering to get in (although some clubs allow you to just sign in), the eating clubs are often the target of severe criticism. They have been accused of discouraging low-income students from coming to Princeton: Princeton is the Iviest of the Ivies and the eating clubs are the Iviest institution of all. A culture so defined by wealth and status might not seem accessible to prospective low-income students. Even if low-income students may be able to join a club with the help of financial aid, they might not feel they have a place in the hyper-privileged culture represented by the eating clubs. After talking to a few recently admitted students, I found that this year’s prefrosh who are already familiar with the clubs are already starting to stake out positions on the issue. One skeptical prefrosh told me, “I’m not interested in joining an elitist exclusionary group.” Although that particular student wasn’t turned away from Princeton by the fact that our social scene can come across as “elitist and exclusionary,” other prospective students might be. If you are not interested in selectiveness in your social life, you might decide not to even apply to Princeton. Although the reality of the eating clubs might differ from their posh appearance, an unwelcoming image is damaging enough.
Of course, the flip side of the argument is that the eating clubs’ mystique and air of exclusivity might actually attract other students. Another prospective student told me, “I plan on joining one of the more selective [eating clubs].” It seems, then, that in some cases, the idea of a hard-to-get-into social club might actually be a draw. That raises the question of what sort of students we are attracting to Princeton. Because Princeton is in the Ivy League, it is undeniable that at least some students will be drawn to it primarily for its exclusivity. There is something about knowing you are special enough to get in that many might find appealing. The eating clubs merely take it to the next level — if you are someone who is searching for exclusivity, they can provide an additional layer of it even within one of the nation’s most elite schools.
The fact that these students had opinions on it in the first place is a good start given that many prefrosh don’t know anything about the eating clubs. The crucial thing is that students learn more about them before they choose Princeton. As an upperclassman, you will have to choose either to join a club or to buck the tradition. Either way you will be shaping your social life in relation to the clubs. Because of this, prefrosh need to be well-informed about our idiosyncratic dining and social system. An open, frank discussion of the clubs might also help alleviate worries of exclusivity: something especially pertinent to keep in mind as Preview approaches. Hopefully, more transparency about the whole process might help students make more informed decisions about where they go to college, Princeton or elsewhere.
Zeena Mubarak is a freshman from Fairfax, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.