Whitney Wilson ’90 points out this Washington Post article (and chart) about the rise in the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at elite schools like Williams. For background information on this topic, read this, this and our ten (!) part series from 2014. Let’s spend a week on this topic. Today is Day 4.

The quest for diversity has a long history at this school founded in Colonial America. Hurdles for Jewish and black students were torn down in the 1950s and ’60s. Princeton started admitting women as undergraduates in 1969, going coed 23 years after its bicentennial.

More puffery! How much is Princeton paying Rob Anderson to tell these happy stories? A better reporter would at least mention some of the ugliness from Princeton’s past. Our favorite story involves Radcliffe Heermance, Williams class of 1906 and Director of Admissions at Princeton from 1922 to 1950. Consider:


Apologies if this is tough to read, but to describe what blacks students faced at Princeton during Heermance’s tenure as “hurdles” is insulting to the memory of American patriots like Bruce Wright.

Janet Rapelye, dean of admission, said officers also were trained to hunt for talent in “much less polished” application files — those with essays that are not quite perfect, test scores obtained without help from private tutoring, or hastily written teacher recommendations.

By 2013, the Pell-eligible share had doubled to nearly 15 percent. For the next year’s class, Rapelye took another step: She asked Princeton’s financial aid office to advise which promising applicants were likely to qualify for Pell. She noted that data in their files before making final decisions.

“It doesn’t mean that we automatically admit these students,” Rapelye said. But Pell eligibility became another factor among many in the “holistic” review of an application at one of the world’s most selective schools. Princeton’s admission rate is 6 percent.

Janet Rapelye is Williams College class of 1981. After 15 years heading admissions at Princeton, she is certainly one of the most powerful Ephs of her era. There is a great senior thesis to be written comparing her time to Heermance’s. Who will write it?

Consider how Princeton has (not!) changed during Rapelye’s tenure.


There has been no meaningful change in the percentage of students from the bottom 60% of the income distribution during Janet Rapelye’s 15 year tenure as director of admissions at Princeton. This is the reality that the Washington Post describes, with a straight face, as “Princeton draws surge of students from modest means.”

Of course, one counter-argument is that this data is 5 or so years old. Princeton just got the socio-economic diversity religion recently. Perhaps! And there is some evidence that Princeton has fewer students from the top 20% and more from the second 20%. But, big picture, Princeton is probably every bit as much a rich kid’s school today as it was in Heermance’s era.

Also, note the article passage that I have bolded above. Five years ago, Princeton (and Vassar and Williams and . . .) did not much care what your family income was if it was in the middle of the US distribution, say between the 40th percentile ($42,000) and the 80th percentile ($107,000). They might have given an extra break to very poor applicants, but, for a broad range, family income did not matter much. Now, it does matter, at one very specific point in that range. If you are Pell-eligible, then you have a big advantage over a student whose family makes $1,000 more because Janet Rapelye is focused on pumping up the percentage of Pell students at Princeton, so much so that she is determining whether or not you are so eligible even before she makes a decision on your application.

Smart applicants will do everything in their power to appear Pell-eligible to Princeton. Do readers have advice on the best way to accomplish this goal? I suspect that the key is to under-estimate family assets.

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