In Which I Get Defensive About Princeton

The higher ed blogosphere has said most of what needs to be said about the latest take on the college-rankings phenomenon, GQ‘s “America’s Douchiest Colleges” list. But something I think hasn’t been mentioned is that this list, like most of the other rankings out there, probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for pre-existing stereotypes that get reinforced year-in, year-out about America’s most name-recognizable colleges.

While I’m aware that going where I’m about to go may only serve to undermine my entire argument, the only way I know how to discuss this is by speaking to my experience. So.

Take, for example, my college. I go to Princeton, which has a high level of name recognition. It’s been around for a while, and it’s got a reputation among most constituencies you ask about it. Among people who write college rankings, and people who pay attention to them, Princeton is hard to get into (you have to be smart, and have high test scores, among other things), and its alumni get access to high-paying careers on the basis of that aforementioned name recognition. These are things some college applicants want out of a university (the prestige of selectivity, a financial return on the tuition investment), and this popular perception influences why Princeton continues to score highly on metrics like those used by US News and Forbes, and why other universities will rate Princeton well in the all-important US News peer surveys.

Many other people who perceive this exclusivity and elitism see it as a bad thing. They criticize Princeton for being “preppy,” for privileging further the already privileged, and for reinforcing a culture that’s desperately out of sync with “real” America. Some of these people who are critical do have an accurate picture of things that could be improved upon to further diversify Princeton, or to change the ways its admissions and financial aid policies operate to make things more equitable. There are huge improvements to be made in this regard: for example, one recent survey of students’ backgrounds and attitudes showed that those who come from financially well-off backgrounds are much more likely to join eating clubs, which are a central aspect of mainstream Princeton social life. That’s a problem—and, it should be noted, the university administration is working to fix it by offering financial aid that makes it no more costly to join an eating club than to opt for a university dining contract. (For the record, though I disapprove of the eating clubs that choose their members by a selective, competitive process, I don’t see a problem with the ones that use a nonselective process. However, I don’t plan to join one—nothing on them, they’re just not my scene.)

But some of those who are critical of Princeton’s privileged reputation aren’t citing statistics. Some of them, like GQ, are making lame jokes about Princeton’s supposed “douchiness.” I have no idea if I spelled that word right, but it’s an accusation that tends to put me on the defensive, because that perception is not in keeping with the Princeton I know. The Princeton I know—the Princeton I chose to attend only after I realized what it’s really like—is led by the mind-bogglingly progressive administration of Shirley Tilghman, the university’s first woman president, who has done more to take Princeton away from its 1940s and ’50s-era reputation as a Southern gentlemen’s club than anyone else in Princeton’s history. Since women were first admitted in 1969 (40 years this fall!) Princeton has been steadily changing for the better and the more progressive, and now in particular its official positions certainly cannot be said to be problematic. If there are “douchey” elements of the Princeton student culture (and there are), they are no more representative of the student body than birthers, deathers, and tenthers are of the American political spectrum. Certainly, Princeton’s douche factor is no more extreme than are those of other well-regarded private research universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or the University of Chicago.

There is no reason that I should feel more embarrassed by the name of my university than my friends who go to other famous universities should. And there is no reason that I should be stopped (as I have been time and time again) after I tell someone where I go to school so that they can say to me, “You don’t seem like the Princeton type.” My own nerdy intellectual bent and investment in my coursework above all else, my passion for writing and verbal expression, my commitment to causes outside the university walls, and my investment in making Princeton a better and more progressive place are reflected in the policy decisions of the Tilghman administration and in my classmates, friends, and professors. I have to conclude that I am someone who belongs at Princeton. And by acknowledging that, I’m not implying a negative assessment of my character, either.

“Conventional wisdom” is a popular trap for this country’s discourse to slip into, particularly in the mainstream media, which perpetuate quite successfully a lot of myths that, when they don’t involve stupid things Republicans have done recently, do occasionally involve colleges with well-known names. It’s hard for me to counter these myths, when saying the name of my college and speaking from my personal experience automatically renders me an unreliable witness. People prefer narratives that criticize these institutions, so that they may be validated in their previously-held opinions that these institutions aren’t worth the hype. But I’m holding out hope that, as Princeton continues to lead its peer institutions in setting policies that make an unrivaled undergraduate education accessible to anyone who’s qualified, the university name will cease to be a source of shame, or an indication that its bearer is somehow undeserving.

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