Does Princeton University seek to attract middle and low-income families? With their eating clubs and perennially powerhouse men’s lacrosse team, the university certainly has a reputation for catering to our nation’s privileged elite. But make no mistake — Princeton University, like many highly selective colleges, has made a concerted effort in recent years to attract middle and low-income young people to their Princeton, New Jersey campus. We’d argue the data suggests Princeton has made even a greater effort than most of their peer institutions.
Princeton’s Effort To Attract Low-Income Students
There’s an excellent piece in “The Washington Post” by Nick Anderson entitled “How an Ivy got less preppy: Princeton draws surge of students from modest means” that offers insight into the efforts the school has made over the last dozen years in particular to recruit students from places the university hadn’t previously recruited, to identify applicants who otherwise would have gone overlooked. Maybe the student’s teacher recommendation letters were written hastily or maybe the letters didn’t say all that much. But maybe this was a reflection of the fact that the teacher didn’t know how to write a great letter of recommendation more so than it was a reflection of the student’s abilities. Maybe the student’s SAT or ACT scores weren’t all that great — because they didn’t have the option of turning to expensive tutoring. It’s these sorts of things that Princeton’s Dean of Admission Janet Levin Rapelye encouraged her team of admissions officers to think about when debating the admission of applicants from low-income or middle-income families.
The Success of Princeton’s Efforts
As Anderson writes in his piece in “The Washington Post,” “In little more than a dozen years, Princeton University tripled the share of freshmen who qualify for federal Pell Grants to 22 percent this fall. The grants, targeting students from low-to-moderate-income families with significant financial need, are a key indicator of economic diversity. The Ivy League school’s transformation reflects mounting pressure on top colleges, public and private, to provide more opportunity to communities where poverty is common and college degrees scarce.”
The Myth of Need-Blind Admissions
This is fantastic news indeed that Princeton has found success in attracting students from across the socioeconomic spectrum and we salute them for their efforts. But we must point one thing out. One teeny tiny thing. Princeton, like many highly selective colleges, claims to be need-blind in admissions. Of course, regular readers of our college admissions blog know that we have long been arguing from the top of our soapbox in admissions that need-blind admissions is a myth. And every now and then (more often than many would expect), we catch admissions officers offering evidence that indeed their institutions are not need-blind.
May our readers read these lines from Anderson’s piece twice and a third time for good measure: “‘It doesn’t mean that we automatically admit these students,’ Rapelye said. But Pell eligibility became another factor among many in the ‘holistic’ review of an application at one of the world’s most selective schools. Princeton’s admission rate is 6 percent. That was a significant shift for a university that, like its Ivy peers, depicts its admissions process as ‘need-blind.’ [Princeton University president Christopher] Eisgruber sought to clarify: ‘What we really want to say is, we’re never going to hold your financial need against you.’ The result is a demographic revolution, with unprecedented numbers of students from modest circumstances becoming Princetonians. Sometimes, they find it challenging to navigate the campus culture.”
So, in the interest of boosting the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, Princeton University has acknowledged weighing candidates’ ability to pay in the admissions process. That’s quite a bit different from being “need-blind.” And while we’re all for colleges dipping into their endowments and mixing up their recruiting strategies so as to attract — and matriculate — students who will receive Pell Grants, we’re tired of colleges peddling untruths, like the need-blind admissions fallacy.
With respect to the Princeton president’s quote — that the school won’t hold a student’s ability to pay against them — well, that too simply isn’t the case. As we said, we’re all for increasing the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. This article in “The Washington Post” is great news and great press for Princeton. But what about the middle-income students who don’t qualify for Pell Grants? When the objective is to admit a high percentage of students on Pell Grants, requiring the school to dip into their endowment, this doesn’t come without cost. One of these potential costs? The admission of middle-income young people who can’t afford the full cost of tuition but also aren’t poor enough to warrant inclusion in a university’s press release or a “Washington Post” piece touting the school’s laudable efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity.
We salute Princeton University for their efforts to draw in low-income and middle-income young people. These efforts are deserving of praise. Let’s just stop peddling myths — like the myth of need-blind admissions. The truth, after all, is always the best answer. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men,” we believe people can handle the truth.
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