ACADEMIC ADMISSIONS AT ELITE UNIVERSITIES AND AT SPECIALIZED PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS: DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN?

AuthorSchwarzschild, Maimon

Introduction 1187 I. Elite University Admissions in the Twentieth Century 1189 II. "Holistic" University Admissions Today 1193 III. Asian-Americans and the Admissions Sweepstakes at Elite Universities 1195 IV. From Higher Education to Academic High Schools 1197 Conclusion: A Dubious Path to Genuine Equity 1200 INTRODUCTION

Admissions policies at American universities and colleges, especially at the most prestigious ones, have had a checkered history over the past century and more. Many of the issues and controversies surrounding higher education in the early twentieth century--and the interests and prejudices at stake--reverberate strongly today, with implications for tests and admissions standards at the secondary school level as well, particularly for specialized and selective public high schools. Ethnic and racial politics were prominent a century ago, and they are prominent today in the debates over admissions to academic secondary schools as well as to colleges and universities. Admissions policies at elite universities today thus raise some of the same issues that arise for secondary schools, although there are important differences between the two. This Essay will suggest that the case for straightforward academic standards for admission to specialized academic high schools may be even stronger than for university or college admissions.

In the 1910s, and especially in the 1920s, America's elite colleges and universities turned away from their earlier practice of offering admission straightforwardly to applicants who passed an academic test. There were various reasons for this, but the predominant, if not overwhelming, reason was that Jewish applicants--especially the children of recent and impoverished Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe -- were doing well on the exams, and elite colleges and universities did not want many, if any, of them. (Some of the colleges were more willing to tolerate a modest number of more assimilated German Jews, whose families were not recent arrivals in America.) Leading universities therefore adopted a new approach to admissions, with the idea that admissions would not be based on academic criteria alone. This idea became institutionalized and prevails to this day in the admissions policies of prestigious and selective universities. (1)

The new admissions priority at leading universities, roughly a century ago, was said to be the quality of an applicant's "character"--a quality deemed to be lacking among Jews but (as one recent author wryly puts it) "present in abundance among high-status Protestants." (2) For several decades, beginning in the 1920s and in some cases earlier, there were implicit but firm discriminatory quotas for Jews at leading universities and colleges. Discrimination against Jewish applicants diminished or ceased, for the most part, in the years after the Second World War. But Asian-American applicants now face discrimination at prestigious campuses that is remarkably reminiscent of past discrimination against Jews. Today's admissions policies are commonly said to be "holistic." With these policies, universities and colleges have much wider discretion about whom to admit --and whom to reject--than they would have if admissions were based on examination results or academic criteria alone. These admissions policies are also far less transparent to applicants, to their families, and to the public than straightforward academic criteria would be.

A brief review of how and why these admissions policies developed at leading universities in the twentieth century may cast some light--and offer a caution--for the debates over academic secondary schools and their admissions policies today.

  1. ELITE UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, the most prestigious American universities, such as Harvard and Yale, and a few elite liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Williams, each administered an entrance examination of its own, and offered admission to applicants who passed the exam. (3) These exams were oriented to the curricula of fashionable private preparatory schools, and some of them included classical Greek -- which was rarely, if ever, taught in American public high schools--as well as Latin. (4) In 1905, Harvard replaced its own exam with the College Entrance Examination Board's exams--the "College Boards"--making Harvard more accessible to public high school graduates. (5) Yale likewise dropped its Greek requirement for admission in 1904, and announced in 1907 that it would accept the College Boards for admission. (6) Harvard and its peers still drew a majority or near-majority of their undergraduates from exclusive prep schools, although by 1913 public high school graduates slightly outnumbered those coming from private schools at Harvard, while public high school graduates continued to be in the minority--a diminishing minority in some years--at Yale and Princeton. (7)

    Nonetheless, academically talented high school students had more opportunity to succeed on admissions exams like the College Boards. The decades just before and after the turn of the twentieth century were also an era of large-scale immigration, including substantial numbers of impoverished Jewish immigrants from the Czarist empire and elsewhere in eastern Europe. (8) Many of these immigrant families put great emphasis on education, and children of such families, especially in urban areas like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, took and passed the college entrance exams. (9) At Harvard, for example, Jews were 7% of freshmen in 1900, more than 21% in 1922, and more than 27% in 1925. (10) Some 2% of Yale upperclassmen were Jewish in 1901, and more than 13% in Yale's class of 1925. (11) At Columbia, the proportion of Jewish students grew to 40% or more before Columbia imposed a quota in 1922. (12) The presidents, deans, and other leaders of these universities became determined to cut down the numbers of their Jewish students. (13) It is not easy--or perhaps very important--to calibrate to what extent this was out of concern that the presence of Jewish students would make their campuses less attractive to wealthier and better-connected non-Jewish students, and to what extent it was driven by their own distaste for Jewish students.

    Harvard provides a particularly vivid and well-documented example of how and why a more discretionary, less transparent, and less academically-based admissions policy came into force in the 1920s. In 1922, Harvard's president, A. Lawrence Lowell, made it known that he favored an explicit limitation of about 15% on Jewish enrollment. (14) It was not that the Jewish undergraduates were failing to do well academically at Harvard. Between 1912 and 1918, proportionately more than twice as many Jewish students graduated with honors at Harvard than did their non-Jewish classmates. (15) The problem for President Lowell, and for many others of like mind at Harvard and elsewhere, was precisely that Jewish applicants were doing so well on the academic entrance examinations and continuing to do well in their studies once admitted.

    Lowell's initial impulse was to impose a restrictive quota, without much euphemism or polite disguise of his intentions. He wrote to a Harvard faculty member:

    The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate, not because the Jews it admits are of bad character, but because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also. This happened to a friend of mine with a school in New York, who thought, on principle, that he ought to admit Jews, but who discovered in a few years that he had no school at all. A similar thing has happened in the case of Columbia College; and in all these cases it is not because Jews of bad character have come; but the result follows from the coming in large numbers of Jews of any kind, save those few who mingle readily with the rest of the undergraduate body. Therefore any tests of character in the ordinary sense of the word afford no remedy. (16) But Lowell anticipated - correctly as it turned out - that:

    [T]he Faculty, and probably the Governing Boards, would prefer to make a rule whose motive was less obvious on its face, by giving to the Committee on Admission authority to refuse admittance to persons who possessed qualities described with more or less distinctness and believed to be characteristic of the Jews. (17) Lowell nonetheless insisted that:

    [T]he Faculty should understand perfectly well what they are doing, and that any vote passed with the intent of limiting the number of Jews should not be supposed by anyone to be passed as a measurement of character really applicable to Jews and Gentiles alike. (18) Lowell's predecessor as president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, then 90 years old, vigorously opposed the proposed quota, and after considerable wrangling, the Harvard faculty voted to reject an explicit quota limitation on Jewish students. (19) Instead, in early 1926, the Harvard faculty voted to rely less on the academic admissions exams, to give the Admissions Committee more discretion, and to lay greater emphasis on selection based on "character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education." (20) Later that year, the dean of Yale College learned from the Harvard's admissions Chairman that Harvard was...

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