Elite-College Admissions Were Built to Protect Privilege

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“President [A. Lawrence] Lowell, in 1909, pointed out to his alumni that Harvard was to a large extent a poor man’s college, that there was a good deal of suffering and want, that many students were insufficiently clothed and not a small number insufficiently fed,” Sharpe wrote. “To help these men the colleges built up huge scholarship and loan funds and organized employment bureaus to find work for students.”

Lowell proved much less willing to accommodate Harvard’s increasing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. He instead worked to codify his own bigotry into school policy, banning black students from freshman dormitories and dining halls and proposing a quota system to impede the rapid increase of Jewish students. “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,” he wrote to a philosophy professor in 1922. Limiting the number of Jewish students, he believed, was essential to the school’s survival.

But the Harvard Board of Overseers didn’t institute the quota system Lowell wanted. It instead adopted an application system that prioritized subjective qualities-birthplace, family background, athletic ability, personality-over test scores. Publicly, the board represented these changes as a boon for inclusivity. The original report proposing the new system characterized it as a “policy of equal opportunity regardless of race and religion.” But privately, Lowell’s sentiments were shared by many in the Harvard community, and the new policies allowed the administration to justify exclusion.

Administrators at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton “realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2005 New Yorker article. And so the modern college-admissions system was born.

By design, the system favored the same kind of wealthy white students who almost exclusively populated elite colleges for hundreds of years; they benefited from legacy status, athletic recruiting, family donations, and many other advantages. The same policies that enabled the exclusion of applicants based on race and religion also cast low-income students back into disfavor. They were less likely to be able to secure personal recommendations from administrators at “approved schools”-high schools that were prestigious, exclusive, and expensive. Their parents were less likely to hold degrees from selective colleges, or any colleges. And tuition fees and living costs presented their own particular obstacles.

“Of late … the colleges have restricted admission, thus making the acquirement of the higher education difficult,” Sharpe wrote in 1933. “Now there are signs that another barrier may be erected. Last June, Yale announced that it would henceforth admit only as many financially needy students as could be cared for through existing channels of aid. Other colleges have since … declared that they may follow suit.”