Princeton Low-Income Students Form “Hidden Minority Council”

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The Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey.

Across the country, low-income students are gaining momentum at different elite colleges. It’s no coincidence that it’s happening now, as efforts to get low-income students into top colleges increase. Questbridge and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) are just two of the organizations helping to get students to Princeton. With a bigger population, common issues are more likely to come to light.

In the last academic year, several articles focusing on low-income and first-generation students were published in the Princeton school newspaper. The articles ranged from firsthand accounts from students to an analysis on socioeconomic diversity from a professor.

While each of the students uniquely recalled their upbringing and journey to Princeton, they each had one thing in common: the social and economic barriers they faced once on campus.

Lea Trusty, now a junior at Princeton, details the discomfort that comes with the culture of wealth:

“When I reject a last-minute invite to go to a Kanye concert for “only” $100 or reluctantly split a check evenly among a large group of friends when I pointedly got a cheaper meal than everyone else, the subtext is so subtle that most people from different socioeconomic backgrounds don’t realize it exists. And from here, it is simple for unawareness of experiences of low-income students to translate to unawareness of the presence of low-income students in general.”

Ana Maldonado, now a junior at Princeton, details the pushback she faced when trying to talk about her experience as a low-income student.

“My background was so “uncomfortable” that I actually had a residential college advisor tell me that I needed to stop talking about my background because I was making people uncomfortable. He then went on to say, “At Princeton, we don’t talk about socioeconomic status; we don’t talk about politics; we don’t talk about religion; and we don’t talk about race.”

With an issue as complicated as class, openly discussing these differences is essential to a welcoming atmosphere. However, according to Lea, Princeton isn’t helping to spur these conversations:

“I find that much of university support for low-income and first-generation students stops with its widely lauded financial aid program.”

Given the many issues students identified, they have mobilized within their own student groups. This is where we start to see the impact of the various nationwide scholarship programs. There are currently three scholarship-based groups at Princeton that cater to low-income and first-generation students: Quest Scholars Network (QSN), Gates Millennium Scholars, and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). Each group aims to provide community and resources for its members.

Students have gone a step further and recently created an umbrella type organization for low-income students called the Princeton Hidden Minority Council. The intention is to unify students in QSN, LEDA, and Gates, as well as provide a space for students that don’t fall under those groups. With more students, they are hopeful they can start to address the issues they see. However, there is the broader problem of economic diversity.

The problems we see on elite campuses are partly due to the low percentage of low-income students. Only about 12% of Princeton students are Pell Grant recipients (Pell grants usually go to students in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution) and first-generation students have comprised 10 to 13% of the freshman class over the last few years. When you’re a minority on a campus in any form, it’s more difficult to build a community and to be legitimately included in all aspects of university life.

Princeton is showing some efforts to increasing its economic diversity. At the White House summit on college access earlier this year, Princeton’s president announced new initiatives to increase the numbers of low-income students, including expanding its partnership with LEDA, creating an admissions position dedicated to recruiting low-income students, and raising funds for a summer program for disadvantaged Princeton freshman interested in the STEM fields.

Princeton’s recruitment efforts have to be coupled with comprehensive support once students matriculate. Princeton has plenty of academic resources for all students, but very few are catered to the needs of first-generation and low-income students. Princeton does offer the Freshman Scholars Institute, which is a 7-week summer program for incoming freshman. It aims to ease the transition for underprivileged students at Princeton. It also offers a first-generation support group through its counseling office.

Knowing that improving the campus life for these students is essential, Princeton created a committee on college access in early 2013. In addition to working to learn about the barriers low-income students face in getting to institutions like Princeton, administrators also wanted to learn about the experiences of these students on campus. A separate working group led by Dean of the College Valerie Smith was created to look at the undergraduate experience of low-income students.

In early September 2014, the working group on socioeconomic diversity issued a list of recommendations that can have a significant impact if implemented:

  • Create a named scholars program to nurture aspirations of high-achieving lower-income students through faculty mentoring, community building, and expansion of academic and professional opportunities.
  • Create a sophomore initiative (a critical reading course, boot camp or summer program, for example) to prepare students for the transition to independent work.
  • Form a standing committee of administrators charged with considering policies that affect the educational and social experiences of lower-income and first-generation students and, when necessary, the circumstances of individual students.
  • Create online resources that will make transparent available resources for students from all backgrounds, but particularly lower-income and first-generation students (for example, emergency funding, peer mentoring, etc.).
  • Centralize systems for monitoring students’ academic difficulties.
  • Train faculty academic advisers and college staff, including residential college advisers, to better recognize and manage issues of socioeconomic diversity.

These recommendations would address classism, familial barriers, and the academic issues some low-income students face. While these are still mostly recommendations, Princeton’s president has indicated that some of them are already being implemented.

Underlying these recommendations and initiatives is the assumption that Princeton and other elite schools can become welcoming and accepting places for low-income students. But can they? Stanley Katz, a lecturer at Princeton, offers a resounding critique:

“I hope I will be forgiven for thinking of this as the “Michelle Obama” problem. We have recently gotten a lot of mileage from the fact that Mrs. Obama ’85 mentioned that our financial aid policies enabled a student like her to attend the University. But it seems also to be the case that Mrs. Obama has little desire to reconnect with her alma mater. Her undergraduate thesis apparently made clear the difficulties she felt in accommodating herself to the Princeton of her era, and I am afraid that it is likely that her feelings of hurt have not gone away over the years. Whatever the causes of her feelings as an undergraduate, I think we all need to be concerned that students who are “different” than the stereotypical, clubbie Princetonian will think that we are the right place for them.”

“Most obviously, can an elite college in which the majority of the students take their meals and organize their social lives around expensive and sometimes exclusive clubs expect students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to feel that they will be welcome here?  I doubt it.”

I often think about these questions and I wonder whether all low-income students can feel included at elite places. They are elite for a reason. I do believe many students there can feel happy, but it depends on how much transformation of the self they have to undergo to fit in. Students that are making a bigger jump (coming from a underperforming high school) are more likely to have more trouble acclimating than low-income students that had academic and social advantages (went to a selective high school, participated in a college prep program like LEDA, etc). Participating in an academic and social experience similar to Princeton prepares students to manage what they will face. There are variations in student experiences and Princeton has to be prepared to support students in various manners. Students shouldn’t have to struggle alone and they shouldn’t feel the need to hide who they are.

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