Remarks as delivered on Feb. 16, 2019, in the University Chapel
It is my pleasure to welcome you to Princeton for the fifth annual 1vyG conference. I am thrilled that you are gathering on this campus because I believe that your talent, your imagination, your perspective, and your energy are crucial to the future of this University, to the future of universities throughout the nation, and to the future of this country.
If universities are to be excellent, if we are to produce the innovations and the leaders that will address the world’s most urgent problems, we must draw talent from every sector of society and we must ensure that talent can thrive on our campuses. For too long, however, this University and other highly-selective colleges did too little to attract and support outstanding first generation and low-income students on our campuses. Your vibrant presence here today is eloquent testimony to the fact that we are making progress. But I am sure you will agree that we have much more work to do.
That work must take many forms. First, we must encourage FLI students to apply to Ivy-plus schools. Second, we must make sure that our admission deans and their staffs appreciate the talent of FLI students when they apply. Third, we must reach out to FLI students and their families to recruit them to our campuses. And, fourth, we must make sure that when FLI students reach our campuses, they can thrive and take pride, as you are doing now, in the contributions they make.
By the way: I should add that, although most of you who gather here today are undergraduate students, we need to attract and support talented FLI students at the graduate level, too. If we do not get more FLI students into our graduate schools, we will not get more FLI students onto our faculties—and we need more FLI students on our faculties. I hope that some of you will pursue doctoral degrees in the Ivy League, and that eventually you will join the faculties of the universities you attend.
I am very proud of Princeton’s FLI students, and I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of socioeconomic diversity and diversity more broadly. Sometimes when I talk about diversity, people ask me about college admissions. They ask me in particular about the role of merit in college admissions, and I think when they say “merit” they usually have in mind something that is measured in terms of GPAs and test scores and other numbers. These questions about “merit” are in the news a lot these days, so I want to spend some time telling you how I respond to that question.
Here’s what I say. I say that I am very much in favor of merit-based admissions. The reason that I care about socioeconomic diversity is that I care about merit. There is a lot of merit, a lot of talent, among the FLI students of this country, and if we’re missing those people from our campus, we will not be as good as we should be. We will not be as good as we should be in molecular biology, or political science, or music, or any other field.
Let me be more specific about this. Here is what “merit” means to me. Merit in the context of college admissions encompasses two things. First, “merit” means that you have the intellect, the character, the honesty, the grit, and the imagination to benefit from an academically intense education. All of you attend very demanding schools, and you have to be a pretty extraordinary student to do the work at those schools. Second, “merit” means that you have the public spiritedness and the drive, along with all that intellect and determination, to take your educations and use them to make a difference in the world.
When I think of the most famous and successful and admired graduates of this University—people like Justice Sonia Sotomayor or Michelle Obama—that’s what defines them. They got the benefit of a great education and they used it to do something extraordinary. That’s why people admire them: they had what it takes to learn at this place, and they had what it takes to use that education for the benefit of society. Nobody cares what their test scores were before they got here, or what their GPAs were when they were here, or what kinds of tests they took after they graduated. College is not a test-taking competition, and life is not a test-taking competition.
So when people ask me whether I think that college admission should be merit-based, I say, “Hell, yeah, I do…” Oh. I’m sorry; we’re in the chapel. Let me rephrase. When people ask me whether I think that college admission should be merit-based, I say, “Amen to that!” Yes, I believe admission should be merit-based. And it is merit-based. Every student we take at this University and at your universities is admitted because of their merit, because we believe in that student’s truly exceptional ability to get the benefit of a college education and then to use it for the good of society and the world.
Every student who is on this campus is here because they deserve to be here. But they are not the only people who deserve to be here. Don’t ever let yourself forget your good fortune. Here at Princeton we get about 30,000 applications a year, and the people on my admission staff tell me that about 18,000 of them are just as good as the kids we take. So keep that in mind: if we said ‘yes’ to you, we said ‘no’ to 8 or 9 other kids who were just as good—just as meritorious—as you are. All of you, at all of your schools, you’re really good—but you’re also a bit lucky, because there were other kids just as good as you were who didn’t get in.
And let me be clear about this: when I say that every student on this campus deserves to be here, I mean every student. All of the students we admit, we admit because of merit: the athletes and the artists, the scientists and the humanists, the first gen students and the legacies, the students from every state and region, and from every country in the world. This remarkable concentration of talent means that they should respect you, and you should respect them.
I want to stress this point: every student on every highly-selective college campus is there because of merit, and you have something to learn from them. You should take this as a challenge, as part of what it means to get the most out of your education. You should try to meet as many students as you can, from as many different groups and backgrounds as you can, and ask yourself, “what can I learn from this person?” Because you have something to teach every one of them, and they also have something to teach you.
A parent once told me a story about a conversation between a FLI student and a legacy student here at Princeton. I don’t know whether this story is true, but it is the story I heard. According to the story, the FLI student said to the legacy student, “I had to earn my place here by overcoming hardship and by tenacity, but you got here because of your parents.”
Now, if this story is true, then the FLI student was certainly right that they belonged on this campus, and they got here because of hard work and talent, among other things. But they also got a couple of things wrong. First of all, as I have said already, part of the reason you or anybody else is on this campus is because of good luck and—now let me add something else—because of support you received along the way from relatives or friends or teachers or people-who-just-happened-to-see-something-in-you. If you’re in this chapel right now, you’ve been blessed, we’ve all been blessed, and don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that it’s somehow all your own doing. You are—we are—lucky to be here. That’s true if you’re a legacy, and it’s true if you’re a FLI student.
And here’s the second mistake: any student you meet on this campus or your home campus has the intellect, the character, the grit, the imagination, and the public-spiritedness to benefit from rigorous education and make a difference in society—just like you do. Is their background and experience different from yours? I say, “Amen to that!” But does that mean you don’t have anything in common with them, or that you don’t have anything to learn from them? Absolutely not! They should learn from you, and you should learn from them. If people disparage your qualifications to be here, they are wrong, and that goes the other way around, too.
I can tell you this with 100 percent certainty: it is hard to get into an elite university no matter who your parents were. That’s true if you’re a FLI student or if you’re a legacy student, it’s true if you’re from Kentucky or California or the Cameroon. When you walk around your campus, you can take pride in being there—and you should know that everyone else around you also belongs. You share in common with all of your fellow students tremendous talent, creativity, and spirit. You have differences in perspective, and differing strengths, that are among the reasons why the learning you can do from one another is likely to be some of the most important learning that you do in your lives.
Back in my day as a student—which was long ago by my own standards, and ancient history by yours—back in my day as a student, my classmates and I learned from our peers, but that meant almost entirely learning from the people on our own campus. I am glad that today you are able to learn from one another across campuses and throughout the Ivy-plus group of colleges that gather here this weekend.
I am delighted that you gather today as FLI students from many campuses brought together here in Princeton, New Jersey. I am delighted by the promise, the energy, and the excitement that you bring together. I am thrilled by the prospect of the contributions that you will make, the changes that you will bring, to our campuses and, more importantly, to the society and the world that needs your talent and your leadership. I am, finally, very pleased to welcome you here this morning, and to wish you all the best as you begin your conference.
Welcome to Princeton University, and best wishes for a successful conference!