A noxious and surprisingly commonplace myth has taken hold in recent years, alleging that elite universities have pursued diversity at the expense of scholarly excellence. Much the reverse is true: Efforts to grow and embrace diversity at America’s great research universities have made them better than ever. If you want excellence, you need to find, attract, and support talent from every sector of society, not just from privileged groups and social classes.
As the president of Princeton University, I see the benefits of that strategy on a daily basis—and never more vividly than when Princeton recognizes its most accomplished alumni. Later this month, for example, the university will honor Fei-Fei Li, a Chinese American immigrant who spent college weekends helping with her family’s dry-cleaning business, and now co-directs Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
Li exemplifies the connection between excellence and diversity, as do other recent Princeton-alumni award recipients, including American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero, who grew up in a low-income housing project in the Bronx; Ariel Investments’ co–chief executive officer, Mellody Hobson, a Black woman brought up on Chicago’s South Side by a single mother who sometimes struggled to pay for rent or utilities; and General Mark Milley, a varsity hockey player from a blue-collar neighborhood in Winchester, Massachusetts.
False dichotomies between excellence and diversity are partly the result of political campaigns waged for ideological reasons. But like most reactionary myths, hand-wringing about modern universities also trades upon dewy-eyed nostalgia from smart, decent people who ought to know better. In December, for example, Fareed Zakaria released a six-minute video lamenting that American universities, once regarded with “admiration and envy,” were “neglecting a core focus on excellence” because they cared too much about “diversity and inclusion.” Peggy Noonan praised Zakaria lavishly in The Wall Street Journal and gushed about a lost era when “regular people” idealized universities as places filled with “rows of gleaming books, learned professors, an air of honest inquiry.”
Perhaps Noonan and Zakaria have never seen Animal House—or, for that matter, Oppenheimer. When exactly were these halcyon days of tweed and roses, when college campuses were serene oases ruled by “gleaming books” and “honest inquiry,” unsullied by social conformity, entrenched prejudice, protest movements, faculty politics, loud parties, or other distractions from scholarly pursuits?
Imagined rather than remembered, I would say. Princeton’s history is illustrative, not because it is special but because—in this respect, at least—it isn’t. At the beginning of the 20th century, Princeton had a reputation as “the finest country club in America”—a place where privileged young men loafed rather than studied. When asked early in his Princeton presidency about the number of students there, Woodrow Wilson reportedly quipped, “about 10 percent.”
Half a century later, when the university began admitting public-high-school graduates in significant numbers, it sought to reassure alumni that the newcomers would not displace more privileged but marginally qualified children. The Alumni Council published a booklet declaring that Princeton would admit any alumni child likely to graduate. As evidence, it boasted that the sons of Princetonians were overrepresented not only in the bottom quartile of the class but among those who flunked out.
The Alumni Council’s brochure spoke about Princeton’s sons because, of course, the university did not admit women to the undergraduate program until 1969, thereby turning away roughly half the world’s excellence. That was only one of many unfair and discriminatory distinctions that American universities embraced at the expense of excellence.
Wilson, for example, opposed the admission of Black students. He infamously declared that “the whole temper and tradition of [Princeton] are such that no negro has ever applied for admission” and that it would be “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” Not until the 1960s did the university make a concerted effort to attract and matriculate Black students.
People who accuse universities of “social engineering” today seem to forget the social engineering that they did in the past—social engineering that was designed to protect class privilege rather than disrupt it. At Princeton and other Ivy League universities, anti-Semitic quotas persisted into the 1950s. Asian and Asian American students, who now form such an impressive part of the student body at Princeton and its peers, were virtually absent.
With help from charitable endowments funded by grateful alumni and friends, Princeton and other leading research universities have also dismantled financial barriers that in the past discouraged brilliant students from attending. Contrary to what readers might infer from the endless stream of articles about debt-ridden college grads who become baristas, America’s elite research universities now offer financial-aid packages that make them among the country’s most affordable colleges. At Princeton, the percentage of students on aid has risen from about 40 percent in 2000 to 67 percent in the most recent entering class, covering low-, middle-, and even some upper-middle-income students. The average scholarship exceeds the tuition price.
The elimination of barriers to entry coincided with two other changes: students’ increased willingness to travel for an outstanding education and improved informational tools that colleges could use to assess the quality of students (and vice versa). The result, as documented by the Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby in 2009, is that student bodies at America’s best colleges and universities are significantly stronger academically in the 21st century than they were in the 1980s or ’90s. By 2007, she reports, America’s leading colleges were “up against the ceiling of selectivity” defined in terms of academic credentials, not acceptance rate: Further improvements to the quality of the student body would be so refined as to be invisible.
Princeton’s internal data show striking changes consistent with Hoxby’s more general findings. Princeton’s undergraduate-admission office has long assigned academic ratings to all applicants based on their scholarly accomplishments in high school, with 1 being the strongest and 5 being the weakest. In the late 1980s, Academic 1s made up less than 10 percent of the university’s applicant pool and less than 20 percent of our matriculated class. Indeed, if you plucked a student at random from the Princeton University student body in 1990, the student was as likely to be an Academic 4 as an Academic 1 (but unlikely to be either: Academic 2s and 3s made up half the class).
In recent years, by contrast, Academic 1s have constituted roughly 30 percent of the applicant pool and about 50 percent of the matriculated class. Princeton’s academic excellence has increased substantially across every segment of its undergraduate population.
These students are excelling, moreover, at universities that are research powerhouses. America’s best universities draw upon endowments and other sources of funding to build laboratories of stunning quality. These facilities enable us to attract the very best professors from throughout the world. Here, too, diversity is essential to excellence. At once-all-male Princeton, for example, award-winning female scholars currently serve as the deans of the architecture, engineering, and policy schools, the directors of the neuroscience and genomics institutes, and the chairs of the mechanical- and aerospace-engineering and molecular-biology departments, among other units.
It is natural to feel sentimental about one’s college days, and colleges cultivate nostalgia among alumni to strengthen and deepen our communities. But the myth of a more glorious scholarly past is just that—a myth. Their past achievements are outstanding, but America’s leading research universities today focus more resolutely than ever on excellence. Judging by the number of admission applications that prominent universities receive, including from the children of some of our most vocal critics, much of the public knows that.
Indeed, college admissions at Princeton and its peers have become more competitive not because we have forsaken merit but, on the contrary, because we are finding it in more places. Diversity and excellence go hand in hand. If we want to meet the challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century, America’s best colleges and universities will have to continue their quest to enable people from all backgrounds to thrive. And alumni, faculty, and business leaders alike will need to speak up for the extraordinary combination of excellence and inclusivity that makes American universities irresistible magnets for global talent.
This essay was adapted from Christopher L. Eisgruber’s annual letter to the Princeton community.