November 25, 2005

"Admission and Exclusion" at elite universities.

Michiko Kakutani reviews "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton," by Berkeley sociology professor Jerome Karabel. Here's some fascinating historical information about the origins of the nuanced admissions procedures we academics hold so dear:
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."

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.
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."

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.


Jacques Cuze said...

Apparently, Sam Alito was all for the preservation of white, male law schools, even up until the mid-80s, when his membership in CAP was proudly displayed on his resume for application to a Reagan Administration deputy assistant attorney general position.

Jacques Cuze said...

Good morning, btw.

Asher Abrams said...

Ann, fascinating piece. Thanks for posting this.

Undercover Christian said...

Interesting. I think they should just go back to the testing. With the way they do admissions now, everyone is concerned with being able to pad their applications with activities that will sell as hip, impressive, or intriguing to admissions officers. If they just did admissions with straight up testing, people would take academics more seriously.

Dave said...

The Economist also reviews this book, here (free link).

ShadyCharacter said...

quxxo, in your real life (assuming you have one) do you walk up to people and start spouting off with your weird off-topic political rants? You must drive your family crazy at Thanksgiving! I hope there's no conservatives there to set you off...

Ann is too polite to erase your moonbat rants and most other posters are too polite to respond to them, but can't you possibly wait for an on-topic post to vent your spleen on?

SteveWe said...

And so it continues at another level in California where there is "white flight" from high schools that have "too many" Asian students. Ref: WSJ 11/19/05. Will (and can) high schools limit their enrollment to meet "expectations?" Should they do so? And, the biggest question, What gives? Are white families distressed because their children will rank lower because the hard work and attention to academics by Asian (or whatever) students pushes the ranking of white students lower? Maybe white students should buckle down to make the grades instead of fleeing to "safe territory." (Sorry for all the scare quotes, but they seem to be appropriate.)

The Krishnans said...

I came to the USA 11 years ago for graduate school. Coming from India i have never understood the complexities of undergrad admissions here. There its a rigorous process (i am talking about engineering & medicine here) where to enter any respectable university you take an entrance exam for that university, and your rank in the entrance exam determines the next four years at the university (in terms of engineering major) or whether you get in or not. To me the expectations that universities (esp the top ones) have that their incoming students be Gandhi, Beethoven and Einstein rolled into one has always stuck as being weird. I thought a university was supposed to mold these kids into adults and expecting them to enter as accomplished adults, seems, to me, an abdication of the university's responsibility. Look forward to reading the book.

Jake said...

In pursuit of a "balanced student body", universities on the east coast are still using nuanced admissions to keep out Jews. On the west coast universities are using the same techniques to keep out Asians.

It is the dirty underbelly of today's affirmative action in college admissions.

brylin said...

From the Economist review that Dave cites above, Prof. Karabel concludes:

“the ideal of a inherently unattainable” because the concept of meritocracy itself is strategic and flexible.

Pretty cynical, if you ask me. I suppose that many goals are unattainable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive toward them. (Ever try to get down to that "ideal" weight?)

The concept of a meritocracy has much appeal to me, especially when you consider the alternatives.

Ann Althouse said...

But Quxxo raises an interesting point in light of Karabel's theory, which would say that opening up to women and minorities was actually a "deeply conservative" scheme. So Alito is liberal in that equation.

Anyway, there is something to be said for the tradition of single-sex colleges. Let's not act as if everyone who wants to preserve them is a bigot.

wildaboutharrie said...

Accorging to the article quxxo linked, CAP could not in any way be construed as "liberal". I'd forgotten all about Dinesh D'Souza.

katiebakes said...

Two years ago, there was much heated discussion regarding the presence of athletes at Yale following the release of William Bowen and Sarah Levin's book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values.

I wrote an editorial in the Yale Daily News (link here)in which I looked at the Yale Admissions website to see what they were looking for in an applicant.

The answer, as I outlined in the op/ed:

It explains that in looking at applicants, two questions are asked: "Who is likely to make the most of Yale's resources?" and "Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?"

I think these allow for, as I wrote, "diversity of talents and mind as well as diversity of background."

An egghead physics student, for example, might take excellent advantage of the resources in the math department despite not being "well rounded", while an outgoing student with numerous extracurriculars but subpar grades is still contributing greatly to the community and spirit of the university.

I think these are excellent guidelines.

mark said...

I have to agree with wildaboutharrie. The CAP thing is very troubling. It's clearly more than just a debate about whether a school can choose to be single-sex. This was also about minority exclusion, and it took a very nasty tone in some of its publications. Choosing to announce one's membership in such an organization clearly amounts to at least questionable taste, and probably indicates some degree of agreement with such viewpoints, or at least a willingness to associate with very unsavory people in order to obtain a desired job.

I had previously defended Alito to numerous liberal friends/family. He seems well-qualified and balanced as a jurist. But I find this disturbing. It's one thing to have problems, on either policy or constitutional levels, with Roe or other cases. That is an appropriate area for a policital majority to exercise control of the content of the court -- for better or for worse. But elevating someone to SCOTUS who has touted his membership in a discriminatory organization crosses a line for me.

The odd thing is that Alito has written opinions that would seem to contradict this history. And I certainly am not advocating judging a nominee solely on the basis of twenty-year-old beliefs or memberships. But this is troubling, and deserves further inquiry.

wildaboutharrie said...

(Mark - I'd want to read all of their publications from this time period before making a call. There may well have been different viewpoints offered.)

Bruce Hayden said...

As for single sex school, I just finished "The Problem with Hillary", where the author points out that the all female school she went to (Wellsley) had a long term reputation for lesbianism. (note though that though the author cast a lot of aspirins, he was able to only document sex between her and two others - both guys, one her husband).

That said, I am in favor of all female and all male high schools and colleges. There are some of either sex who do best without the presence of the opposite sex.

Bruce Hayden said...

I have no first hand knowledge of Jewish exclusion, but a girlfriend in Business School did. She was one of the smartest women I have ever met, and blew through Brown in three years (graduating in the mid 1970s). Needless to say, she was heated on this subject. According to her, she went to Brown instead of Harvard, Yale, etc. because of the Jewish quotas of the time at those schools. Brown didn't apparently have such at then.

Bruce Hayden said...

I would suggest though that any time you start having Jewish quotas, Asian quotas, etc., you are on the other side of Affirmative Action. You are not accepting people solely based on their race, national origins, etc., which, to me, is identical to accepting them solely (or primarily) based on these criteria.

If a Harvard degree didn't give you a leg up in life (arguably throughout it), it wouldn't really matter. Thus, I am less concerned about some of the lower tier UC schools. But Harvard is Harvard, and by having Jewish or Asian quotas (and, similarly, Black and Hispanic preferences), they are bestowing their imprimatur on people for reasons other than merit.

Barry said...

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about "The Chosen" in the October 10, 2005 edition of The New Yorker:

Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

Gladwell's take is well worth reading too... it's really a terrific essay.

mark said...

(wildaboutharrie -- agreed that context matters in a case like this; but still, it is awfully troubling that he would choose to advertise his membership in a group like this. I would want to disassociate myself from any institution that was using its publication mouthpiece to fling about nonesense like that descibed in the article. It seems hard to imagine that Judge Alito wouldn't be aware of this organization's aims after a 13 year membership. That said, there's a lot to like about Alito later on, so this isn't a black and white issue for me. But I do find it creepy.)

wildaboutharrie said...

(Mark - agreed. I hope the hearings are instructive, and civil.)

Buck Pennington said...

Re: That Economist review. I found the first sentence (AMERICANS justify their country's comparatively high social inequality by emphasising its equality of opportunity.) extremely off-putting.

High social inequality compared to what or who? The Brits, with their world-renowned class structure and snobbery? The Indian caste system? The Chinese social/political structure? "High social inequality," my a**!

XWL said...

The admissions game is just that, a game.

Parents and students attempt to game the system by tailoring cirricular and extra-cirricular activities towards specific campuses.

Large public higher education institutions (like the UC system) are believed to game the system to obviate laws they find distasteful or increase profitablity. UC schools after the passage of prop. 209 started counting 'personal history' far greater so admission essays became 'queen for a day' sobfest that forefronted struggles against white male hegemony where applicable. Also the common belief amongst high achievers was that UC admissions favored students from opposite ends of the state so that students would be more likely to use student housing (UCLA accepts more Northern Californians, UCBerkeley accepts more Southern Californians).

These legends, theories and myths all form due to the complete lack of transparency and the high stakes of admissions.

It's difficult and frustrating to play a game where the rules aren't known to all participants (and you thought Monopoly or risk games got heated), schools, especially public institutions of higher education should be paragons of openness rather than the murky swamps of bias and secret dealings they appear to be.

bearing said...


Love the Gladwell essay you linked to.

Coming from the Midwest --- I feel much the same way. Why would I go to Harvard when I could major in engineering at an excellent program within a Big Ten, land-grant university? It's the postgraduate degree that matters, anyway. What the hell is the big deal with going to a private school? I can't imagine that the increased tuition cost is, for the vast majority, a price worth paying for the upgrade in post-grad dollars.

erp said...


Of course your way of looking things makes sense, but being accepted at and attending an ivy has nothing to do with being a good engineer or physicist and everything to do with being a member of an elite.

I can almost guarantee that when your son or daughter is ready to go to college, you will look at things very differently. Meanwhile, start saving your money for the outrageous tuition.

Welcome to our country. You sound like the type of person we want to join us in building the greatest country the world has ever seen.

brylin said...

To toss in a fire bomb here:

Somehow this discussion doesn't seem complete without a reference to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

(Disclaimer: this blog commenter does not necessarily subscribe to the views contained therein. Please don't flame me!)

brylin said...

And while I'm presenting controversial material, let me cite the following passage about Ashkenazi Jews:

"According to many studies, Ashkenazi Jews have among the highest average intelligence of any ethnic group as measured by IQ, leading East Asians, who also perform highly in IQ. This result is often used to explain some of the intellectual achievements of Ashkenazi Jews. For example, while Ashkenazi Jews represent 3% of the population of the United States, they have won 27% of the US Nobel Prizes in science, 25% of the ACM Turing Awards, and have accounted for more than half of world chess champions."

erp said...

brylin ... your point being?

HaloJonesFan said...

Alex Harrison:
>If they just did admissions with
>straight up testing, people would
>take academics more seriously.

But if you did that, the student demographics would be 45% white male, 45% asian male, 10% everyone else...

>Somehow this discussion doesn't
>seem complete without a reference
>to Richard Herrnstein and Charles
>Murray's The Bell Curve.

Yes, I was just thinking that. (Interesting, two Pournelle readers here...)