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Princeton’s criminal justice-inspired Honor Code hurts FLI students

mccosh-50 Candace Do (3).jpg
Seats in McCosh 50, the largest lecture hall on campus.
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

American systems of legal administration enact violence against minority populations. Examining and re-considering these structures, such as the criminal justice system (CJS), is a crucial part of anti-racist action. 

Black and African American men make up 13.6 percent of the population, yet 38.4 percent of the prison population in the United States. In addition, they are the victims in 22 percent of fatal shootings, make up 47 percent of exonerations based on wrongful convictions, and are 35 percent of individuals sentenced to and executed by the death penalty


The CJS also unfairly targets and disproportionately oppresses those in poverty, which doubly disadvantages Black and ethnic minorities, as race correlates with poverty in the United States. Discrimination on the basis of race and wealth are not only written into American laws and constitutions, but also permeate small-scale systems that model the criminal justice system. 

Princeton’s Honor Code, tasked with holding students accountable and honest in academic settings, mirrors the criminal justice system in its rules and effects. It is harmful to the entirety of the Princeton community: the fear it instills in students fosters an environment of academic hostility. But it is often most damaging for first-generation low-income (FLI) students — students who also often belong to racial minorities. 

Princeton, as an institution that aims to educate world leaders and brands itself with social justice discourse, must first address the existing parallels between the CJS and these smaller-scale systems we subscribe to. Specifically, we must re-examine the role of the Honor Code and Honor Committee in our community. The University should lead by example by dismantling the Honor Code system, which acts as a barrier to social mobility and a more equitable society. Only once such internal injustices are addressed can we make real-world changes.

Previous reporting on the Honor Code has shown the negative effects of the Honor Code process on FLI students. There can be financial, social, and academic repercussions. When caught up in the Honor Code system, FLI students may not have the institutional knowledge on how to navigate such a process in the same way their white and wealthier counterparts might.

The severe punishments, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion, meted out to students accused of Honor Code violations negatively affect all students, but are especially harmful to FLI students. One common punishment for violating the Honor Code is suspension from school for a semester or more. However, the subset of suspended students who have to repeat semesters because of disciplinary action are not eligible for financial aid during their repeated term. This contingency makes the Honor Code a monumental threat to FLI students, who, without financial aid, would find themselves thousands of dollars in debt as a result of student loans, which are suggested as an alternative way of funding study at Princeton. These effects of the Honor Code can have devastating impacts on FLI students — students who rely on a Princeton education for the chance of upward mobility but instead find themselves deep in debt.

FLI students, like many students, are often afraid of disappointing family and friends. A lack of community support in these situations also puts FLI students at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers, whose communities often include people who are college-educated and have been exposed to academic integrity systems similar to Princeton’s Honor Code, and may understand the process better.


The process of reporting and investigating an Honor Code breach parallels the criminal justice system by mimicking processes of questioning, evidence gathering, witness depositions, and an eventual move to trial, or hearing. In the same way a criminal record haunts previous convicts, any Honor Code violation for which a student is found responsible follows them in their transcript, overshadowing the accomplishments of attaining a Princeton degree and making it difficult for students to find employment opportunities. 

For FLI students — for whom a Princeton degree represents a significant opportunity to move upwards in socioeconomic status — a permanent record of a violation on their academic transcript can have devastating consequences. On the other hand, wealthier students are more likely to have connections to potential employers.

The University can, and should, take tangible steps towards making the Honor Code a more equitable aspect of Princeton. The University should make financial aid continually available to students who must repeat a term because of disciplinary punishment, as the punishment unfairly targets FLI students, who are unable to complete their Princeton education without access to financial aid. 

Secondly, students convicted of Honor Code violations should have an option to attach a letter from a faculty member to their transcript, in which a faculty member can attest to their development since the violation. Finally, the University should offer sessions aimed at educating students on how the Honor Code works. These approaches can begin to limit the injustices FLI students face on campus and can better prepare every student to fight injustice outside the Orange Bubble.

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Emilly Santos is a prospective physics major in the class of 2025, also pursuing certificates in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Portuguese Language & Cultures.