The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How an Ivy got less preppy: Princeton draws surge of students from modest means

The campus of Princeton University in New Jersey last month. (Mark Makela for The Washington Post)

The gatekeepers here wanted to shed, once and for all, the reputation of a tradition-steeped university that caters mainly to the preppy and the privileged. So they recruited from far more high schools, tapped the endowment for more financial aid and took more steps to welcome newcomers from poor and working-class homes.

They even began checking family finances before deciding whom to admit. The point was not to exclude those in need but, possibly, to boost their chances.

The result: 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.

See a chart showing Pell shares at more than 100 top schools

"If we're going to be excellent, we're going to need to bring in talent from all backgrounds," Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said. About a decade ago, he said, university leaders realized that "we can do a hell of a lot better." But he acknowledged that there are limits to what Princeton can do.

“There are a lot of inequities in American society,” Eisgruber said. “I don’t think we’re going to cure them all.”

For the burgeoning population of students here from modest backgrounds, it still can be hard to fit in. Fedjounie Philippe, 19, a sophomore from Irvington, N.J., who goes by the nickname June, said she thinks about it “every second of every day” as a Haitian American immigrant whose mother did not go to college and whose father was murdered by a street gang.

“There are constant reminders that I have to forge a place for myself within a world that has been constructed for someone else,” Philippe said.

One jarring example came as she worked a weekend late shift at the welcome desk of the Frist Campus Center. Philippe said she was stunned at closing time, 3 a.m., to see french fries, water cups and other garbage dumped by crowds who came to eat after getting drunk at eating-club parties on nearby Prospect Avenue. Those students, she said, seem to cruise through life with the easy knowledge that “someone here — the work staff — will clean up their mess.”

But Philippe said she is determined to bring change to campus. She won a seat on the student senate last year with the campaign slogan “Shoot for the moon, vote for June!”

The quest for diversity has a long history at this school founded in Colonial America. Hurdles for Jewish and black students were torn down in the 1950s and ’60s. Princeton started admitting women as undergraduates in 1969, going coed 23 years after its bicentennial.

In 2015 and 2016, as the Black Lives Matter movement swept campuses nationwide, the university confronted a sudden uproar over its racial climate when students protested how it honors the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

The 28th U.S. president, also a pivotal Princeton president in the early 20th century, was a strong supporter of racial segregation. Some here wanted to strip his name from campus landmarks. Ultimately, Princeton decided to keep his name on a residential college and the School of Public and International Affairs but take other steps to encourage diversity and inclusion. This fall, a “portraiture nominations committee” is seeking ideas for new art to hang on walls dominated by images of long-dead white men.

Wilson’s name will stay on Princeton buildings

Princeton has long faced another sort of image problem — the perception, fair or not, that it is not only elite but elitist. A school for the rich and well-heeled, with centuries of tradition and a surplus of collegiate Gothic ambiance. Nor is Princeton alone in that regard. Income diversity remains elusive in the upper echelons of colleges.

Among 150 top schools — those that U.S. News & World Report lists among the top 100 national universities and top 50 liberal-arts colleges — federal data shows that the median share of first-year students in 2015 who were Pell-eligible was 16 percent.

That was the percentage for Harvard and Brandeis universities in Massachusetts, as well as the University of Colorado at Boulder and Carleton College in Minnesota.

Washington and Lee University, a private college in Virginia, had the lowest share (6 percent), and the public University of California at Irvine the highest (41 percent).

Washington and Lee President Will Dudley said the university’s share grew to 11 percent this fall and he wants it to rise further.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t want to be a school that is near the bottom of the pack.”

Nationwide, the share of first-time, full-time undergraduates who received the grants in 2015-2016 was 44 percent.

Pell Grants, worth up to $5,920 apiece this year, are the foundation of need-based financial aid. They are awarded through a formula that assesses family size, assets, income and other factors. Most go to students whose families make less than $50,000 a year, a range that spans deep poverty to moderate income.

The grants are an imperfect measure of diversity. Researchers say the Pell-eligible share of freshmen at some top schools rose at least a few percentage points in recent years because Congress expanded the maximum grant and because incomes fell during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

In other words, a college might have changed nothing about its recruiting in that time and still looked a bit better. But it is clear the Pell share has become an influential metric in the Ivy League and beyond.

Within the past year, Princeton and dozens of other top schools have formed a group called the American Talent Initiative. Backed by billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, the initiative seeks to enroll 50,000 more high-achieving students with significant financial need at 270 selective colleges by 2025. That would be an increase of 12 percent.

Selective colleges pledge to recruit more low-income students

Obstacles to that are formidable.

State flagships, long viewed as engines of social mobility, are walking a fiscal high wire as they seek to raise private money, keep in-state tuition affordable for the middle class and learn to live with much leaner state appropriations than in past eras. Many are recruiting more out-of-state students — who pay higher tuition — to help balance budgets. The Pell share of freshmen in 2015 at the University of Maryland was 14 percent. At the University of Virginia, it was 12 percent.

Greg Roberts, U-Va.’s dean of admission, called the statistic “misleading” because it does not take into account variations in wealth and income among states. U-Va., he said, is committed to “diversity in many forms.”

Private colleges face their own constraints. They rely more heavily on tuition revenue, making it essential to enroll a large number of students who pay in full. They also set aside seats for children of alumni, known as “legacies.” Like public colleges, they also hold spots for athletes and chase students with high SAT or ACT scores, despite evidence that performance on admission tests is linked to family income.

“The private elite colleges send often-unintentional signals that they prefer students who can pay the freight over those who cannot,” said Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which gives scholarships to talented students with financial need. Among those signals, he said, are daunting application fees, hard-to-find provisions for fee waivers and confusing descriptions of financial aid. “There is no reason that all colleges can’t make greater efforts” to admit top students with major financial need — including Princeton, he said.

With a $22 billion endowment, Princeton can afford what most other colleges can’t: It meets full financial need without asking students to take out loans. Sixty percent of its 5,200 undergraduates receive grants from the university that reduce the sticker price of about $63,000 for tuition, fees, room and board.

For poor in the Ivy League, a full ride isn’t always what they imagined

The university launched the all-grant, no-loan financial-aid policy in 2001 — a potentially powerful lure for families worried about student debt. But officials realized a few years later it was not enough. The Pell-eligible share of freshmen in 2004 was 7 percent. That was barely more than half the alumni-legacy share of 13 percent.

To reach low-income communities, the university had to rethink recruiting and admissions. It teamed with nonprofit groups that specialize in connecting schools with disadvantaged students. It pushed to find new sources of potential students. The number of schools represented in the 2017 applicant pool reached 10,288 — up one-third over eight years.

Janet Rapelye, dean of admission, said officers also were trained to hunt for talent in “much less polished” application files — those with essays that are not quite perfect, test scores obtained without help from private tutoring, or hastily written teacher recommendations.

By 2013, the Pell-eligible share had doubled to nearly 15 percent. For the next year’s class, Rapelye took another step: She asked Princeton’s financial aid office to advise which promising applicants were likely to qualify for Pell. She noted that data in their files before making final decisions.

“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.” 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.

How a ‘hidden minority’ gained strength at Princeton

Many fret about whether to join one of Princeton’s famed eating clubs, with names such as the Ivy Club, the Cottage Club and the Tiger Inn. Some are selective and charge fees that give low-income students pause, although financial aid covers part of the bills. Josh Gardner, 18, a sophomore, said he notices that wealthier students gravitate to certain clubs. Anxieties over the social scene, he said, add to already intense academic pressures.

“This is a big adjustment, coming here,” Gardner said.

The university has gone to great lengths to make first-generation and low-income students feel at home. Many come to campus for seven weeks in the summer before freshman year to get a head start on academic work and social life. Some receive $500 “move-in” grants to help with initial expenses. There are also mentoring programs and even subsidized excursions.

Gardner marveled that he spent spring break on a low-cost trip to Walt Disney World and Daytona Beach, Fla. Raised by his grandparents in a Philadelphia suburb, Gardner said he had never been south of Cape May in New Jersey. Then he got aid for a summer study abroad trip to China, trekking from Beijing to the Gobi Desert. “I never thought I’d get to experience that,” he said.