Remarks at the White House Meeting on Expanding Educational Opportunity and Diversity in Higher Education

Sept. 28, 2023

It’s an honor to be part of this important discussion. I thank the administration for pulling together proven strategies that will help all of us in higher education preserve and grow diversity while complying with a more restrictive legal environment.

I’d like to focus my brief remarks on how Princeton has made significant progress in the last two decades on socioeconomic diversity. I also want to highlight one relatively new program that’s working very well for us, and which we think can scale nationally.

(That’s our transfer program, which prioritizes community college students and military veterans.)

But first, on socioeconomic diversity more broadly, a few statistics:

  • The percentage of Princeton undergraduates eligible for Pell grants has increased to 22 percent in the Class of 2027, up from just 7 percent in the Class of 2008.
  • Today, two thirds of our first-year students are on financial aid—and 17 percent of them are the first in their families to attend college.

Clearly, Princeton today looks different than it did when I attended in the early 1980s. It was an excellent university then. It’s much better now.

The biggest engine in this transformation has been our financial aid program, a program that meets the full financial need of every admitted student, never holds financial need against a student in the admission process, and indeed actively seeks out students with need.

Our financial aid program may the best in the country—and it has led our peers and competitors to constantly push the envelope on access and affordability.

You may wonder: Well, Princeton and other well-endowed schools can afford it. How is that relevant to the rest of higher education?

I certainly don’t want to underplay the value of generous and loyal alumni whose contributions to our endowment have effectively eliminated the affordability barrier and dramatically expanded access.

University endowments, which exist at hundreds of American public and private schools, spend about half of their income on financial aid. They are a tremendous force for good in this country.

But Princeton had a great endowment 20 years ago, too—when we were laggards, not leaders, on the socioeconomic diversity front.

I think what changed is a renewed commitment to the idea that excellence and diversity are essential to one another.  We know that talent exists in every sector of society.  We will be a better university, and a better society, if we can attract, support, and develop that talent.

That’s true for Princeton, and it’s true for U.S. higher education in general.

And so, in addition to pioneering ever more generous financial aid programs, we have established other practices that generate diversity in our student body, and which can be practiced everywhere.

Our admissions team, for example, is trained to recognize that persevering through socioeconomic disadvantage is a direct indicator of potential success in college and beyond.

We reward applicants for holding down a job while achieving stellar academic credentials in high school. We don’t penalize them for being unable to afford a shiny unpaid internship.

We also engage intensively with pre-college bridge programs that encourage talented low-income and first-generation students to apply to schools that might seem out of reach, and which support their successful transition to college, at Princeton and elsewhere.

And we’re constantly looking for new diversification strategies that will succeed not only at Princeton, but also can be scaled nationally.

I want to end by noting one such initiative, our community college transfer admission program, which focuses on military veterans.

Until 2018, Princeton hadn’t allowed transfer students for many years. We didn’t need a transfer program to manage enrollment, but we realized it could be a powerful vehicle for diversity.

So, we designed a transfer program focused on military veterans who had shown promise in community college.

We started with 9 students and are on pace to reach a cohort of over 100 by next academic year. These students have brought outstanding talent, and new and valuable perspectives and experiences, to Princeton.

The transfer program has so convinced us of the extraordinary potential of community college partnerships that we are now piloting an initiative that allows New Jersey community college students to earn Princeton course credits and demonstrate their ability to successfully transition to a four-year degree program.

Our ambition is to help seed a network of campuses that can scale such a program nationally—and close the completion gap between community colleges and four-year schools.

One of our first transfer students, a decorated military veteran named Shaun Cason, graduated last year and is pursuing a master’s degree in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Oxford.

His goal is to become a professor who can also mentor veterans and other non-traditional students. My goal is to educate and support many more Shaun Casons.