Survey: Lower-income status keeps some students from full Princeton experience

Students from lower-income backgrounds are twice as likely as wealthy students to report that they have failed to purchase course materials on at least one occasion, and are more likely to abstain from extracurricular activities because of dues. These are among the findings of a survey conducted by the Undergraduate Student Government last May.

Socioeconomic differences mean that some students “may not be able to experience the full richness and diversity of a Princeton education,” former USG president Rob Biederman ’08 said at a March 10 meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community, where he reported on the survey. 

The survey of undergraduates had a 30 percent response, Biederman said. Students were asked to classify themselves in one of five groups based on their parents’ income, ranging from lower income to upper income; the survey did not specifiy income levels for each category, however. 

Among other findings:
• Very few lower-income students expressed familiarity with Princeton’s social and academic life before arriving at the University. The study said this could lead to feelings of exclusion, because other students seem more comfortable. Upper-income students were more likely to have friends or 
relatives who previously attended Princeton.   

• Students in all groups chose to attend Princeton because of academics, prestige, and career prospects. However, lower-income students also put a priority on financial aid and entrance to graduate school, while upper-income students cited location, extracurricular opportunities, and dorms and living conditions.

• Students from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to join eating clubs — both bicker and sign-in clubs. The University increased its financial aid for juniors and seniors this year to cover the average cost of a club membership, with Executive Vice President Mark Burstein saying that “economic considerations [should] not be a part of an undergraduate’s choices at Princeton.” 

The perception of a “wealth gap,” the survey found, “can create negative feelings that persist well into alumni status, hindering the continued development of the alumni community.”

The survey’s findings can be addressed through a number of programs, Biederman said, including financial-aid policies, the advising system, orientation programs, and additional University funding for extracurricular activities. 

Recommendations will be presented to the University trustees after the survey’s findings are discussed among students, faculty, and administrators, Biederman said.