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How a ‘hidden minority’ of the disadvantaged gained strength at Princeton

Jack Tait, 19, from London, second from left, at a Princeton Hidden Minority Council meeting. (Mark Makela for The Washington Post)

PRINCETON, N.J. — Soon after he was accepted into Princeton University, Jack Tait went to a reception for admitted students from the United Kingdom. It was held in St. John’s Wood, an affluent London enclave he rarely visited. There, Tait mingled with students from Eton, Westminster and other elite British schools, the sort of places that have deep ties to the Ivy League. The question everyone asked: Where do you go to school? Highams Park in the Chingford area of London, Tait replied. A regular school for low-to-middle- income students.

Students like him.

Tait recalled the reactions: “I got shock and, ‘Like, wow — congratulations.’ ”

Now a sophomore here, the 19-year-old Brit is co-chair of a group called the Princeton Hidden Minority Council. Its mission is to be a voice for students who are from low-income families and for those whose parents did not graduate from college.

Tait was raised by a single mother without a college degree and is here thanks to financial aid, debunking the stereotype of international students as rich kids who pay in full. His passport disqualifies him for a federal Pell Grant for students with financial need. But he and others like him are also part of a swift demographic shift sweeping Princeton, a university where the share of Pell-eligible freshmen has tripled, to 22 percent, over 13 years.

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

Tait said the council tries to educate the campus about issues that disadvantaged students face. At one recent social event, the council gave out free ice cream to all comers. Students who wanted a dish were randomly given spoons of various colors. Then they learned that the number of toppings they could put on their ice cream depended on the color of the spoon they had received.

That exercise drove home, with a light touch, the consequences of economic inequality in daily life. What’s more, it served as a reminder that it’s hard to identify who is and isn’t a student from a disadvantaged home. Poverty and affluence, of course, come in all skin tones. And as Tait said, “You can’t just turn to your roommate and say, ‘Oh, how much do your parents make?’ ”

Tait said he is somewhat ambivalent about the council’s name, because many minorities can be perceived as hidden. He mused about the possibility of a more straightforward name that explicitly refers to first-generation and low-income identity. The council board took up the issue one fall night here, meeting in a room adorned with portraits and memorabilia from the Princeton Class of 1915.

“Are we now saying that the campus has gotten to the point where [low-income and first-generation status] is not hidden anymore?” one student asked.

“It is hidden,” another replied. “We want to make it not hidden.”   

Princeton’s great wealth and prestige has been crucial in its campaign to diversify. With a $22 billion endowment and a globally known name, the university can afford to spend practically as much as it wants on financial aid. University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, who also was provost from 2004 to 2013, has tracked progress intently for more than a decade.

In that time, the share of white U.S. students among undergraduates has fallen to below 50 percent and the shares of Asian American, international and Hispanic students have risen. The share of first-generation students has doubled, to 17 percent.

Pell Grant shares at top-ranked colleges: A sortable chart

Meanwhile, the share who are children of Princeton alumni has held steady over the years at 13 percent. Critics say admissions policies friendly to such “legacy” applicants at selective schools are often a barrier to economic diversity. But Eisgruber said he is not inclined to do anything to reduce enrollment of alumni children at Princeton. “The ties back to earlier generations add something special to our community,” he said.

Eisgruber, who graduated from Princeton in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, said demographic challenges were different in that era. He came from a public high school in Oregon and took out federally guaranteed student loans to attend Princeton, at a time when there were far more wealthy students on campus from elite private schools on the East Coast. He recalls being one of four Oregonians in his class.

Eisgruber said he sometimes felt “surrounded” by prep-school graduates in those years here — much as Tait must have felt decades later at that reception in London.

At the turn of the century, 58 percent of Princeton students did not receive financial aid. Now, that rate is down to 40 percent. In the parlance of enrollment management, these students are known as “full-pays.” Their parents will write checks for about $63,000 in this school year for tuition, fees, room and board, plus thousands of dollars more for travel and other expenses.

The full-pay group is far overrepresented on campus compared with its share of the overall population. That’s a function of the many educational opportunities and advantages available in affluent communities.

But Eisgruber is fine with the full-pays, too. “They’re fabulous students,” he said. “I love having them.”