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The not-so-great class of 2027: Why none of us deserve to be here

Grey stone building with a triangular silhouette next to a sign with the seal of Mathey college.
Ryland Graham / The Daily Princetonian

What does the word “great” accomplish in the expression, “The Great Class of 2027?” In my first two weeks at first-year orientation, I heard the phrase in impassioned speeches, incessant emails, and dinnertime conversations more often than I did my own name — an experience that I am certain is shared by other first-years. We are showered with this slogan so often that it almost gains a sort of religiosity. The word “great” instills people with a sense of certainty that their presence here is justified and deserved. But this pervasive Princetonian pride for being great is more insidious than it appears to be. It reveals that pursuing a more meritocratic admissions system, an aim that many progressives subscribe to, is based on a sense of intellectual superiority rather than a genuine desire for equality. The idea of a “great class” destroys our humility and obscures the fact that we are all here because of a force even greater than merit luck. The solution is straightforward and radical: partially randomizing Princeton’s admissions process.

The term “meritocracy” was first coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in his book “The Rise of Meritocracy,” and was described as a society in which the “classes are reconstituted based on the simple formula: IQ plus Effort equals Merit.” In his 2020 book “The Tyranny of Merit,” author Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, explores the idea of “meritocratic hubris.” In the world of college admissions, there are winners — in our case, the Great Classes of 2027, 2026, and so on, and there are losers — those who are denied admission. Those winners here are granted a sense of “meritocratic hubris” — or in Sandel’s words, a form of “smug conviction that those who land on top deserve their fate.” This is what the word “great” implies. You can reap the good of all that Princeton has to offer because, you assume, merit means you are here for a great reason, deserving of a spot at a well-resourced and elite institution. You are good, because you are great.

We obviously do not yet live within a perfectly meritocratic institution, but this is what the proponents of such meritocratic admissions policies are arguing for:an equalized start for an unequal end. This becomes a form of progressive elitism founded not on race, class, gender, or sexuality, but on your “IQ plus Effort.”

Nowhere is the progressive blind spot towards meritocracy more clear than in the debate on affirmative action and the pushback that it has generated from many of Princeton’s progressives. One opinion implies that affirmative action, though imperfect, promotes “equality and meritocracy” by removing systemic barriers that underrepresented minorities often encounter. Another piece characterizes the policy as something that provides a “superior education to people with high academic potential who otherwise might not be either admitted or able to pay for Princeton.” Implicit in both arguments is the meritocratic assumption — affirmative action is a policy that allows those who deserve it to rise to the top of the pyramid of opportunity, effectively justifying the fate of those it leaves at the bottom.

Some may argue that the majority of Princeton students are aware of the privilege and luck that got them where they are. I don’t find it necessary to delve into the income ranges of students’ families, what proportion of first-year students went to private boarding schools in the Northeast, or how many academically qualified applicants get rejected from Princeton each year, because the role of luck and privilege in admissions is well-established. But while Princeton students may acknowledge their privilege, the culture of “meritocratic hubris” is more pervasive than that of blind ignorance. There is a belief that privilege is rooted in the imperfection of meritocracy rather than the concept of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy leads to unequal ends and no amount of eliminating its flaws will change that.

We can do better. Princeton claims to serve humanity, but as Head Opinion Editor Abigail Rabieh argued over the summer, we must dismiss the notion that we can do that through admissions because educational institutions are not societal equalizers. I argue for a more radical, Sandelian solution: randomize college admissions after certain academic thresholds and expand the campus and class size to accommodate for this process.

Randomizing admissions would do the most important thing: removing the “elite” nature from what is inherently an academic institution. When students know that luck was the primary force to their admission into a rigorous and well-resourced school, it keeps them humble. They are not good because they are great, but merely because they are lucky. When employers know that a Princeton education merely signals a quality education, not a façade of a select “best of the best” student body that the original admissions system promotes, it equalizes the institution to the wider body of academia. It destroys intellectual elitism from the inside out. 

Incorporating minimum academic requirements would ensure that incoming students are prepared to succeed within Princeton’s rigorous academic environment, but such thresholds can vary — and eventually lessen — based on the University’s resources. Ideally, no such thresholds would exist — where Princeton’s diversity in academic offerings would accommodate students from all educational backgrounds — but this simply does not yet hold true. A partial randomization system, though imperfect in its aims for egalitarianism, will gradually combat the “good because great” mentality.

Additionally, a wider expansion of the student body and campus would widen Princeton’s accessibility in this post-randomized admissions process. Princeton’s nearly $36 billion endowment is greater than the GDP of over 100 countries around the world, making this more than financially feasible. We are already in the midst of an expansion, but we have the capacity to do more. The more students that can attend Princeton to begin with, the more we can expand the good that a Princeton education can provide. 

If your instinctive response to this system is that it isn’t fair to those who “deserve it,” remember that no form of admissions has ever been fair, and that in the end, the University’s primary purpose is not to mend all of society’s evils. But this version keeps us modest. It reminds us that nobody inherently deserves a good education, because everybody deserves one — not only those who have the “IQ plus Effort,” but also those who may have neither. Having neither should not sentence you to a life without educational fulfillment, community, or success. In the meantime, I urge my fellow ’27s to take the advice of acclaimed hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar: Stay humble. 

Siyeon Lee (she/her) is a first-year from Seoul, South Korea intending to major in Comparative Literature or the School of Public and International Affairs. She can be reached at