The History Of Privilege In Elite-College Admissions

The History Of Privilege In Elite-College Admissions

College Admissions
Graduating law students raise gavels during Harvard University commencement exercises, Thursday, May 24, 2018, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

It’s always been tough to get into elite colleges. And it has nothing to do with grades and test scores. Looking at the history of the schools it’s obvious that elite-college admissions were created to protect white privilege.

“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,” The Atlantic reported.

And not much has changed since the beginning. While there are more women and people of color enrolled, the majority are white males and legacy students. “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,” The Atlantic reported.

And the parents recently charged in the college-admissions scandal were apparently trying to get around this and give their children an upper hand, albeit illegally.

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Elite schools from the earliest decades depended on wealthy white students, and they were basically the only ones the schools considered.  In fact, up until the end of the 19th century, Ivy League college campuses were comprised of private high school graduates.

This was still the case in 1892, when rich white Christian men dominated the student bodies. This isn’t to say there weren’t some lower-income students at these schools; there were some just very few.

Things began to change in the 1900s. “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 Atlantic reported.

Because of this, the number of Jewish students, for example, increased and by the early 1920s, they comprised 21 percent of Harvard’s student body, and about 40 percent of Columbia’s.

This didn’t last long. Elite school presidents worked to install policies that would limit the number of Jewish and low-income students. This was especially true at Harvard, where they adopted an application system that “prioritized subjective qualities—birthplace, family background, athletic ability, personality—over test scores.”

The process did start to focus on test scores in modern admissions, yet priority is still given to wealthy students.