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Mar. 20, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 9

A Moment With...

Professor Miguel Centeno, on access to college

By Christopher Connell ’71
Published in the March 20, 2013, issue


PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Two University committees are weighing ways to attract more low-income students with great talent to Princeton — and to ensure that they have a good experience after they arrive. Sociology professor Miguel Angel Centeno, a leading voice on campus for admitting more disadvantaged students, is a member of a group looking at undergraduate socioeconomic diversity. He spoke with PAW in January.

Sixty percent of the Class of 2016 is getting financial aid, up from 38 ­percent in 2001. Twenty percent of the class is African-American, Hispanic, or multiracial. That sounds like Princeton is reaching deeper into the pool of qualified talent. 

We are reaching deeper. We have become much more diverse. The question becomes: Have we done enough — and, if not, what can we do? The very top of the socio­economic ladder is vastly overrepresented in American higher education. We need an open discussion about what we’re willing to do to be more representative of the socioeconomic curve of the country.

You can’t just admit kids by socioeconomic status, with each percentile getting 10 to 12 slots, but you also cannot ­continue to have a disproportionate percentage of the student body coming from the top 5 or 10 percent or even the top 1 percent. Now they do.

The University has returned to early admission. Was that wrong-headed?

The early-admissions game has a very clear class correlation. Upper-class kids are more likely to use the strategy of early admission and early decision. We spend way too much time competing with Harvard and Yale for the same 10 percent of fantastic students. We should spend a helluva lot more time looking for the kids who are not obvious, not easy to find, and whose lives we can transform at Princeton. If a kid ends up at Harvard or Stanford, the general cost to Princeton and the country is nil. If, on the other hand, a kid goes to a big state school, gets lost there, and doesn’t get the opportunities he or she might have had at Princeton, then there’s a big loss. 

How has Princeton fared by admitting a far more racially and ethnically diverse student body?

If the question is, are we paying for these social changes by graduating less-educated students, the answer is unequivocally no. But this is not about race or ethnicity. Is there some really, really smart white kid in some town in West Virginia who could be the next brilliant physicist but instead might not even go to college? Princeton can find those amazing kids and change their lives. 

You co-founded the Princeton University Preparatory Program in 2001 to groom students from Trenton’s Central High and other area schools for success at elite universities. Is PUPP really finding hidden talent, or just giving a boost to local kids who already have risen to the top?

Are we simply finding the ones who are winners already? No. We’re finding those who have a fighting chance and giving them more tools so they can fight longer and further. More than half are from Trenton. Somebody told us once that our biggest competitor was not any other university, but the Nine West store in the mall. These kids are go-getters, they’re serious and organized, and their families don’t have any money. They get seduced into taking assistant-manager jobs in retail shops. You start working 20 hours a week; all of a sudden you’re making $800 a month, and that’s really helping your family. Maybe after high school you stay home and go to the local college at night so you can continue helping your family. These are the kids to whom we say, “Listen, stick with this program, and we can get you a deal where you won’t pay anything for college and five or six years down the road really help your family.”

How much can Princeton do? Incomes for upper-income Americans have risen while median family income has fallen.

To ask Princeton to change American society for good or ill is giving Princeton, even by Princeton’s standards, way too much importance. But we can change individual lives and tell the country, “This is what we hold to be a central principle.” Is Princeton doing all it can for its students and for the country? The day we stop asking that question, we stop being Princeton. 

— Interview conducted and condensed by Christopher Connell ’71

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