According to a number of court-watchers, this spring, the Supreme Court is probably going to rule affirmative action unconstitutional. Elite colleges, like Princeton, will then be faced with the challenge of building diverse classes despite race-blind admissions, a problem University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has admitted will be difficult to solve. But why does our admission process fail to include students of color without the bandage of affirmative action in the first place? It is because our admissions criteria is largely dependent on metrics that guarantee students of color will be excluded. We must reimagine how we admit applicants to guarantee students of color are included without superfluous solutions.
It is important to first establish why racial diversity is necessary.
Racial diversity matters because it is productive. An analysis of 366 companies yielded, “a statistically significant connection between diversity and financial performance” in research conducted by a 2015 McKinsey & Company project. According to this project, the most racially and ethnically diverse companies were “35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median,” with “companies in the bottom quartile in both gender and ethnicity” underperforming, in the same study. Not only does diversity provide an environment in which its members may feel comfortable enough to succeed, but a variety of identities yields an inherently nuanced and rigorous outcome by virtue of difference in thought and experience.
Racial diversity also matters because it provides community for students of color. It is difficult to navigate a predominately white institution when hardly any of your peers share your same racial or ethnic identity. According to Princeton’s 2021–2022 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Annual Report, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American undergraduate students combined only make up 27 percent of the student body. White students make up 56 percent. If enrollment were more varied, students of color would have an easier time finding commonality and, by extension, security with people of shared experiences and practices. As a student of color myself, it has often been difficult to thrive in an environment in which my experience is so foreign to that of the majority community. Many strong communities coexisting not only provides affinity spaces to minority students, but also the opportunity for those many communities to exchange and learn from each other.
For this reason, the University has stood by its purported commitment to “recruiting, retaining, and supporting a diverse community of students.” Just recently, in his 2023 annual State of the University Letter, Eisgruber advocated for “embracing and cultivating talent from all backgrounds,” to fulfill our mission. But can we say Princeton really is committed to diversity if Princeton would not be diverse without the construct of affirmative action?
The core elements of Princeton admission — the parts that come before affirmative action — do not promote a diverse class.
One of factors listed as “Very important” to Princeton admission in the Common Data Set is the rigor of secondary school. Black students of all socioeconomic levels attend worse schools than their White peers of similar socioeconomic status.
Surveying tens of thousands of PreK–12 teachers revealed that 55.0 percent of teachers surveyed “[demonstrated] some degree of pro-White/anti-Black implicit bias,” with 14.8 percent demonstrating “some degree of pro-White/anti-Black explicit bias.” This is certain to impact GPA and recommendation letters, both also listed as “Very important” to Princeton admissions in the Common Data Set.
Standardized testing, one more “Very important” criteria, also disadvantages diverse communities. Income and race continue to strongly predict standardized testing scores, with 2020 ACT scores reflecting that students from households with incomes greater than $150,000 perform 42.9 percent better than students from households with incomes less than $24,000, and White students perform 31.0 percent better than Black and Native American students.
Though Princeton has suspended the requirement to submit standardized testing scores for the application process through 2025 in light of COVID-19, this change may not be permanent. Even with this suspension, students from privileged backgrounds still take advantage of this part of the application. Of Princeton students enrolled in the fall of 2021, 56 percent submitted their SAT scores (with the 25th percentile of enrolled students’ SAT scores being a 1470—nationally representative of a 99th percentile score), 35 percent submitted their ACT scores, and 91.25 percent had above a 3.75 high school GPA.
Princeton also continues to consider legacy, even though legacy is nothing more than a purchase made between the privileged to secure 12.5 percent of enrollment.
Clearly, the admissions system favors white and wealthy students — not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. Affirmative action does not resolve this, however. Although affirmative action has been an important tool for nationally increasing diversity in higher education, it is simply an unsustainable bandage on a defective admissions ethos.
To promote diversity without affirmative action, Princeton ought to redefine its admissions criteria to realize its “pervasive commitment to serve the nation and the world.” Rather than continuing to rely on inequitable and often dubious metrics for predicting performance then, Princeton would place more emphasis on past achievement and future potential in service.
So what would a new admissions criteria look like? In an enhanced Princeton Common Data Set: Work experience and volunteer work, which are currently only “Considered” should be given “Very important” consideration; categories like community involvement, familial obligation, and demonstrated commitment to intellectual and social curiosity could be added; “Rigor of secondary school,” “Academic GPA,” and “Standardized test scores” could drop to “Considered” or be removed entirely; legacy admissions would end.
This solution does not signal a lowering of standards but a challenging of them. A university designed to foster altruism not only better justifies our tax-exempt status, but is actually good. If a Princeton education is supposed to be in the name of service, then why does our admissions process reflect a monetary and racial bargain with bleak post-grad public sector participation?
Yes, having a class less based on “success-predicting” benchmarks may lead to students who struggle more in college, but it is Princeton’s responsibility to be inventive in accommodating these students. An environment that promotes inequitable and self-serving failure is not rigorous, it is neglectful. Disadvantaged students should be supported such that they are better able to take advantage of Princeton’s immense financial and educational resources. If not, the University is simply perpetuating a system that only caters to an already greatly and historically prepared and rewarded group of students.
Strong character and dedication to community is far less defined by one’s test scores than by an applicant’s commitment to using Princeton and its riches to contribute to good. The University’s admissions process ought to reflect the values it prides itself on and consider the potential that it may cultivate when it is better able to select students who indicate a strong desire to learn and better the world in diverse ways.
Christofer Robles is a sophomore from Trenton, N.J. He serves as an Assistant Opinion Editor and DEIB Committee Chair. Christofer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @christofer_robles.