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The Atlantic just published an interview with Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber with the deliberately provocative title “Should Princeton Exist?

The article’s author, Emma Green, doesn’t lob softballs. She points out that Princeton has roughly $3.2 million in endowment for each of its 8,200 students -- the highest ratio of any university in the United States. And yet, Princeton doesn’t do especially well on metrics that should matter, such as measures of social mobility or of Pell Grant-eligible or community college transfer students.

She points out that to a large extent Princeton remains what it was: a school for the privileged, with nearly 40 percent of its students from families able to pay full sticker price.

Eisgruber’s defense of his university is predictable and utterly formulaic: that its student body has grown more diverse over time and that its financial aid program is unusually generous.

But Eisgruber’s basic argument is that it’s worthwhile to invest very aggressively in exceptional human talent. “The idea of a place like Princeton,” he writes, “is that you can identify young people who have extraordinary talent and will benefit from an intensive academic experience.”

I only wish the interviewer had done more to hold Eisgruber’s feet to the fire. Is it actually true that Princeton’s talented recent undergraduates are, in fact, making an outsize contribution to science, medicine, literature, journalism and other areas of social value?

Given Princeton’s immense wealth, why isn’t it doing much more to serve a much larger number of particularly talented undergraduates?

Why hasn’t Princeton established extension programs comparable to, say, Harvard’s?

Currently, Princeton Online advertises 25 courses. It also offers another 16 classes on Coursera and edX -- but without any certification and without an option to get homework and assignments graded.

There are many ways that Princeton could serve more students -- and employ more Ph.D.s in the process.

  • It could substantially expand its outreach.
  • It could enroll undergraduates year-round.
  • It could limit residence in on-campus housing to two years.
  • It could open satellite campuses.
  • It could offer for-credit programs online or in a hybrid format.

Why not? Well, I suspect the answer is obvious: the school doesn’t want to dilute its brand.

That’s what the Brookings Institution’s Richard V. Reeves calls “opportunity hoarding.”

In all too many instances, the primary purpose of an undergraduate education at the most elite, richly resourced, rarefied institutions is less to train geniuses who will make major and lasting contributions to the natural and social sciences or the humanities, but, rather, to produce economic and policy elites. This is a process abetted by alumni donations, foundations, higher education ratings, journalists’ focus and the institutions’ own positioning strategies.

Some of those institutions do make attempts to (modestly) share their wealth and to open doors. By all accounts, Princeton does less of that.

There may have been a time when one could argue that institutions like Princeton concentrated the academy’s expertise, at least at the faculty level.

But at least in my area of study, American history, the passing (by death and retirement) of a generation of scholars who dominated the field -- Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, David Donald, Eric Foner, John Hope Franklin, George Fredrickson, Kenneth Jackson, James McPherson, Edmund Morgan, C. Vann Woodward, and others -- has meant that pre-eminence is no longer associated with the Ivy-plus institutions.

Indeed, even during those institutions’ heyday, riches were far more widely dispersed than the conventional wisdom assumed. Today, the leading scholars are even more widely distributed and are more likely to be found at R-1s than at the Ivies and their equivalents.

In other words, it’s not at all clear why certain scholars should be the beneficiaries of ridiculously light teaching loads and privileged access to the most prestigious fellowships and other forms of research support.

As the great sociologist of higher education Steven Brint has demonstrated, “The total societal contribution of public research universities, as measured by human capital development and research publication, is greater than that of private universities.” Whether one is speaking of the number and diversity of students served or publication of high-impact scholarship or patent creation, the public R-1s far outstrip the private research universities.

In addition, the diversification of the professoriate hinges not on the handfuls of Ph.D.s of color at the private elites, but the much greater number produced elsewhere. During the 1990s, I had the great good fortune to help train a cohort of Black doctoral students at the University of Houston that went on to impressive careers at Arkansas, UMass Amherst, Texas A&M and other leading institutions.

The highly stratified, hierarchical, pyramidal structure of American higher education is not the only viable model. In this context, it’s worthwhile looking to our neighbor to the north, where Canada’s leading universities enroll roughly 10 times as many students as our best-known private research universities and where there is much more equity in status and resources across the entire higher education ecosystem.

Please don’t confuse my complaints with a misplaced pseudo-populism. I’m not opposed to an elite education that invests in talent. And I certainly favor institutions competing to attract the best faculty talent they can and spending heavily in the liberal arts.

But there is something obscene, in this day and age, with a richly resourced university treating itself as a walled garden and hoarding its enormous resources for a minuscule student body.

Just compare Princeton to MIT. MIT’s OpenCourseware initiative has made virtually all its course content available for free. Its MOOCs, unlike Princeton’s, do offer certificates and other academic credentials. And its societal contributions are especially tangible.

The words that another Atlantic contributor used to describe Manhattan’s highly selective private schools strike me as apropos. Caitlin Flanagan, who is among my very favorite writers, wrote this: “Elite schools breed entitlement, entrench inequality -- and then pretend to be engines of social change.”

Sounds right to me.

It’s time for Princeton to look in the mirror and use its resources to serve society more broadly. Or, I feel certain, a public reckoning lies ahead.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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