One morning last December, I exited my Pittsburgh public school—a giant building with a monolithic facade of brick and concrete whose distinguishing feature, its students will tell you, is the absence of windows—and headed downtown.
My destination was the Allegheny HYP Club (HYP being short for Harvard Yale Princeton). I was there as a “P,” having received my acceptance email about a week earlier. The event was an annual holiday luncheon put on by the local alumni association. The venue was cozy and understated, a small, immaculately maintained, red-brick structure tucked into Pittsburgh’s crowded downtown, dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers housing mostly offices for business executives (I would later learn that some of the luncheon’s attendees had made the short jaunt from those very offices).
I recognized the club’s quiet cobblestone courtyard gated by an elegant, wrought iron archway; I had Googled the place ahead of time. The club has a website and even a motto: “An Historic Club … in a League of its Own.” Like most august institutions, it also has a founding myth: “Today, as it has since 1930, The Allegheny HYP Club represents an uncompromising standard of value and service for Pittsburgh’s professional men and women.” Another quick Google search revealed that it had begun admitting women only in 1980 and opened its doors to members without degrees from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton only in 1987.
While enjoying a fancy lunch, I chatted with current and former Princeton students who told me how great the University is, how much I was going to love going there, and how proud I should be that I had gotten in. At some point, one of the heads of the alumni association stopped by my table and said offhandedly,
“You know, Princeton could admit three times the number of students that it does without any drop-off in the quality of applicants. The only reason they don’t is the shortage of beds.”
I was struck by this. I suspect most Princetonians are well aware of Princeton’s miniscule acceptance rate and feel a certain pride at being one of so few who meet the school’s standards—certainly, I did. The whole atmosphere of the Allegheny HYP Club spoke of distinction and achievement. Yet I had just found out from someone intimately familiar with the admissions process that there were at least two kids just as qualified as me who, a few days earlier, had learned—or thought they had learned—that they were unworthy of a Princeton education. Actually, there just wasn’t anywhere for them to sleep.
Enter COVID-19. I’m now an enrolled Princeton student listening to Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun answer dozens of questions over Zoom about the University’s plans for safely educating 6,000 undergraduates in a pandemic. Only half of us will be on campus at any one time, they explain, and no matter where a student lays their head, the bulk of their instruction will take place online. They also announce that tuition will be reduced by 10 percent across the board.
Initially, I was upset that I would spend half of my freshman year in Pittsburgh. Then it hit me: it was now possible to receive a Princeton education without a bed at Princeton.
Why not triple the class size?
In recognizing that Princeton is not confined to the walls of its campus, to the number of beds it has, the University has laid the foundation for previously unimagined access to all it has to offer. Whether or not they intended to, Dean Dolan and Vice President Calhoun drew a roadmap for a world in which more students from across the globe can learn from the incredible professors who call Princeton their home, professors whose teachings have until now been reserved for a few thousand fortunate individuals; a world in which lectures and class materials are made available to the general public; a world in which educational opportunity is prioritized over exclusivity. And by reducing tuition, they demonstrated that it’s possible to make a world-class liberal arts education more affordable and therefore more widely available.
The pandemic and the events of the past four months have shone a bright light on the deep-seated flaws and inequities of American society. The lack of paid sick leave for nearly 34 million Americans—1 in 4 U.S. workers—has been exposed as a public health menace to us all. Tying health insurance to employment for 58% of nonelderly Americans has proved similarly disastrous: 5.4 million workers lost coverage in the first four months of the outbreak as a result of the associated economic crisis. School districts across the nation that closed to prevent the spread of the virus were faced with the challenge of continuing to provide meals to millions of children who depend upon school for their basic nutritional needs. And police brutality and systemic racism now occupy the forefront of American politics and social action following the horrific killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans in recent months.
In a moment of historic crisis—but also unprecedented innovation—American institutions stand at a crossroads. Do they remain in a holding pattern, implementing short-term fixes until things “return to normal,” or do they instead confront their role in perpetuating structural inequality and lean into the widespread push for fundamental change? Certainly, the former is easier. But thinkers and activists across the United States are devoting their talents, creativity, and passion for justice to ensure that we learn from the events of the past several months and emerge from this pandemic as a more equitable and inclusive America. Chants of “defund the police” echo throughout American streets, a recognition of the fact that those entrusted to “protect and serve” pose a systemic threat to people of color. Leading politicians demand an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to finally institute protections for working people that should have existed long ago.
Princeton is not exempt from the choice between maintaining an unjust status quo and taking leadership in driving lasting reform. The only question is: which path will we take?
In April 2019, I visited Princeton as a high school junior beginning to think about college applications. A section of the tour was led by a Black former student who had gone on to work for the University. My dad asked him about his experience as a Princetonian of color.
“It was fine,” he responded. “Unfortunately, we can’t admit as many Black students as we’d like due to socioeconomic factors.”
In his statement last June explaining the University’s decision to rename the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College, President Eisgruber wrote that Princeton “scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.” The decision to change the names of the buildings was, without a doubt, long overdue. It was also not even close to enough.
If Princeton is truly committed to combating racism “in all its forms,” perhaps it’s time we stop accepting “socioeconomic factors” as an excuse for why the undergraduate student body is only 9 percent Black when Black Americans comprise 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. Why not acknowledge that Princeton’s admissions policies and practices—which help determine which young Americans will have access to an elite education as well as to powerful social and occupational networks—are themselves a socioeconomic factor? Black Americans are more than twice as likely to face poverty as white Americans. By disproportionately rewarding students who have access to wealthy high schools, SAT tutoring, and college essay advisers, the entire business of deciding who gets a bed at Princeton is a form of institutional racism.
I am a white, relatively privileged person. I don’t believe I have all of the answers about how we rebuild this unjust society we’re living in, and I certainly don’t think my voice is the most important as we decide how to move forward. But as someone who has observed from the sidelines the way Princeton has navigated the past few months and is now preparing to become a part of its community, I do think some of these ideas might be a good place to start.
As Arundhati Roy wrote in her beautiful and compelling essay, “The pandemic is a portal”:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Six months ago, the notion that a Princeton education could be delivered with half of the student body away from campus would have been unthinkable. Now it’s mandatory, and the implications are profound. I am excited to enter Princeton and join a community, virtual and physical, of thinkers and learners whose ideas and choices will have an impact well beyond the University’s walls (and beds). Let’s commit to working—and fighting—to figure out how we can challenge the status quo together to build a new and better Princeton and world in the months and years ahead.