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Saturday, January 07, 2012

How Colleges Admit

It comes as something of a shock to one like myself who has spent his entire adult life in higher education to discover how our top institutions actually work, and, critically, what they value. To be sure, I have always been a somewhat naive idealist about higher education, and I have been away from traditional university life for most of the last twenty years, and away from big-time academia since 1980. Still I have continued to follow what has gone on and for some time I cherished the forlorn hope that I might return. Now, thanks to a remarkable book by a sociologist and fellow Harvard grad named Jerome Karabel called The Chosen,, I understand how I got into big-time academia in the first place, how my classmates did, and a lot more besides.

Karabel's work is more institutional history than traditional sociology. It came out in 2005 and should have gotten a lot more attention than it did, but it's very long, detailed, and carefully researched, and few people, including reviewers, take the time to read such books any longer. I have to admit that I haven't read all of it yet. It covers essentially the whole of the twentieth century, but I focused on the period 1920-1990, roughly. It deals fairly equally with Harvard, Yale and Princeton, whose policies differed in many ways. I'm going to spend most of my time on the discussion of Harvard, which has consistently cultivated an image as a meritocratic institution. Karabel shows that that image is largely false--and false in different ways than I realized.

In the late 19th and very early twentieth centuries, Harvard was mainly a preserve of the WASP establishment, drawing heavily for its student body on the new New England private schools like Groton, St. Paul's and St. Mark's, as well as the larger and slightly more democratic ones like Andover and Exeter. This Yankee stock was leavened by some bright local boys, including my grandfather, Harvard '09, a graduate of Lexington High School, and Joseph P. Kennedy, a bright young Irishman from East Boston. It also included a miscellaneous selection of bright young men from all over the country. This was the work of Charles W. Eliot, probably the greatest of Harvard Presidents, whose tenure included most of Progressive era. In
1908, his last year in office, 45% of freshmen came from public school and 9% and 7% of them were Catholic and Jewish, respectively. Eliot put by far the highest value on intellectual ability and even quarreled with his most famous alumnus, Theodore Roosevelt, over the value of football. But he was the exception, and his successor, Abbot Lawrence Lowell,saw things very differently. Lowell's tenure coincided with another fateful development: the production of a large new class of bright young men, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, many of them Jews, who were congregating in large eastern cities and graduating from outstanding high schools. In fact, by 1920 Columbia was already known within the Ivy League as a school that had ruined itself by admitting so many Jews that the better sort of gentile no longer wanted to attend it.

Lowell, who was personally responsible for the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which he recommended in 1927 to Governor Alvin Fuller, determined that Harvard should not suffer a similar fate. One fascinating thing about The Chosen is the degree to which even in the 1920s, overt, public ethnic prejudice was no longer tolerated, perhaps because millions of young men had just been drafted for the First World war. Lowell had to be coy about what he was doing, and he encountered plenty of opposition within and outside Harvard, but he devised a clever strategy which, with modifications, has been the key to Ivy League admissions policy ever since. By defining the ideal Harvard man not as an intellectual, but as a well-rounded gentleman combining brains with athletic ability, public-spiritedness, and mysterious, intangible qualities of character, Lowell provided his admissions officers with everything they needed to shape incoming classes to their liking And this they did. (Curiously, Lowell's idea of the ideal Harvard man was quite similar to Cecil Rhodes's desiderata for the recipients of his Oxford scholarships for Americans, Germans, and Commonwealth students.) In 1925, in the midst of Lowell's tenure, the freshman class was at least 28% Jewish--almost three times the proportion of Yale freshmen and almost ten times the percentage of Princeton frosh. But by 1933 (when James Bryant Conant took over as President) the percentage of Jewish freshman at Harvard was down to 12%. One casualty of this new policy, I am almost certain, was my own father, a Jewish graduate of New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn in 1930. He was evidently informed that he had done poorly on the math exam, but he was the salutatorian of his class and I frankly doubt that was the reason. On the other hand, had he been admitted, you would be doing something else at this moment, because had he not gone to the University of Wisconsin instead he would never have met my mother, whose Harvard- and Radcliffe-educated parents had settled in Madison in the 1930s.

Now it became somewhat easier for Jews to enter Harvard after the Second World War, although their numbers from the leading competitive high schools in the country, particularly Bronx Science and Stuyvesant in New York and Central High in Philadelphia, had to be severely restricted. But what is most striking about the many arguments over admissions during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, when I arrived myself (in 1965), is the continuing anti-intellectualism of most admissions officers and much of the higher administration. Again and again some one would ask whether Harvard wanted to be the American Ecole Normale--the elite national French school that trains lycee teachers--and again and again, the answer was a resounding no. Bright boys, it was said, suffered from all sorts of social disabilities, and in any case few of them ascended to the highest leadership positions in our society. (France may indeed remain unique in this respect: several "grandes ecoles" train most of the French elite, and it is my understanding that consistent, top quality academic performance remains the only way to get into them. It shows.) Carabel has a lot of data about the consequences of this policy, which was designed both to limit the number of Jews and to maintain Harvard's relationship with elite boarding schools. And here is where I got a real shock.

I went to a good private school myself, Loomis as it was then, north of Hartford, Connecticut. Loomis was not in the same league as Andover or Exeter, but it was relatively cheap, cheap enough for the average New England professional family to afford, and one-third of its students were day students, most of them from the best-off and brightest families in West Hartford. Loomis was a Yale feeder, not a Harvard one. Checking the 100 or so students in my yearbook, I find 9 who went to Yale and 5 who went to Harvard. Four of the Harvard admits, including myself, were academic standouts. Yet as I look back on it, Harvard used leadership criteria at Loomis as well. The President of the Student Council and the President of the Senior Class were almost automatic admits for Harvard, although in my year neither one decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

In any case, when I got to Harvard, various elements of my environment had brainwashed me to believe that the private school kids were, on the whole, a little smarter. Carabel has statistics showing how wrong I was. The majority of the admits from private schools--and this may even have included the two best, Andover and Exter--would have had no chance making it in from public school based on their academics. This was especially true of those from the smaller schools known collectively as "St. Grottlesex," including St. Paul's, Middlesex, and Groton, many of whom had SATs in the 1100-1200 range. Harvard was, in short, still cultivating its relations with the elite, and with alumni--largely for financial, as well as social reasons.

Did things change in the late 1960s? Yes and no. On the one hand, the civil rights movement led to an attempt to raise black admits (about 35 out of 1500 in my freshman year) to their proportion in the population, and pressure to admit more Hispanics and Asians followed. That did not however reflect any attempt to improve the overall intellectual level of the class, but rather an attempt to widen the elite which Harvard was training, partly as a matter of social justice and partly as an adjustment to new political realities. Indeed, the Asians seem to have posed a problem similar to the Jews half a century earlier--as the university admitted to the US civil rights commission in the mid-1980s, were admissions based purely on intellectual ability, there would have been more of them, not fewer.

Karabel's book, in my opinion, missed one important part of the story. While he makes it clear that all the big three catered shamelessly to the social and economic elite, he treats this mainly as a matter of "legacy" admissions, that is, the admission of children of prominent alumni. I think he missed something else: a weakness for the children of the political, cultural and economic elite, whether they had any previous ties to the admitting school or not. Karabel spends some time on the case of George W. Bush, Andover '64, Yale '68, making clear that he would never have been admitted to Yale (or probably, to Andover) but for his family connections. But he says nothing about Al Gore, a classmate of mine whom I knew as a freshman in Economics 1, and who I have plenty of reason to believe would never have been admitted had his father not been a U.S. Senator. Thus the 2000 election pitted a Yale grad against a Harvard grad--neither of whom could have gotten in on their own merits, a pattern that continued when they embarked upon their poltiical careers. This was the theme of a book by Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, which appeared just a year after Karabel's. Focusing on Harvard, Brown, and Duke, Golden showed what an extraordinary advantage both celebrity children and the children of wealthy families had. Even if they have never given substantial amounts to the admitting institution, that institution is willing to bet that they will.

My own experience with universities, of course, has been of a different kind--and thus the book left me with a somewhat different insight. Clearly our top universities cater to, perpetuate, and to some degree diversify our elites--but what, exactly, does this have to do with their original educational mission? In short, it occurred to me that universities that do not primarily value intellectual ability in picking their students would find it very easy to downgrade pure intellectual ability among their faculty, as well. It has been my experience that that is, indeed, the case.


Ray C Neill said...

A mixture of both happiness and sadness overwhelmed me today as I read "How Colleges Admit". While I recalled some of the wonderful times that my university experience gave to me, I must admit that I was somewhat perturbed when my entrance application asked me to describe my ethnic background. Your essay today details the elitist process that pervades most of the cherished positions in our society and it should not surprise anyone who has aspired to a company boardroom position without the right degree or the highest ranking military positions without a West Point curriculum vitae. What troubles me most is that I feel the the pendulum may have swung too far to the other side. It would appear that the business side of education has taken over in many institutions and the quality of graduate has been watered down. I say this in general terms, of course, but I recall being asked to adjudicate the post grad work of students from a mid-western university and being disappointed at the level of statistical analysis that was employed in much of what I read. It would have been clearly unacceptable in my day. This, and being surrounded by PhDs. these days, begs the question - are we now accepting the "Great Unwashed" to our temples of higher learning to compensate for our elitist history? As repugnant as my phrasing may be, I stand behind the sentiment of the question. Clearly, I doubt this will be the concern of Ivy League schools. Notwithstanding the graduations of Ted Kennedy who was caught cheating and George Bush Jr. whose right hand did not know what the left hand was doing, they will continue to graduate the leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully the brightest will always prevail but according to a recent study they are the children of wealthy parents. This combined with the knowledge that income increases with every IQ point completes the circle and it appears to me that the meek will have to work very hard to inherit the earth. Ray C Neill

Bozon said...


Wonderful review, and family journal essay.

I had what I would call a similar shock,

when I happened on The Credential Society, some months ago.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I once remarked to very educated and connected friend that well, Ivy League was well and good but that a superior education could be had at many universities. He paused and said, it's not about the education, it's about connections.

Bozon said...


An additional note, on my initial academic pedigree, not that it is worth much of a note really, in the larger scheme of things.

I have read, somewhere, that the admissions people in my small liberal arts college, Florida Presbyterian College, back in the late 60s, selected its entrants based primarily on intelligence test scores (an odd criterion by itself at that time certainly), which at that time was becoming feasible to do.

I don't know that this was actually true, but I have to say that I know of no group of people I have been among grossly exceeded, in sheer brilliance, the students I mingled among at FPC, later Eckerd College, back in the early 70s; and I have been among some rather brilliant groups of students, here and there.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Power begets power and the fig leaf of fairness covers up racism (antisemitism/antiasian academic bias as your book review shows.

I suppose in Japan or France due to less ethnic diversity this is handled differently so that grades are all that matters not social or sport activities or ethnicity which are particular American obsessions. However only the rich in all these countries have the money and time to get their kids all the attention to get such good grades. In Germany, where I live and have two school kids, generally speaking with both parents working and the kids left to their own devices grades are best when a doctor/lawyer, etc. with a highly educated wife at home as tutor helps a couple hours daily with homework. But nowadays most families have two jobs and kids get by somehow in school, being kept there till 4 PM to do homework. ALso the upper 10,000 with good breeding have all the top seats in boardrooms and go to private schools. It is all connections as in "blue blood". I recall an article from some time back from a major showing a chart with the blood line relations between recent candidates such as Kerry, Gore, Bush all going back to British royalty.

Of course researching that a bit more turns up conspiracy theories as well as common sense articles how everyone is related to 9th cousins after X generations so no big deal there.


However the more they try to keep to themnselves as in Rome the worse it gets. Royalty were getting to be all bleeders in Europe at the end. Hollywooders hobnob with politicos, models etc. in USA and money stays with money.

AA purely meritorious system has a lot going for it when everyione has the same chances and rules are made fairly. In DDR/Soviet Union kids were tested regularly for special abilities like math/sports, etc. then sent to special schools to become the best of the best. In the West (France, Britain) it is more duet to connecitons and as I said in Germany and elsewhere geernally, which parents have time and money for their kids.

Publion said...

My own prep school experience was in western Massachusetts, and I think we played Loomis, which was on the same athletic circuit.

The change from ‘education’ to ‘socialization’ at the college level was part and parcel, I would say, of what other Comments here have noted.

Given the Beltway embrace (the temptation proffered by radical feminism) of that 1970s ‘Eurocommunist’ idea that you could have a ‘Westernized’ Marxism which would work the Gramscian-derived deconstruction of the ‘hegemonic culture’, and thus facilitate the ‘Long March Through the Institutions’, university-level education was (as Gramsci had said it had to be) a vital nexus in the process.

The young ‘elites’ would be ‘socialized’ into the ‘counter-hegemonic’ culture. There would be no need for a Western-Civ course because (in a fine little dove-tailing) “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ has got to go” and – presumed as a given – Western Civ offered nothingbut ‘oppression’, ‘marginalization’ “and etcetera and etcetera” (to borrow a phrase).

And since ‘male’ and ‘patriarchal’ emphasison ‘reason’, ‘logic’, ‘abstractions’ and etcetera and etcetera was merely the dishonestly manipulative mechanism for inducing, reinforcing, and sustaining the oppression of the proletariat and the ‘marginalized’ (Gramsci’s “emarginati”), then one must rely on ‘feelings’ – which was very much a dovetail with the Boomers’ overall sense that a) feelings were groovy, b) thinking was boring (as well as Theoretically oppressive), and c) you could do more for yourself and for the world of a nice spring afternoon by cutting classes and going over to burn down the ROTC building.

Last night I happened across the film “Tora, Tora, Tora” – released in 1970 (the same year as “Patton”), which turned out to be the last year of the postwar American industrial hegemony. By 1971 the US had to abrogate Bretton Woods and there were ‘shortages’ of beef and sugar, then the OPEC oil shortages, the price of an automobile approached that of a house back in the 1950s, and wage-price controls came in for a while.

Although Seymour Melman had warned as early as 1965 that America wasn’t putting enough money into re-habilitating its industrial infrastructure and the average age of its major industrial machinery was a decade older than comparable German and Japanese equipment.

At that critical juncture, the Beltway – led by the demographically desperate Dems – embraced the Gramscian-derived ‘deconstruction of the hegemonic culture’ and pretty much figured to let the economic and productivity issues solve themselves (as stunningly Micawberish a gambit as one is likely to encounter in the record of any great nation’s political leadership.

And after decades’ worth of borrowing, de-regulating, out-sourcing, off-shoring, and Bubbling, the ‘strategy’ of simultaneously pandering to Big Identity and Big Money has simply intensified LBJ’s initial chimerical pursuit of ‘guns and butter’ (which, however, was never intended in the 1960s to include the aforementioned ‘deconstruction’).

So now we will GOAG, going out to grab other people’s stuff.

Within a year of the release of “Tora, Tora, Tora” (where the Yamamoto character concludes with the then-sage comment that “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve”) and “Patton” (with that opening speech in front of a huge Stars and Stripes, introduced by as rousing a rendition of “To the Colors” as one is ever likely to hear again), TV gave us “All in the Family” (November 1971 was the first episode) where it was made fashionable to utterly ‘deconstruct’ the culture and life experience that – whatever its shortcomings by 1971 – had somehow had the resilience and robustness to survive the Jazz Age, the Depression (the first one), and World War Two (which it won).

I think, to borrow a trope from Bonhoeffer, the country has somehow gotten on the wrong train.

And, to borrow from Vladimir Ilyich, who scarfed it from the Gospels: What then is to be done?

Anonymous said...

I read this post like 5 times and am still not sure
about the moral of it. So let me offer my personal experience.

I emigrated to the country from Europe in mid
eighties and graduated college in Mass.

My daughter, being born in September, could not
attend public school in the year of her birth, because
the cut off was August 31st. Hence the alternative
was to either hold her back a year (UNACCEPTABLE!!)
or use private school. I opted for a private school
(Montessori) and she didn't lose a year of school
compared to her cohorts.

She was in the public middle school. But the
results were not good (according to me), since
she seemed to never had ANY homework - she
would finish it in school and the teachers would
pay much more attention to lacking students, than
advanced ones like my daughter was.

Hence, after the middle school, I looked for much
more demanding and challenging school. I found
it in Deerfield, Mass. My daughter graduated 3rd
in her class. She scored 2340 out of 2400 hundred
on SAT and was accepted in all sorts of very
good colleges/universities.

She eventually graduated from the Ivy in

The point I am trying to make, we had not
had any connections or were blue blood or Jewish
or whatever your example is trying to convey.
She did it all on her own and with her own
effort and diligence.

Although you purport that pupils from private
schools would not even qualify had they been
competing with public school kids - I can
categorically disagree with that contention,
based on my own child's educational history, as
well as educational history of her classmates and

Or to quote my daughter:" BRING IT!!!"

Personal achievement still counts.

I have no doubt that my daughter will be able
to further her graduate education on her own
merits and not because she or we as a family
hav any connections and so on.

It is simply based on hard work.

As for Harvard - especially - and the other couple
schools you reference - they are constantly
engaged in some kind of social engineering and
it is not something we care about at all.