This is a remarkable book. Until you read it, you can have no idea how crudely these elite universities discriminated in admissions – against women, Jews, blacks, and others. It is a staggering hidden history." So writes Anthony Lewis in a New York Times review of "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton." The book’s author, Jerome Karabel, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks at the Princeton University Store on Wednesday, November 16, at 7 p.m. Call 609-921-8500 for more information.
In his introduction Karabel writes that his book is an attempt to make "the familiar strange." We have come to take the demands and criteria of admissions to the country’s most elite universities for granted. "Yet," he writes, "viewed from both a historical and a comparative perspective, the admissions practices of America’s top colleges and universities are exceedingly strange. Just try to explain to someone from abroad – from, say, France, Japan, Germany, or China – why the ability to run with a ball or where one’s parents went to college is relevant to who will gain a place in our nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, and you immediately realize how very peculiar our practices are."
Karabel traces admission policies at the "Big Three" – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – from 1900 to the present. Before that time, he writes, these schools’ admissions policies were much the same as those in other countries – you pass the exam, you get in.
But, as he said in a recent interview for his college’s newspaper, the Berkelayan, the system was changed "for a very specific purpose." As immigration increased, a problem arose – "far too many Jews were passing the test." Admission criteria was changed "for that reason and that reason alone," and "character," specifically the type of "character" most often found in white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, became more important than the objective admissions process employed from the time the schools were founded. As the population of the country changed, so did the definition of "character." Karabel, who did much of the research in the archives of the Big Three, found that Asians applying in the 1980s were excluded in much the same way that Jews had been 50 years before.
By Karabel’s account, Harvard earns the dunce cap (and scrutiny on ABC’s 20/20 television program) for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American applicants in the 1980s.
But Princeton, in particular, gets low marks for its treatment of Jewish applicants in the mid-20th century. After documenting the rapid transition of Princeton’s undergraduate student body from prep school to public school graduates (in 1953 Princeton for the first time admitted more public school graduates than preppies), Karabel turns to what he ironically calls "The ‘Hebrew’ Question:"
"The decline in the number of prep school graduates admitted to Princeton after the war was the product of a largely autonomous decision reached by its top administrators. The same cannot be said of the growth in Jewish enrollment. The growing presence of ‘Hebrews’ – the term for Jews used by the Freshman Herald through 1949 – reflected the rise of powerful forces that mobilized against the anti-Semitism then taken for granted that had limited the proportion of Jews in the freshman class to no more than 3 percent before the war.
[The offensive] "was joined by a political and legal assault whose goal was the passage of the Fair Educational Practices Act before the New Jersey legislation. Like Harvard and Yale, Princeton opposed such a law," arguing that colleges in the state were already "remarkably free" from discrimination.
"But the New Jersey legislature . . . was undeterred and in 1949 passed the legislation. Even before it passed, Princeton felt the growing political pressure and in 1948 admitted the largest percentage of Jews – 6.8 percent – in its peacetime history. By 1950 the question about religious affiliation, a fixture on Princeton’s application since the 1920s, was finally deleted."
Ethnic groups are no longer subject to wholesale exclusion, Karabel finds, and neither are women, who now make up some 50 percent of the classes. A trend toward globalization has resulted in ethnic and racial diversity. The process of admissions is based on merit more than was the case in preceding decades. Yet, his research indicates, Big Three students tend to come from the wealthy families. But, as he writes, the chances of any given upper class child getting in is far from the slam dunk that it was when Franklin Delano Roosevelt matriculated.
"The underlying source of the enormous stress surrounding college admissions is that even the privileged classes are no longer confident that they can pass their position on to the next generation. True, the children of families with high levels of cultural and economic capital enjoy a tremendous advantage in the competition for admissions to the elite colleges, and they continue to occupy a vast majority of the freshman classes at institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. But under the current system, they, too, have to compete, and the majority of them are destined to fail in their quest for admission to the Big Three. At the same time, the children of the working class and the poor are about as unlikely to attend the Big Three today as they were in 1954.
"As a consequence, deep apprehension about college admissions now extends to the highest reaches of the upper class. It is no exaggeration to say that the current regime in elite college admissions has been far more successful in democratizing anxiety than opportunity."
Karabel’s suggestions for reducing anxiety and increasing democratic representation include a hard look at legacy admissions, the pursuit of top athletes, and early admissions – a process that, he writes, favors wealthy, sophisticated students. The final and most difficult step is finding a way to include poor and working class students.
As he works toward these conclusions, Karabel provides a fascinating and exhaustive look at the social history of the Big Three and of the student bodies they have chosen for the past 105 years.