During the spring of my senior year in high school, I remember making a series of pro/con lists as I tried to decide where I should spend the next four years of my life. On each of the various drafts of my list, I remember writing “diversity” as a pro for Princeton. I felt, and still do feel, that one of the most valuable opportunities offered to college students is the chance to meet people from a variety of different backgrounds. I wanted to go somewhere where I could find people whose lives had been different from mine. According to the University’s website, Princeton offers this opportunity. A 2013 report by the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity states, “Princeton places a policy of diversity and inclusion at the core of our educational mission.” However while Princeton students are diverse in many ways, from our ethnicities to our academic interests to our hometowns, the Princeton community is also a surprisingly homogeneous one in that the majority of us come from a background of privilege.

The nature of the privilege we benefit from varies from student to student. For some it is socioeconomic privilege, while for others it is supportive parents or mentors. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to get into Princeton without the advantage of some type of privilege. The bias that the admission system currently shows towards privileged students results in a lack of a type of diversity that cannot be summarized in neat statistics, but that is nonetheless important to our student body.

While there is no easy way to make the Princeton admissions process accessible to a more diverse group of students, the Admissions Opportunity Campaign – organized by Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) – proposes a step that the University could take towards achieving this goal.

In 2006, the Common Application, an online application used by more than 500 colleges and universities, added a question that asks students if they have ever been convicted of a crime. The question reads, “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime? Note that you are not required to answer ‘yes’ to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise ordered by a court to be kept confidential.” Although Princeton had never felt the need to ask such a question prior to 2006, the University accepted this change to the Common Application without asking any questions. The Admissions Opportunity Campaign is asking that Princeton remove this question from its application.

By asking this question, Princeton is using a criterion that is both racially and economically discriminatory to evaluate prospective students. Youth who live in underprivileged neighborhoods are both more likely to be convicted of crimes and less likely to be able to afford the lawyers who could expunge, seal, annul, pardon, destroy, erase etc their records. Non-white youth are also unfairly targeted by the justice system. While African Americans account for only 14% of drug users every month, individuals incarcerated for drug use are 37% African American. In many cities that have stop-and-frisk programs, the number of Latino and African American citizens who are questioned and/or frisked is disproportionately high. In New York City, for example, while only a little over half of the population is African American or Hispanic, African Americans and Hispanics made up roughly 83% of the stop-and-frisk targets from January 2004 to June 2012. We tend to think of people who have been involved with the justice system as somehow fundamentally different from ourselves. However in 2010, approximately 32% of all juvenile arrests in the U.S. were for drunkenness, liquor laws, drug abuse, curfew, loitering, or disorderly conduct – all crimes that are far from unheard of on the Princeton campus. The truth is that many individuals who have had involvement with the justice system were simply unfairly targeted for committing the same offenses that many of us have committed.

These individuals represent a significant portion of our country’s population. More than 25% of all adults in the U.S. have criminal records. By removing the question from the Princeton application that discriminates against this population, or discourages its members from applying to Princeton in the first place, the University would help lessen the perceived barrier that separates this population from the rest of the country – a barrier that causes misconceptions about what past involvement with the criminal justice system means.

Princeton would also be taking an important step towards realizing its goal of having “a policy of diversity and inclusion at the core of [its] educational mission.” In a world in which opportunity begets opportunity, the University would be choosing to make its admissions process more accessible to a population whose members may not have had the same privileges and opportunities that many of us were raised with, thus taking a step towards a more equitable admissions process and a more genuinely diverse student body.

If you believe that Princeton should remove the question about past involvement with the criminal justice system from its application, please sign SPEAR’s petition here: If you would like to learn more about the issue before deciding, feel free to look over the fact sheet here:  

-Margaret Wright