Princeton committee will examine college access for lower-income students

A new Princeton University committee will examine strategies to help low-income students overcome barriers to college readiness and access. The group will build on the University's success in increasing the socioeconomic diversity of undergraduates and reducing financial obstacles for students to apply to and attend Princeton.

The Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on College Access will begin meeting this month and include trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students. The group will consider a range of factors, beyond just financial means, that may impede talented low-income students from pursuing an education at selective universities and colleges.

"While the financial aid enhancements at Princeton and many of our peer institutions have lowered the financial obstacles for our low-income students, other factors have come to the fore as powerful barriers to access, such as inadequate college counseling about the range of college options, culturally constrained aspirations, and inadequate academic preparation," Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman wrote in her charge to the committee.

The trustee committee's work is part of broader University efforts to promote a vibrant campus community of faculty, staff and students from diverse socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Princeton became the first university in 2001 to adopt a no-loan financial aid program, replacing loans with grants that financial aid recipients do not pay back. The University also offers full financial aid eligibility to international students. Sixty percent of the Class of 2016 receives financial aid, compared with 38 percent of the Class of 2001.

"Despite these substantial gains, students whose families are in the top 5 percent of the U.S. income scale remain significantly over-represented in our applicant pools, with a concomitant deficit of talented low-income students — a demographic profile that is shared with other selective colleges and universities," wrote Tilghman, who also will chair the committee.

The main questions the committee will address are:

  • What do data about Princeton applicants and undergraduate students reveal about successful strategies to recruit an economically diverse student body?
  • What can be learned from practices at other selective colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations focused on college access?
  • What innovative steps could Princeton take to further reduce the barriers faced by low-income students in obtaining a rigorous college education?

As part of its analysis, the group plans to review applicant pool data from Princeton and other selective universities, as well as scholarly research that identifies high-achieving, low-income students nationally. The committee also will speak with scholars who study related issues, leaders of college access programs and Princeton students to learn directly about the experiences of low-income students on campus.

In addition to Tilghman, the committee includes trustees Thomas Barron, Class of 1974; Pyper Davis, Class of 1987; Angela Groves, Class of 2012; Heidi Miller, Class of 1974; David Offensend, Class of 1975; Ruth Simmons, president emerita of Brown University; and John Wynne, Class of 1967.

Faculty committee members are Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and director of the Office of Population Research.

Staff members are Carolyn Ainslie, vice president for finance and treasurer, and Janet Rapelye, dean of admission.

Also on the committee are: former trustee Katherine Brittain Bradley, Class of 1986; Andrew Blumenfeld, Class of 2013; John Fisher, Class of 1983; and Jonathan Schnur, Class of 1989.

Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, will serve as secretary.

Minter said the committee expects to issue an interim report in May that proposes options Princeton should further explore to support the successful admission of high-achieving, low-income students at selective institutions. She said the Board of Trustees will review the report and may choose to have the committee continue its work through the end of 2013.  

Committee part of broader context

While the trustee committee is focused on improving access to higher education, a separate working group led by Dean of the College Valerie Smith is looking at the undergraduate experience of students once they have enrolled at Princeton.

The Working Group on Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity seeks to learn more about ways in which students from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds experience academic and extracurricular life at the University. The group is collecting student survey data, reviewing best practices at peer institutions and seeking feedback from constituents across campus, including hosting student focus groups.

"It's not only important to admit socioeconomically diverse students to the University; it's also imperative to ensure that all students are in a position to take full advantage of a Princeton education. Our group is assessing the support systems, programs and policies that are in place to help them succeed at the highest levels," said Associate Dean of the College Diane McKay, secretary to the working group.

Smith said the group also wants "to learn as much as we can about practices and assumptions on campus that may be unspoken, but that exclude first-generation students or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds."

The group's focus on students from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds includes students who are the first in their families to attend college, who are low-income in comparison to the student population as a whole, or who attended high schools that do not typically send graduates to highly selective colleges and universities.

The working group members are: Alison Boden, dean of religious life and the chapel; Miguel Centeno, professor of sociology and international affairs; Alison Gammie, senior lecturer in molecular biology; Maria Garlock; associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Angel Harris, associate professor of sociology and African American studies; Jason Klugman, director of the Princeton University Preparatory Program; Justin Lorts, director of studies in Whitman College; McKay; Carol Porter, director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning; Logan Powell, director of admission; Ann Marie Russell, postdoctoral research associate; Nicole Shelton, professor of psychology and master of Butler College; and Smith. The group expects to present its report to Tilghman before the end of the academic year.

In addition, the separate Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity is currently meeting to identify ways to enhance the diversity of Princeton's faculty, graduate student body and senior administration. That committee was appointed last January and expects to issue a final report in spring 2013.

"These groups all share the goal of making Princeton an inclusive place where everyone can thrive and bring their whole life experience," Minter said.