Admissions of Guilt

I don’t know anything about the Harvard lawsuit. But there is no doubt that America’s elite universities have a long tradition of elaborate systems of admissions meant to keep out certain categories of student. For a century now, schools like Harvard have scrambled to set up ways to eliminate academically talented students who didn’t fit the Ivy-League mold.


Non-WASPs need not apply…

Here’s what we know: As Politico reports, the Harvard lawsuit has been dragging on. The school is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Based on test scores and other numerical data, it appears that Asian-Americans have a higher bar for admissions.

Harvard’s chief admissions officer has made some embarrassing admissions (pun intended. Sorry.) It’s no big surprise to anyone, but students from families of big donors tend to get a better chance. One applicant was added to a list mainly because of input from the fundraising department. As that department chair wrote to the admissions chief in an email, the donor

“has already committed to a building” and “committed major money for fellowships … before the decision from you!) and all are likely to be prominent in the future. Most importantly, I think all of these will be superb additions to the class.”

It’s not only big bucks that give some students preferential treatment. The litigants accuse Harvard of harboring social prejudice against Asian-Americans. Even with great test scores and stellar applications, some students were given poor scores after personal interviews, in which alumni rated the applicants as less likeable. Allegedly.

As historian Roger Geiger has shown, this sort of social scale has always weighed heavily in elite college admissions. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did not start holding competitive admissions processes until the 1920s.

Back then, the schools struggled to find a way to admit desirable students and a fair-sounding way to exclude the undesirables. Back then, according to Prof. Geiger, most of the undesirables were brilliant, hard-working Jewish students. At the time, these Jewish students were derided as “grinds,” students who worked too hard and didn’t fit it with the genteel college culture of the day.

At Princeton, admissions officers in the 1920s had an official social scale. Any student—based purely on their family background and the accompanying personalities—was graded on a four-point scale. The “ones” were automatic admits. Even without looking at messy data such as high-school transcripts, those students from elite families were in. At the other end, students from working-class or non-WASP backgrounds were likely to be branded a “four.” They were automatically barred without any consideration of their academic merit.

Maybe the ugliest example of this genteel anti-Semitic tradition was at Yale. Yale worked closely with the Scholastic Aptitude Test to derive an evaluation that was tightly linked to the curriculum at a few elite prep schools. Students from those schools would do well and earn admission. Students from other schools wouldn’t, no matter how talented or hard-working.

This system allowed Yale to claim an objective, numeric measure for rejecting Jewish applicants, without making the Yalies seem prejudiced or biased.

Are things any different today? The Asian-American plaintiffs say no. They say Harvard is trying to limit the numbers of Asian-American students and using biased, prejudicial standards to do so. I have no idea if they’re right, but elite schools certainly have a long history of doing exactly that.