Who Shall Go to College?


IT is unfortunate, but perhaps necessary, that in a democracy decisions on public questions can apparently be reached only after a period of drifting, during which public opinion has been more or less violently aroused. To foresee crises, to plan solutions, to clarify issues before they are befogged with prejudice and semi-understanding — these are the ways, it would seem, only of Utopia, and therefore to be avoided by all practical men. Seldom has this policy—of drifting until public opinion was sufficiently roiled to make clarification a necessity—been better exemplified than in the problem of the limitation of enrollment which the endowed colleges of the country have been facing now for a dozen years. Thoughtful men have seen it coming; rumors have been whispering in those circles which know college policies before they are formally discussed by governing boards; but nothing has been openly done. It is well that, at last, one institution has brought the matter of the limitation of number and kind of students into open discussion, where the world at large may, at least, know what the colleges are thinking about, and where public opinion may have a voice in what is, after all, a public matter.

It is well to remember that the last generation has seen a greater change in American college education than any single period in college history. Curricula have been widened; colleges have come to take on public functions which they never had before; and the influence of the colleges has penetrated into hitherto unknown places. Chief, however, of the new facts has been this — that a college education has come to be thought a necessity for every boy and girl who can possibly get it. One is tempted to ask how large a proportion of the present-day students are sons and daughters of college-bred fathers and mothers.

This feeling of necessity is partly, of course, a feeling that going to college is ‘ the thing to do.’ An increasing numher of alumni means an increasing number of children and brothers and cousins who must go to ‘the old college.’ But these children are not as their fathers were. It is with something like amusement that one who knows New England sees the ‘farmer boys’ of the small colleges giving way to leisurely, cultivated young men, whose acquaintance with New England hillside farms is limited to the memories—frequently dim—of their fathers or grandfathers. For these young men a college education is indispensable; but from a point of view far different from that of the simple eighteen-eighties.

The farmer boy saw in the college an escape from a hard and narrow life to the broader reaches of a profession. He brought to college a shrewd, practical mind, already educated in the lore of fields and woods; he took from the college a simple but adequate knowledge of fundamentals, which gave him a sure grounding for success in city life. His city-bred son goes back to his father’s college, already sophisticated in the ways of the world, with little ahead that he feels to be new and strange. College to him is a social experience with young men of his own kind, a preparation not so much for his life-work as for an adequate enjoyment of the leisure which he feels sure will be part of his life.

But a far more important change is the feeling that a college degree is necessary for financial success in life. Almost all schoolboys now believe that it is impossible to enter any one of the professions, or even to make a respectable success in business, without a bachelor’s degree. This is, in a large measure, true. Most professional schools demand from two to four years of college training as an entrance requirement; practically all public high schools demand of their teachers a college degree; business men have come to prefer college graduates; the officers’ reserve corps emphasized college training. Women especially feel the need of college degrees, both in their old profession of teaching and in the many new professions now open to them. Colleges, through publicity bureaus and alumni, have done everything possible to increase the number of college students. No one needs to be told of this advertising: its results are apparent in his school, his home, and his community.

The result of this insistent emphasis upon the social and financial importance of a college degree is that more students now apply for entrance to college than can be physically accommodated. There simply is not room enough for those who can pass the examinations. And, even were funds for buildings and teachers forthcoming, the endowed colleges would not welcome the likelihood of becoming the great, sprawling, incoherent institutions which, with some reason, they conceive the Western state universities to be. Everywhere are heard new shibboleths of choice of the best; aristocracy of the best minds; the all-round citizen; those who can render the greatest service to the state; the exclusion of those who come to college merely to further their chances for success, and the like. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of such ideas merely because they coincide with new conditions. After all, the colleges a generation ago were seeking students; now students seek them.

One thing is certain — the endowed colleges must limit their enrollment. No one who knows their situation can doubt that, so long as they are to remain in their present form, under their present government, their numbers must be limited. The time has come to call a halt in the size of freshman classes. Almost all the women’s colleges in the East have been rigidly limiting their numbers for several years. At some of them application must be made several years in advance; at most of them admission is secured only after the candidate has passed a set of examinations and has had her school record rigidly examined. She never knows with what grades her examinations are passed. She may, and probably often does, pass examinations, only to be refused on her school record and an estimate of her character supplied by her school principal. A girl passes, therefore, not the examinations, but the scrutiny of the admissions committee, which, so far as many a mystified girl is concerned, is a ruthless and uncommunicative Star Chamber.

This method of admission is gaining favor with the men’s colleges as well. Dartmouth, for instance, has paid little attention to examinations, but has selected students geographically, because of kinship with alumni, and from specified portions of the classes in certain preparatory schools. Other colleges require psychological tests of their own devising, personal interviews, and elaborate confidential blanks to be filled out by the principal of the preparatory school. One such blank demands the student’s religion; his place of birth; whether his family name has been changed; the extent to which his family has coöperated with the school authorities; whether he has committed breaches of discipline while at school; and other information which, experience teaches, counts as much as examinations. Such methods of admission have been in use in many of the larger colleges during the last few years, quietly and effectively; there is little reason to believe that they would have roused public discussion, had not Harvard, with candor worthy of her motto, thrown her cards upon the table and invited the country to discuss openly the question, Who shall go to college?


The problem of stating principles of choice and limitations frankly and intelligently is complicated by the fact that governing boards do not entirely agree upon the purpose of a college education. Faculties are likely to fall back upon Mr. Wilson’s famous declaration, made when he was President of Princeton, that the primary function of a college is training for scholarship, and that ‘character’ is a by-product. This is certainly the statement that is most intelligible to the average man, who believes that colleges were established as places for young men to study and to learn, and that the rest of college is usually nonsense. Presidents and trustees, however, aware of the fact that scholarship and success in life are by no means necessarily coincident, often emphasize the formation of ‘character’ as the ultimate goal of college training. In all sincerity they believe that their colleges can produce the large-minded, public-spirited, cultured men of action, whom democracy most needs and whom it often lacks. The only fault with their theory is that, in many cases, personality and character are confused. The school or college which consciously sets out to train for character often produces merely the smooth-featured, well-groomed, polite, ‘nice boy,’ whose opinions are rare but correct, and who, though he will add to the pleasantness and even to the dignity of life, will probably never add to progress or to the alleviation of social pain. But perhaps the danger is no greater than in the case of the advocates of scholarship, which may often be pedantry or the mere accumulation of facts.

The alumni, who, after all, can judge by experience, rarely emphasize either character or scholarship. For them, college days were happy moments, remote from the actuality of the professional school or of business life. Social contacts and associations, the opportunity to buy tickets for the crowded football games, pleasant reunions, the glow of pride in the achievements of Alma Mater, the gratitude for the unnamable something which gives the college man what others never have — these, to most alumni, are the important ends, if there must be exclusion, he would see those students excluded who interfere with the consummation of those ends — the ‘mucker,’ the ‘grind,’ the foreigner, the negro, and other special and local antipathies.

These variations in ideas are not, of course, in any important sense antagonistic. They are complementary. Indeed, it is possible to find them exemplified in many college graduates, men who have studied thoughtfully and seriously, have played hard and fairly, and have shared in the pleasant, friendly, social life that makes the associations of college so delightful. And it is only fair to Say of college admissions committees that, in general, they hope to secure men who will make graduates of this type. At any rate, if they cannot he certain that every candidate will make such a man, they try hard to exclude those who, they believe, will interfere with the attainment of such a collective ideal.

The history of endowed colleges gives little help in this problem. Originally they were single colleges of the English type, founded and maintained in every case by religious denominations. As they expanded, they continued the organization of a single college, instead of developing other colleges later to be grouped in a single university after the English plan. The American colleges were homogeneous bodies, with no such latitude for the toleration of differences as the English collegiate system provided. In a simple democracy, where there were no great differences of rank, position, race, and religion, such an organization was entirely workable. But its misfortune was that it made no allowance for any large increase in the number of students, or for any serious change in the character of the population whence the students came. Had the American colleges been built on the English collegiate basis, there would now be room for expansion and room for the adjustment of social and racial differences.

It must also be remembered that endowed colleges are not and never have been public institutions. They have been connected with the state, not on the political and economic side, as in the West, but on the religious and social side. They have stood for a very definite point of view; and nobody but their governing boards has the power to change that point of view. They are subject to public opinion only in so far as all private social institutions are subject to public opinion. Moreover, they no longer represent the communities from which they once drew their students and their support. The time was when the college was a microcosm adequately representing the social strata of the state; this ceased to be true when immigration began to change the population of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Irish, who formed the bulk of the early immigrants who remained in the East, did not affect the colleges in any important degree. In general, neither they nor their children were vitally interested in higher education. As time went on, the children of Irish immigrants were encouraged to go to Catholic colleges, which have been established, apparently, in large enough numbers to care for all applicants. Those who have gone to the older colleges have always made so small a minority as not to constitute any real problem.


With the later immigration, however, the case was different. The great Jewish immigration, which began in the eighteen-eighties and still continues to the limit of the law, settled chiefly in the Eastern cities, especially, as it chanced, in or near the very cities where were the largest colleges: Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, and Boston. They brought with them an inherited tradition of education, intellects trained for centuries in the sharpest analysis and dialectic, a natural bent toward the professions, and—what, perhaps, is most important — the repression for years of their attempts to give these desires and characteristics free play. In time they acquired the economic independence necessary to send their children to college; where financial independence was lacking, those children undertook the burden of self-support with the tenacity of the race. There were no Jewish colleges founded for Jewish boys and girls, as with the Catholics, because there was no organized religious body to undertake their founding, and also because Jews have no desire for separation in anything except race and religion.

Now, it happened that Jews began to flock to the colleges at precisely the time when the colleges began to grow unwieldy in numbers and ill-assorted in membership. With the turn of the century, the old college simplicity began to disappear. Old buildings were supplemented by costly modern edifices. The fraternity house and the private dormitory were established to ease the pressure upon the college building funds. Athletics began to develop their present overwhelming importance. Fraternities established hundreds of new chapters. It became necessary to harmonize the differences between rich and poor, between the yearning for scholarship and the cultivation of useful leisure. It was the time when the colleges were violently criticized for their organization, their curricula, and their student life.

Added, therefore, to a burden of cares, came the problem of racial equilibrium. The number of Jews in the eastern colleges gradually increased, until to-day Jews would, were they permitted, in many cases form as much as fifty per cent of the students. The problem of what to do with other groups — negroes, Armenians, Italians — is as nothing when compared with the problem of the Jews.

In the first place, other groups have not the Jewish desire for education. At one remove from the immigrant quarter, other groups do not go to college. Success does not come to them with great rapidity, nor have they the same racial background of learning and scholarship which is, in some degree, in every Jew’s blood. Then, too, other groups have not. the Jew’s adaptability. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin; but Jewish boys and girls differ from their Gentile companions often only in a racial tie so faint that insistence upon it is but a galling reminder of a difference that seems almost academic. Moreover, Jews themselves are the most incoherent of racial groups, varying from the most cultivated, who have acquired the most conservative traditions of Americanism, to the most blatant, who know no traditions except those of oppression. And the urban environment of Eastern colleges has a full case of Jewish types, with the more noticeable, as always, setting the standard of judgment of the race as a whole. Finally, the Jew is the most successful of the newer groups in college. The success of Jews in scholarship is a byword. Rarely a list of honors appears which does not contain Jewish names. When a Jew puts his mind upon achievement, he usually secures what he aims for. He pursues success in scholarship with an intensity and a singleness of purpose which make him at least noticeable. What his hand finds to do, he does with all his might. Fatal gift! If only Jews would be content with mediocrity, the ‘Jewish problem’ might automatically disappear.

It is not the mere number of Jews, nor their undoubted prominence in scholarship, which complicates the problem. The American college is not, and never has been, an institution primarily for the acquisition of knowledge or the attainment of degrees. It is a social organization, with a very highly organized social structure. In most colleges this structure rests upon a basis of fraternities and clubs, with unwritten rules more rigid than those which govern the most exclusive society, administered with all the relentlessness of youth. It is hard to believe that young men have any inherent objection to their Jewish fellow students as individuals. But the organizations to which they belong have an inherent objection to Jews in the mass. In the admission of Jews they see the subtle undermining of a social prestige which they must preserve, or perish. So far as the classroom is concerned, Jewish students are one thing; but at the ‘prom,’ or the class-day tea, the presence of Jews and their relatives ruins the tone which must be maintained if social standing is not to collapse. The result of the presence of a large number of students who are themselves not any too welcome at college affairs, and whose relatives are positively impossible, is necessarily disunion and strife within the social life of the college. Jews are naturally clannish, and the social discrimination which they constantly feel makes them doubly so. Isolated as they are, at a time of life and in an environment where isolation is poison, they create a group always sore, always aloof, always a thorn in the side of deans and presidents, who want unity above everything. Where Jewish fraternities and clubs are permitted, the situation becomes worse. Discontent, the gnawing sense of being unjustly treated, the rancor of a brilliant mind forced into social inferiority — these things become articulate and even vociferous; a sense of injustice crystallizes. Then too, the Jewish fraternities necessarily exclude some Jews, and there is left a poor, struggling, often unpleasant remnant, suffering from an aggravated inferiority complex, which makes them mere hangers-on of the collegiate society; men who are using the college for the financial gain of a college degree, men who make neither useful citizens of the college community nor alumni of whom the college can be proud.

The thought which comes into the mind of every right-thinking person is the essential injustice of the situation. In most cases Jewish students are men of good character and fair scholarship. As far as can be learned, they give no trouble to the disciplinary officers. Being what they are, they are despised and rejected; and, being despised and rejected, they develop all their worst traits instead of their best. Were charity, friendliness, forbearance, and kindliness the outstanding characteristics of college men, students of unpleasant personality could be made better college men and better citizens. But these characteristics are no more true of college men than of any group of people. Rather less so, indeed, for young people are notoriously snobbish, hero-worshiping, and intolerant of eccentricity. College authorities, however good their will may be, have not the power to reform the social prejudices of college students. Hence arises a dilemma: either the social nature of a college body must be changed and a new point of view adopted — which seems impossible; or the groups of students who interfere with the harmonious functioning of this social nature must be limited — which rouses a storm of protest.

Those who know the colleges of the East will have little doubt of the outcome: it is easier to endure a storm of protest than to change a point of view. It must be remembered that the point of view has been the slow development of years, and is held alike by trustees, faculties, and alumni.


If the American college were an institution which aimed to find the sharpest brains of the country and to cultivate them, the problem of the limitation of enrollment would be simple. Jews would have nothing to fear from such a system. The bright minds would be admitted; the dull minds would be rejected; and among the successful would unquestionably be the high percentage of Jews who always succeed in an open competition where brains count most.

But, for good or ill, the endowed colleges are not looking for the sharpest brains. In general they would probably like to think of themselves as worthy of Hilaire Belloc’s praise: —

Here is a House that armours a man
With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger,
And a laughing way in the teeth of the world
And a holy hunger and thirst for danger:
Balliol made me, Balliol fed me
Whatever I had she gave me again:
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,—
God be with you, Balliol men.

It is obvious that such a conception of college means a careful selection of students to form a type. It means scholarship, to be sure; but it means also, as the presidents of Brown and Bates have stated publicly, that scholarship shall be only one qualification for candidates. Character, personality, the chances of the student’s being a leader in life, social adaptability, the power to make friends, eligibility to social circles, conformity to discipline and to accepted thoughts and usages — these formally become the important criteria of admission, as they have been informally, in many cases, for several years. It is needless to say that such a conception of educational eligibility would exclude a large proportion of Jewish students, all negroes, and most members of other immigrant groups; and, with an ever increasing number of candidates for admission, would put a premium upon training in the great private schools.

Once accepted, this idea marks an epoch in American education, the full significance of which most people can hardly recognize, especially when it is remembered that, as the college is, so are large numbers of schools. It means the abandonment of scholastic achievement as the criterion of collegiate success; it means the creation of ‘gentlemen’s’ colleges, as we have had, for a long time, ‘gentlemen’s’ schools; it means the establishment of state universities which will be consciously for the masses, as opposed to ‘aristocratic’ groups; and it means that the colleges which, though perhaps grudgingly and even unconsciously, have been a powerful agent in Americanization, will now give up that work.

The matter of justice does not enter into this discussion, provided state and municipal colleges are called into existence to give the education which is the right of every qualified youth in a democracy. It is education which counts as a right, not education in any specific college. If Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and other endowed colleges feel that social homogeneity is the most important thing in the world for them, they have the right to secure that homogeneity, so long as they maintain no monopoly of college education. It may matter intensely to the alumnus of a great college that his son should go to that college in the same environment which he enjoyed; the young man of immigrant stock, to whom that environment means nothing, ought not make the gratification of that desire impossible, so long as he personally can get his education elsewhere, and so long as the great graduate schools are free to all comers who are properly qualified. It is the thing which matters, not the place in which the thing is obtained. If, for good or ill, colleges wish to stand apart from the incoherencies and the clashings of our changing social life, they have a right to do so, as long as they encourage the founding and maintenance of new institutions which will provide an education for all qualified candidates. It is well to remember, however, that in the past the endowed colleges have opposed the establishment of state universities, and that some of them have already undertaken a policy of exclusion of Jews without informing the public, and without giving a thought, apparently, to the question where the rejected students are to be educated. One of the bad features of the present discussion is the reticence of most college authorities, who permit rumors and sensational news reports to take the place of frank and open discussion, so that the public mind is befogged and confused by anybody who chooses to start a sensational story.

Though the question of justice may be put aside, the question of wisdom may properly enter into the discussion. The important thing is, after all, not what charters permit colleges to do, but what their self-respect, their desire to serve their students and their community, and their best interests in the future tell them they ought to do. Under a policy of exclusion of certain racial groups, of preferring the development of social qualities to active scholastic competition, the colleges are bound to lose more than they will gain. They may be pleasanter places to live in, but they will no longer really represent the eager, heterogeneous, varied amalgam which is America. Young men will be protected from the presence of new Americans at the very age when they ought to be making contacts which will give them real knowledge of actual civic life. There is something disquieting, too, in the thought that their enthusiasm for democracy is so slight that they demand shelter from its perplexities and from its dangers. American college life, surely, ought to be more than a pleasant interlude; it ought to be a stirring achievement.

Most disquieting of all, however, is the feeling that, in the perpetual fight against bigotry, superstition, racial intolerance, and inverted nationalism, the colleges seem to be abandoning the side of the angels. It may be hard to sec one’s college harboring strange men with alien ways, to see the happy spirit of youthful friendship weakening beneath the fierce and relentless pursuit of knowledge which, to these strangers, is the whole of college life; but it is harder to see one’s college the fostering mother of hates and racial dissensions, the parent of bitterness which for years will be a canker in the minds of men. Colleges will doubtless say that, in selecting their students in their own way, they have no such purpose. However, what usually matters is not the purpose of an act, but its result.