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Elite universities are not the great equalizers of society

Morrison Hall
The South West entrance to Morrison Hall, home of the Office of Admissions.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

According to Princeton professor Shamus Khan, taking his class, or any other class for that matter, is not the most important part of attending Princeton. Rather, he claims, it is the symbolic, social, and cultural “capital” that one gains. This is his defense of legacy admissions: the main benefit that students from “historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds” receive is the opportunity to mingle and network with their “socially advantaged peers.” But it should not be Princeton’s intention to churn out a series of alumni prepared to build and hoard wealth and simply take their place in an elite class, even if that group comes from a diverse range of backgrounds. Elite universities have but one raison d’être: their educational mission. We cannot pretend that admissions policies, or the existence of elite universities in general are reparative endeavors or based on values of social justice.

Khan and those who seek to maintain legacy admissions understand Princeton’s existence as working to produce societal elites. On the other hand, progressives would establish class-based affirmative action and end preferential admissions that favor white applicants in order to rectify the injustice of long-term achievement gaps between groups caused by a history of racist policies — this, too, is motivated by an understanding that elite schools create the elite and moneyed class. In a recent New York Times article discussing the findings of a study quantifying the effect of family income on college admissions, the economist directing the research group pondered whether his findings could be applied to “potentially diversify who’s in a position of leadership in our society.” 


Yet if the end goal of elite schools consists of changing the perpetuation of “the intergenerational transfer of wealth and opportunity” their existence is indefensible, and simply making the next generation more diverse does not render it more defensible. That is not to say, of course, that Princeton does not serve as a conduit of power. It would be naive to pretend that Princeton doesn’t create alumni who hold inordinate amounts of wealth and influence. But that cannot be Princeton’s ultimate end. That would be turning their back on their intellectual mission, and accepting the untenable inequity of Princeton’s existence. It doesn’t serve humanity or intellectualism to churn out graduates who are driven by power and salary, regardless of how many races are represented in this production process. 

Raising a new or different people to the status of the wealthy elite does not change the fact that an elite class is inherently inequitable. If Princeton’s goal is to further social justice aims, should we not tear it down, along with the entire college admissions process altogether? Applications are inherently unequal: let’s abolish selective institutions, and redistribute their money to fund enough open-enrollment academic programs to serve every student in this nation who wants a higher degree. 

Princeton cannot defend itself from this criticism: using any kind of theory stemming from the effective altruism movement to justify its benefit to reforming society at large clearly fails since Princeton clearly reserves its benefits for a small few of the large group whom it could potentially serve. The correct defense is that perpetuating an elite, even a more diverse one, is not Princeton’s purpose at all — the mission of an elite school can have no large-scale social justice goals by virtue of its educational process itself. Rather, a school with a highly driven intellectual mission should aim to educate its students to act morally throughout the world, learning both how and why to identify and address injustice and immorality.

Elite schools are elite because they are uniquely poised to give unparalleled academic experiences and help students pursue intellectual human excellence: that must remain their ultimate goal. It’s easier to be smarter, to have a longer resume, and have had more academically impressive life experiences if you are wealthy. Colleges should seek to look deeper into applicant’s life stories, and see merit, intelligence, and success in non-traditional areas. They should also look for a diverse set of applicants — in terms of race, geographic origin, economic background, academic interest, and more — because, among numerous other educational reasons, it is impossible to grow and learn while being surrounded by similar people and thinkers.

But they should not create policies that change the stakes entirely: a college should look for students that are going to flourish and profit the most from the academic and intellectual experience, not students who are going to gain the most capital by getting a diploma — the secondary, and ideologically less important benefit a university offers. 

It is not entirely clear what goal admissions officers and University leaderships have in mind when they speak of opening the doors of elite universities to individuals against whom they were previously closed. Is it lavishing these individuals with the gifts of capital-based opportunity elite schools have access to, or is it pursuing an educational community with new and strong voices? The latter is in line with their mission: the former is not. Yet can elite schools truly consider searching for and admitting intelligent, promising, and bright individuals with the goal of shaping an intellectual community to be righting the wrongs of history? I think not: while such a strategy is vital to the continued growth of Princeton, and inherently calls for creating a diverse community, adhering to this agenda in its strictest sense does not mean considering what is best for each individual student, but rather the university as a whole.


This may all sound inequitable and harsh — of course it is. An elite school is also inequitable and so is participating in it, something any Princetonian or Ivy-Leaguer must be well aware of when they choose to attend such an institution. As Emma Green proposed in her 2020 interview with President Eisgruber ’83, “an investment in the elite few is ultimately a less robust vision of justice.” But this does not make Princeton’s existence, nor its goal of using education to achieve new intellectual and humane heights, unimportant or unattainable. 

Current admissions policies do not do a particularly good job of fulfilling this end, and they must be changed accordingly — for example, by ending preferential treatment for legacy applicants, Princeton could take a lesson from M.I.T, which searches for talent while accounting for “the different opportunities students have based on their income.” However, the ultimate question that Princeton should strive to answer in looking at each applicant is whether they will raise the intellectual heights universities aim to enable their students to achieve. The strategy of admitting students as a — granting them the gift of the elite experience — is potent with the ideological end goal of offering entrance into the moneyed elite class. As Princeton searches for a way to rethink its admission process sans affirmative action, it must maintain its core value as an intellectual and educational institution, and avoid considering diversifying policies as social or restorative goods. 

Elite institutions must not become a focal point for rectifying societal wrongs — that would be to seriously misunderstand their role in society, the real ways in which previous injustices can be rectified, and the different but nonetheless important role that such institutions seek to fulfill. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s dissent to Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College cited, there are “persistent race-linked gaps” in American society, which were caused by inequitable and racist laws and policies. So let’s focus our energy on implementing legislation and social benefit programs to resolve those gaps. That’s exactly what Princeton strives (or should be striving for) its students to do: serving humanity through education and intellectual growth. 

Abigail Rabieh is a rising junior in the history department from Cambridge, Mass. She is the head Opinion editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.

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