Elliot Davies ’20 was the only person at his state-funded secondary school who applied to American universities. In fact, no one in his family had ever applied to any university before.
He grew up with his single mother in Wrexham, United Kingdom, a Welsh working-class town whose industrial heyday is long behind it. Unlike the swanky London neighborhoods that tourists see, his corner of Great Britain doesn’t exude wealth.
Very few students from his town attend Oxford or Cambridge, and the feat is so uncommon that local newspapers write about those who do. Princeton would have been a pie-in-the-sky dream for Davies, too, were it not for the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to improving social mobility. Its U.S. Programme sends low to middle income British students on a summer tour of colleges in the United States and guides them through the application process.
“Myself and the other Sutton Trust students represent a very different type of Brit that Princeton probably hasn’t been used to in the past,” Davies said in an interview. “We’re not the wealthy British kids who have their families pay full Ivy League tuition.”
Princeton has developed a reputation for taking the most Sutton Trust participants because of its financial aid policies, Davies said. Despite this generosity, data that I compiled from various online sources — including the Residential College Facebook — imply that the British contingent here is still quite wealthy.
Statistics from the Davis International Center show that the number of U.K. undergraduates has tripled since 2012. Like their American peers, they overwhelmingly hail from their country’s most prosperous regions, and many of them attended just a handful of prestigious private schools. The University’s geographic concentration isn’t limited to the United States. It also extends abroad.
Few countries intertwine geography with class, identity, politics, and economics to the same degree as the United Kingdom. A north-south divide has cleaved its national culture for centuries.
In broad terms, the greater north — the Midlands, Wales, North East, North West, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Yorkshire and the Humber — is plagued by unemployment due to post-industrial decline. The East, South West, South East, and Greater London are booming thanks to the growth of finance. Like anything in geography, every rule has exceptions. Some data shows that South West England has problems comparable to the north.
University of Sheffield professor Danny Dorling explained the divide best when he told The Economist that the North has “islands of affluence in a sea of poverty” while the South is a sea of affluence.
Southern cities have the highest wages, and the north has the lowest. Whilst males in South East England on average lived 80.3 years in 2010, their Scottish compatriots lived merely 76.6 years, the Office for National Statistics reported.
The British Broadcasting Service (BBC) found that houses in the South East on average cost $167,192 more than houses in the North East. Secondary school students in the South have the greatest chance of earning top marks on national exams regardless of socioeconomic disadvantage, according to The Independent.
Jack Tait ’20 — a Sutton Trust beneficiary from the edge of London — remembered feeling “isolated” after going to a Princeton welcome dinner because he realized that the other attendees’ demographics were quite different from his own.
“The classic question you get is, ‘What school do you go to?’” he said in an interview. A few notorious private schools are reputed for sending a lot of students to the United States. “It just kind of reaffirmed that I wasn’t in a place where people like me normally are,” he said.
The data suggests that his impression was correct.
Over the Classes of 2019–2023, more students came from Greater London than the rest of the United Kingdom, combined. Greater London and South East England together accounted for three quarters of Princeton’s British students, but three quarters of the country’s overall population lives outside of these areas.
Yorkshire and the Humber sent the least — two students in five years. Other regions had five or fewer.
“I’m not surprised by any of it,” Tait said. “Wealth is very heavily concentrated in and around London.”
About two dozen of Princeton’s U.K. students have received the Sutton Trust’s help, according to press releases. They represented only 17 percent of the total contingent but 42 percent of those who live outside of Greater London and South East England.
The meal exchange website indicated that three in 10 British upperclass students last fall were members of the Ivy Club, the Street’s most expensive eating club. All except two lived in London or South East England. None were in the Sutton Trust’s program, though Tait recalled a southwesterner from the Class of 2018 who was.
The Ivy League’s roughly 160 British athletes are partly to blame for this skew.
Four out of every five of the Ivy League’s British athletes lived in Greater London, South East England, or South West England. Wales, Scotland, North East England, and the West Midlands had just two athletes each in the four-year period that the rosters covered.
Slightly less than half of them were rowers, and 71 percent attended private secondary schools. In 2018, British athletes composed a full third of U.K. students at Princeton and approximately half at Harvard and Yale.
One in five athletes came from three prestigious boarding schools with annual fees exceeding $47,000: Eton College, St. Paul’s School, and Westminster School.
Eton’s headmaster declined to comment.
Testing centres’ unequal spread also fuels regional disparities.
Thirty-four of the 40 Student Aptitude Test’s (SAT) U.K. administration centers are private schools, excluding the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. In contrast, eight of the American College Test’s (ACT) 28 centers follow suit. It relies upon adult education facilities.
South West England has one testing centre for every 34,000 secondary school students, followed by approximately one for every 46,000 in Greater London and South East England. They were the only three regions below the U.K.- wide ratio of one per 67,000.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, testing centers are shared among 107,000 students, and in the East Midlands, that number climbs to 139,000.
A single testing center — located in a medieval castle-turned-boarding-school — serves all of Wales’s 162,000 students. It doesn’t offer the SAT on every available date. Residents from some Welsh towns must drive at least two hours to the next-closest location if they can’t sit for the test date in their own region.
College Board — the non-profit that owns the SAT — didn’t respond to my request for comment.
Politicians and the media have blasted Princeton’s British peers — Oxford and Cambridge, commonly called “Oxbridge” — for disproportionately admitting students from London and the South East.
“Oxbridge uncovered: More elitist than we thought,” the BBC declared. Member of Parliament David Lammy wrote in The Guardian that these universities are “wholly unrepresentative of the country at large” and takes “the overwhelming majority of their students from a small, privileged minority in the south of England.”
Although the children of the country’s rulers have long flocked to England’s ancient universities, rising competition is making it harder for everyone to win a seat at them. Many students are looking for better financial aid policies or to explore a liberal arts curriculum.
The number of students from British private secondary schools heading off to American universities rose by a fifth in three years, The Daily Mail reported. The Telegraph found that up to half of students at Westminster and St Paul’s boarding schools applied to universities on the far side of the Atlantic in 2017. Demand to go west is so high that some counselling firms in London charge $24,000 per student.
“Traditionally, British students studying at leading U.S. universities have been drawn from independent schools and more affluent areas,” the Sutton Trust’s Head of Innovation Binda Patel wrote in an e-mail. She thinks that superior guidance counselling helps them navigate the complex admissions process.
“Many young people in the U.K. just don’t know that studying in the US [is] an option for them,” she said.
Whilst the public overseas lambasts Oxbridge’s so-called “southern obsession,” Princeton and the Ivy League also take mostly U.K. students from the South but escape free of criticism.
Its student geographic concentration arises from a combination of complex factors — not all of which are within its control — such as a lack of outreach, unequal application rates, underfunded state schools, teachers discouraging students from applying, and private schools giving better preparation.
Top American universities suffer from similar problems, but they also create their own through admissions preferences. The huge advantages of athletic recruiting are conferred almost exclusively on privately educated southerners.
Oxford students looked at me as if I had a third eye when I told them that the Ivy League goes to the United Kingdom to recruit rowers. During one of these conversations, a professor chimed in, “It’s part of their diversity program. Instead of taking more posh Americans, they take posh British people.”
He certainly has a point. What’s considered the quintessence of elitism in the United Kingdom is being touted as the pinnacle of diversity in the United States.
Fortunately, Princeton is well positioned to overcome these challenges. Administrators spent $425,000 on lobbying in 2016, according to tax returns. If the University puts that much effort into influencing governments, surely it can use its clout to persuade College Board to expand the range of U.K. SAT centers or have them in more neutral locations like the ACT.
The US-UK Fulbright Commission already holds an annual American college fair in London. Floor plans show that all of the Ivy League universities were represented at this fair last year. Jack Tait said that information sessions like this one are “a big deal.” Princeton could encourage the Commission to hold additional fairs in the northern United Kingdom and be the first to volunteer.
“Many think that studying in the U.S. will be unaffordable,” Patel wrote. She recommended that universities better promote their financial aid policies to assuage this fear.
Old Nassau will soon have dozens of Sutton Trust alumni who live outside of the South. Some of them would probably be enthusiastic to return to their schools and urge students to apply if the Alumni Association asked.
Establishing regional endowed scholarships would be even better. Canada’s alumni association has six of these. Tying funds to specific regions would incentivize admissions officers to visit them so that they don’t go unused.
Princeton stands to gain in the long term for diversifying its U.K. students. Two decades ago, Harvard sparked a national row when it accepted a talented northern pupil whom Oxford had rejected. The “Laura Spence Affair” convinced many in the public that its admissions weren’t blind to regional biases — a problem that the university has tried to fix.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government pounced on this moment to advance its higher education agenda, and Harvard emerged with a stellar international reputation. Laura Spence eventually returned to the United Kingdom to earn a doctorate at Cambridge, where she encouraged others to study in the United States.
Dozens of talented students outside of London and the South East are passed over by their country’s elite universities. Here’s an opportunity for Princeton to be in the service of all nations.
This is the final article in a series investigating the geography of Princeton’s student body.
Liam O’Connor is a senior from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This article has been modified to correctly address College Board, not the Educational Testing Service (ETS), as the owner of the SAT; ETS acts as an administrator for the SAT in England. The Prince regrets this error.