Contextualizing Diversity at Princeton

Undergraduate students at Princeton represent a range of diverse backgrounds. Half of the students in the class of 2024 are women and 61% of domestic students (citizens and permanent residents) identify as people of color. Sixty-three percent of students enter Princeton from public schools and 20% come from low-income families. While 10% of students in the class of 2024 are children of alumni, 17% of the class are first-generation college students (Princeton University Office of Admission).

In Fall 2019, the total annual cost of attendance at Princeton University was $69,950 (Tuition, $51,870; Residential college fee, $930; Room and board, $17,150). To accommodate our diverse student body, Princeton provides financial aid to 60% of their students with the average grant exceeding the cost of tuition. A full 82% of recent seniors graduated debt free. Further, the average debt of graduating seniors in 2023 was $9,000 (compared to $32,300 nationally for students attending private four-year colleges). Twenty-four percent of students in the class of 2023 received Federal Pell Grants, need-based grants to low-income students (Princeton University Office of Admission). Given the diversity of the Princeton student body, it is important to develop and use strategies that make all students, regardless of their background, feel welcome and fully able to learn.

Disability Inclusion

Disability access and inclusion on college campuses is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as amended by the Federal Rehabilitation Act, Section 504. Princeton also complies with the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In accordance with these laws, students at Princeton “may request academic accommodations; housing and dining accommodations; modifications to University policies, rules, and regulations; environmental adjustments such as the removal of architectural, communication, or transportation barriers; and auxiliary aids and services” (Office of Disability Services). The term “disability” may refer to “learning, physical, sensory, psychological, medical, and certain temporary disabilities” (Inclusive Princeton).

While Princeton’s Office for Disability Services (ODS) is charged with removing barriers to education caused by specific impairments, creating an inclusive environment, both physical and virtual, for students with disabilities also requires us to consider how disability is “a valuable form of human variation,” much like gender and race, with special “cultural diversity, situated knowledge, and a basis for relational ethics” that can shape the university campus more broadly (“Cripping the Classroom”).

First Steps: 

  • Consider the disabilities you can’t see. Remember that not all disabilities are visible. Consider how hidden disabilities like social anxiety or ADHD may impact how your students follow along with lectures or participate in discussion. 
  • Become a “faculty ally.” Ask your students for periodic feedback about barriers that may be preventing them from engaging fully in your course. By asking “how can I best support you?” you create space for all of your students (especially those who fear the stigma of registering with ODS) to share their experience in the classroom. 
  • Trust your students. They know themselves best and can often suggest small adjustments that will make your class more accessible and inclusive for everyone. 
  • Remain flexible and open to feedback. By holding your course policies, structure, and classroom management loosely you can respond more quickly to student requests for a more inclusive environment. This will increase student ownership in the classroom and foster your students’ own investment in their education. 

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Racial and Ethnic Identity

In response to the recent reckoning with racial injustice, President Eisgruber has called on us to confront racism and to bring our “scholarly and teaching resources to bear to create a more just and equal society,” encouraging us “to ask how we can more effectively fight racism—through our teaching and research, through our operations, and through our interactions and partnerships with those around us.” The work of confronting structural racism is broad in scope and includes renaming buildings, recognizing and confronting bias in hiring practices, offering resources for community building, fostering dialogue across the institution, and having a wide diversity of students on campus. Creating anti-racist classrooms is integral to this work and is essential for ensuring that all students in our community can learn effectively.

Structural racism is often described as behaviors and assumptions that seem normal, even as “the very air we breathe,” (“10 Signs of Institutionalized Racism”) or as a “banality” and so possibly difficult at first to recognize or identify (“The banality of racism in education”). Indeed, there is a complex and long history of racial exclusion in American higher education but we can actively counteract this history by fostering inclusive teaching practices in our classrooms. 

First Steps: 

  • Begin with yourself. Because racism has been so structurally normalized in our culture, it is crucial for faculty to reflect on their own experiences, as perpetrators and/or victims of racism before inviting students to mine and uncover their own assumptions and expectations. Keeping in mind that racial and ethnic identities are not static, think about how you can build moments for self-reflection into your course so that you and your students can become “aware of [your] social position and critically reflect on it” (Kishimoto, 2018 p.242-3). 
  • Remember that racial identities and beliefs are fluid and complex. There is no template for dismantling racism. Rather, you should view this project as an ongoing process in which you and your students dissect, evaluate, and critique disciplinary narratives that position groups in opposition to one another. As you do so, refrain from making any person (including yourself) into a “token” or iconic individual representing any one category or identity. 
  • Consider your course structure. Create opportunities in your class for active, collaborative, and structured learning, as these are correlated with increased academic success and a stronger sense of belonging for minority students, especially in STEM fields (Peer-Led Team Learning Helps Minority Students Succeed). These might include small group activities, peer mentoring, collaborative projects, or think-pair-share exercises in class.
  • Frame feedback to students in terms of a “growth” rather than “fixed” mindset and emphasize your high expectations and your belief that your students can meet them, strategies that Claude Steele has shown improve the motivation and performance of minority students in particular (Claude Steele, “Whistling Vivaldi”).

Key Resources:

Gender Identity

Although a few women at Princeton served as instructors and researchers, and enrolled as students in limited capacities, the first full class of undergraduate women was not admitted until 1969 (the Class of 1973), following a vote by the Board of Trustees to promote a "better balance of social and intellectual life" by admitting women. Princeton first reached “gender parity” in the student body in 2004 (A brief history of women at Princeton, A brief history of admissions).

Gender activists have long argued for the difference between sex and gender, and this distinction continues to be crucial as we acknowledge nonbinary gender identities: one’s gender identity may or may not be different from one’s sex assignment at birth, and likely influences one’s gender expression. Sexual identity (meaning attraction or lack of attraction to romantic partners) is different from gender identity (how one identifies with one gender or another). For further clarification and definitions see Princeton’s LGBT center’s Dimensions of the Gender Spectrum

Key acronyms include: transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) students, LGBT and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer)--scholars and activists encourage educators to recognize the differences and distinctions in identities, and the serious risks that TGNC students face (especially those who are students of color). It is important to remember that the gender identities of students may overlap but may not be the same; for instance, some transgender students may identify as non-binary, but others may not. 

First Steps: 

  • Be Proactive. Create a welcoming and inviting classroom environment by reaching out to students in advance, inviting them, if they would like, to share their preferred names and pronouns. Research shows that students are more willing to be “out” in safe, inclusive environments and that being “out” correlates to greater engagement overall (see “Rethinking Gender Equity in Higher Education”). 
  • Don’t pressure students to “out” themselves. Many LBGTQ students express the fear of being outed, or of being asked on the first day of class about their gender pronouns. Keep in mind that college students are often in the process of discovering and crafting their identities. Because questions about pronoun use can make people feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, writing to students in advance rather than asking on the first day of class about pronoun use may feel less invasive and more welcoming (“The Problem with Pronouns”). In addition, be respectful of students’ boundaries, privacy, and wishes and do not disclose their gender identity to others unless you have received their consent to do so.
  • Educate yourself about evolving gender identity labels and definitions. Princeton’s LGBT Campus Center is a great resource for learning about gender and sex identity. Their guides to pronoun usage, dimensions of the gender spectrum, and making class welcoming for trans and gender-variant students are great places to start. GLSEN has also published a guide to gender terminology and accompanying discussion prompts that you may find useful.
  • Cultivate a learning mindset. Be as consistent as possible when you address your students and address any instances where students are misgendered (even if the person in question is not present). If you make a mistake with a name or pronoun, apologize, continue with class or your interaction, and remember next time.

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Income Inequality

As Princeton, and other universities, expand their efforts to diversify their student bodies, increasing attention is given to first-generation college students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Resulting in large part from 1998 changes to financial aid policies, Princeton has seen a significant increase in the number of students from poor families: “Although less than half of undergraduates were on financial aid throughout the 20th century, nearly two thirds of them were by 2010” (A brief history of Princeton admissions). Still, the median family income at Princeton is $186,000 and a full 72% of students come from the top 20% of US earners.

While increasing access to the university for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is critical for increasing the diversity of college campuses, the legacy of wealth at institutions of higher education doesn’t disappear when poor students come to campus. In their book, Paying for the Party, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton argue that “students from similar class backgrounds share financial, cultural, and social resources, as well as lived experiences, that shape their orientations to college and the agendas they can readily pursue.” For poor students on college campuses, the financial, cultural, and social orientations that shape the college experience are often so different from their own, that they experience “culture shock,” a lack of ownership over the college experience, and what Anthony Jack calls Assimilation Blues, a “feeling of alienation that poor people feel in places that are supposed to provide a way out of poverty” (The Privileged Poor, 53).

Creating inclusive cultures for poor students on college campuses requires widespread cultural shifts and additional institutional support and Princeton has taken significant steps to ease the transition to Princeton for low income and first generation students. In 2015, Princeton created the Scholars Institute Fellows Program to support first-generation and lower-income students at Princeton. The program runs an intensive summer program for incoming freshmen (the Freshman Scholars Institute) that introduces students to campus resources, creates robust communities and social supports, and introduces key skills in advance of the school year in addition to providing ongoing support. In addition to these institutional programs, there are several things faculty can do to decrease the barriers poor students experience in the classroom. 

First Steps: 

In his book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Anthony Jack gives several suggestions for creating an inclusive environment for poor students.

  • College is not a “golden ticket” out of poverty. “Too often we think about those youth who make it out of distressed communities and into college--especially elite colleges--as having already won.” However, it is critical to remember that leaving poverty can be an emotionally taxing experience for students. Being admitted to an elite college does not mean that students can or “will take advantage of all the connections and resources they have access to on campus.” 
  • Students enter college on unequal ground. It is easy to “think of students who advocate for themselves as simply individuals who are more engaged, more invested in their education, and perhaps, more deserving of support,” however, it may be that those students who are not “engaged” simply don’t know how to go about taking a more active role in their courses. Course policies that require students to take initiative without explaining how to do so may inadvertently amplify the differences between students on a daily basis. 
  • Stop rewarding insider knowledge. “University faculty and staff need to assess all of the tasks we perform each day and ask ourselves whether these are helping our students or hindering them.” Commonly used words like “syllabus, liberal arts, prerequisite, internship, fellowship, and credit” can be foreign and alienating to some students. “Something as simple as professors describing the purpose of office hours in the first class of the semester could be a step on the way toward making explicit the tacit expectations that permeate so many facets of college life.”
  • Feelings of exclusion may extend beyond the college setting. “If students believe that the college recruited them, promised them an academically challenging yet socially enriching experience, and then intentionally made them feel like outsiders when they arrived,” they may opt out of the very professions and post-graduate opportunities that can facilitate their upward mobility. Creating inclusive environments in the classroom can go a long way to communicate to poor students that elite opportunities are indeed for people “like them.” 

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