Elite-College Admissions Were Built to Protect Privilege

Even as selective schools opened their doors to a wider array of applicants in the early 20th century, they put policies in place to maintain the advantages of wealthy white students.

Yale's 1880 football team consisted entirely of white men—as did the student body for many years. (Associated Press)

At the very first Harvard College commencement ceremony, nearly 400 years ago, markers of exclusivity were front and center. The graduating class consisted of just nine students: no women, no people of color; only, in the words of a Boston historian, “young men of good hope.” The order in which they received their degrees was determined “not according to age, or scholarship, or the alpheber [sic], but according to the rank their families held in society.”

The freshman class admitted to Harvard University last spring was much less homogenous. According to a survey conducted by the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, more than half of the accepted students were nonwhite; more than half were women; more than half would receive financial aid once enrolled. But vestiges of the same exclusivity remained. Legacy applicants, predominantly white and wealthy, were admitted at five times the rate of non-legacies. And white students with annual family earnings exceeding $250,000, legacy or not, constituted more than 15 percent of the admitted class—despite coming from an income bracket representing less than 5 percent of Americans of any race.

Those students have always enjoyed disproportionate access to elite colleges in the U.S. They were meant to. The parents charged in the college-admissions scandal this month risked criminal prosecution in order to gain an unfair advantage in a system that was built to offer them unfair advantages already. Even as selective institutions began, in the early 20th century, to admit a more diverse array of applicants, they adopted new policies in order to protect white, upper-class students from being entirely displaced. Neither affirmative action nor the diversity drive of recent years has eliminated those protections.

In the schools’ earliest decades, wealthy white students weren’t just privileged in admissions; they were essentially the only ones considered. Up until the end of the 19th century, campuses were generally populated by graduates of private high schools who performed well in school-specific criteria and on entrance exams. When it was first founded, Harvard based its admissions decisions on subjective judgments of students’ character and family background as well as their demonstrated proficiency in Latin and Greek.

By 1892, academic expectations had ballooned; in an Atlantic article written that spring, James Jay Greenough wrote that Harvard hopefuls were tested on “an elementary working knowledge of Latin and Greek … French and German … English classical literature … algebra and plane geometry … the laws and phenomena of physics … descriptive physics and elementary astronomy … and, last … the history and geography either of ancient Greece and Rome or modern England and America”—as well as an ability to write and speak intelligently about those subjects. These criteria largely shut out those who couldn’t afford to attend prestigious preparatory schools, and wealthy white Christian men continued to dominate student bodies.

But some lower-income students did attend Harvard, even in its earliest days. In his 1933 Atlantic article “College and the Poor Boy,” Russell T. Sharpe detailed how Harvard administrators had found a way “to solve the financial problems of needy students as early as 1653, when [they] gave Zachary Bridgen a job ‘ringeing the bell and waytinge’ on table. Through the succeeding years, more or less informal and unorganized assistance was rendered.” Harvard’s first endowed scholarship was funded in 1643, and similar charitable funds provided the majority of financial aid for decades. Then, in 1838, the school established a private student lending agency and began offering zero-interest loans to support “young men of ability … when their families are not able to help them.” The idea of providing students scholarship and loan money quickly spread to other selective colleges.

In the early 1900s, lower-income students and the efforts to accommodate their needs became still more ingrained in the structure of those schools. Opening their doors to public-school students and standardizing their admissions criteria for the first time, elite colleges met with a flood of newcomers who didn’t fit the mold created by centuries of largely unvaried graduating classes. The number of Jewish students on campuses soared; by the early 1920s, they made up 21 percent of Harvard’s student body, and nearly 40 percent of Columbia’s. Freshmen with Irish, German, and eastern-European backgrounds streamed in, as did students from western and midwestern states or from lower-class families.

“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.”

He described how, as the number of students on campuses rose in the 1920s and ’30s and the Great Depression set in, campus employment opportunities dwindled and schools struggled to provide sufficient support. Federally funded financial aid arose to fill that void as World War II drew to a close, and the G.I. Bill enabled millions of veterans to attend and pay for college. But the loan system grew and mutated and spawned a new crisis for low-income students, many of whom now face the choice between turning down offers to attend prestigious schools and taking on backbreaking debt.

“For a generation or more,” Sharpe wrote, “it has been a part of the democratic creed of many Americans that every mother’s son is born with an inalienable right to a Bachelor’s degree, regardless of his ability to pay for it.”

But that creed never wholly extended to nonwhite, non-Christian sons and daughters, and the ability to pay still matters. For centuries, family money has benefited applicants in admissions considerations; provided access to prestigious preparatory schools; paid for tutors, trainers, and extracurricular activities; enabled hefty donations; and funded tuition. And if those advantages aren’t enough, then family money can evidently, according to federal prosecutors, be used to cheat on standardized tests and bribe athletic recruiters, too.