Admissions of Guilt

It’s hard to tell for sure, but it looks like the Justice Department is investigating Harvard’s admissions policies. If Harvard really is cutting out qualified applicants based on their race, it is only continuing the shameful tradition of elite college admissions policies.

Here’s what we know: When pressed for information about its investigation into Harvard’s admissions policies, the Justice Department said that those records can’t be shared. They are part of an ongoing investigation. As Alia Wong describes in The Atlantic, we don’t know for sure, but it certainly looks like the Justice Department is going after Harvard.

The beef is that Harvard allegedly discriminates against Asian and Asian-American students. Would-be students claim that their SAT scores need to be far higher than non-Asian students. They point to schools like MIT and Berkeley that have no racial policies for admission, where there is a far higher proportion of Asian-American students.

Why would Harvard do such a thing? One possibility is that they hope to maintain a balanced student body. They don’t want to admit students solely on the basis of academic track record, but rather on a checklist of desirable qualities. Students from less-represented groups might have a better chance of admission, since the school wants a diverse group of students. For instance, a white girl from a low-income coal-mining family in West Virginia with an impressive academic record and basketball skills might outrank a Korean-American girl from a high-income family in Scarsdale with an even more impressive academic record and even better basketball skills.

It’s not easy to prove but it is easy to believe. Elite colleges have always shaped their admissions policies based on biased and unfair rules.

geiger

Non-WASPs need not apply…

As Professor Roger Geiger describes in his recent history of American higher education, selective admissions policies are a relatively new thing. Only in the 1920s did schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale begin to formalize their admissions processes.

It wasn’t pretty.

Back then, the elite colleges wanted to find some way to exclude talented students from non-elite backgrounds. In particular, they worried that too many smart Jewish students would take over their schools.

What to do?

Schools began to ask potential students to take standardized tests. One goal was to find out students’ true intelligence. Admissions officials back then assumed that WASPs were naturally more intelligent, but ambitious Jewish students—they called them “grinds”—worked too hard and made themselves look smarter than they really were.

At Yale, the first use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 was intended to weed out such non-traditional students. The test was geared toward the existing curriculum at elite prep schools. Students from those schools would be well prepared. Other students wouldn’t. The idea was to give Yale an objective-looking score they could use to exclude Jewish applicants.

At Princeton, the first selective admissions were even more slanted. Every potential student was given a score between one and four, even before the application was looked at. Students from desirable elite backgrounds were grade one—automatic admits. Students from Jewish backgrounds were classed four—automatic denials. Only after those categories were applied did admissions officials open up the applications and make decisions.

So is Harvard discriminating against Asian and Asian-American students? I have no idea, but as long as there have been selective admissions policies, those policies have been used to exclude hard-working, talented students from non-elite backgrounds.

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