Mr. Karabel writes that until the 1920's, Harvard, Yale and Princeton, "like the most prestigious universities of other nations," admitted students "almost entirely on the basis of academic criteria." Applicants "were required to take an examination, and those who passed were admitted." Though the exams exhibited a distinct class bias (Latin and Greek, after all, were not taught at most public schools), he says that "the system was meritocratic in an elemental way: if you met the academic requirements, you were admitted, regardless of social background."Later, universities changed the goals of admissions, Karabel writes, in part because discriminating against women and minorities went out of style and in part because large amounts of money from the foundations and the federal government freed them from needing to cater so much to the preferences of alumni donors. Karabel characterizes these changes as self-interested: the Big Three wanted "to preserve and, when possible, to enhance their position in a highly stratified system of higher education." They were "often deeply conservative" and "intensely preoccupied with maintaining their close ties to the privileged."
This all changed after World War I, he argues, as it became "clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of increasing numbers of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background." This development, he notes, occurred "in the midst of one of the most reactionary moments in American history," when "the nationwide movement to restrict immigration was gaining momentum" and anti-Semitism was on the rise, and the Big Three administrators began to worry that "the presence of 'too many' Jews would in fact lead to the departure of Gentiles." Their conclusion, in Mr. Karabel's words: "given the dependence of the Big Three on the Protestant upper class for both material resources and social prestige, the 'Jewish problem' was genuine, and the defense of institutional interests required a solution that would prevent 'WASP flight.' "
The solution they devised was an admissions system that allowed the schools, as Mr. Karabel puts it, "to accept - and to reject - whomever they desired." Instead of objective academic criteria, there would be a new emphasis on the intangibles of "character" - on qualities like "manliness," "personality" and "leadership." Many features of college admissions that students know today - including the widespread use of interviews and photos; the reliance on personal letters of recommendation; and the emphasis on extracurricular activities - have roots, Mr. Karabel says, in this period.
You just can't win with these sociology professors. Try to adopt an enlightened policy, and they'll find a way to demonstrate that you did it for your own good. Well, maybe you did.