Discrimination at Elite Colleges and Universities

In 1905, Harvard College adopted an entrance exam, which allowed almost any academically gifted high school senior with enough money to attend the school. By 1922, Jews made up more than a fifth of the school’s freshman class. This development incensed the anti-Semitic school administration and alumni and it was this issue that forever changed the way Ivy League schools would admit students into their schools. 

In the fall of 1922, Harvard began requiring applicants to provide a letter of reference, a photograph, write a personal essay, and list their extracurricular activities in order to weed out Jews and other undesirables. Applicants were also required to answer questions on “Race and Color,” “Religious Preference,” “Maiden Name of Mother,” “Birthplace of Father,” and explain any changes in their name or their father’s name. In order to figure out how many Jews it had on campus, Harvard designated each suspected Jew as j1 (“conclusively Jewish”), j2 (“preponderance of evidence” points to Jewishness), or j3 (Jewishness is a “possibility”). By 1933, Jews only made up 15% of the student population at Harvard. In a similar move, Princeton rated applicants from 1 to 4 on their desirability as future students after going through personal interviews that were designed to keep “undesirables” out of the school. 

In 1953, the admissions committee at Yale decided that “manliness” was a particularly important trait for its students to have. Yale went so far as to ensure that its students had specific physical characteristics, including the right height. During this same time, Harvard was interested in making sure that “pansies,” “decadent esthetes,” and “precious sophisticates” did not ruin the school’s reputation. In fact, the dean of admissions at Harvard, Wilbur Bender, had a preference for “the boy with some athletic interests and abilities, the boy with physical vigor and coordination and grace.” 

By the 1960’s, Harvard began to rate each applicant from 1 to 6 along four dimensions: Academic Ability, Extracurriculars, Athletic Ability, and Personal Qualities. This system further diluted the value of intellectual accomplishment and made room for athletes with a poor record of performance in school while simultaneously weeding out people that the school wanted to keep out. Not surprisingly, the highly subjective and elusive “personal rating” was a far better predictor of admission than the “academic rating.” This allowed Harvard to pick and choose applicants based on their particular demographic and demeanor. 

While elite colleges have since dropped openly discriminatory policies, children of alumni and athletes continue to receive substantial, statistically verifiable admission preferences. The bottom line is that elite colleges are each luxury brands that construct aesthetic experiences that are meant to conform to society’s understanding of what it means to be part of an elite class of citizens. If selective schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton admitted students on the basis of merit only, applicants that do not conform to traditional notions of a member of the elite would threaten to outnumber (and eventually destroy) the system of elite colleges as we know them.

The American Dream and Meritocracy vs. Elite Connections

The American Dream refers to the myth that the United States provides a unique opportunity for all of its citizens to succeed in life and eventually move up in social status with hard work alone. Nothing –including race, class, gender, or ethnicity– is supposed to be a barrier to getting a good education and a well-paying job. 

Meritocracy refers to the idea that the elite are only made up of people with superior ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. Some people argue that the biggest reason for social inequality is that some people do not try hard enough. 

The reality is that the established elite has connections that allow it to avoid having to work nearly as hard as a person of lower social standing for the same things. The economic elite is a small group of the most powerful, rich, and educated members of our society. These same people have a vastly disproportionate amount of control in business, the military, and politics in the United States. Often the elite move from business into politics and back with ease only available to the well connected, rich, and powerful. The result is that former executives of the biggest corporations in the country control a very significant number of high-level political offices. By maintaining control of business and politics, the elite can wield significant advantages over people of lesser means and fewer connections. The fact that the elite is mostly made up of well connected whites and males only serves to perpetuate a system of dominance over minorities and women who seek to increase their social standing by working without the benefit of special connections or opportunities.

Legacy Admissions at Elite Colleges and Universities

Children of an alumni parent, sibling, or relative automatically have a huge advantage when applying to selective colleges and universities in the United States. A recent Harvard study of 30 elite colleges shows that legacy applicants have a 23 percent increase in their probability of admission. That probability goes up to 45 percent if the legacy child’s parent attended the college as an undergraduate student. Said another way, legacy preferences give applicants the equivalent of a 160-point boost on the math and verbal SATs. 

Dartmouth College admits legacy students at a rate of up to 2.5 times that of non-legacy students. The University of Pennsylvania admitted 27 percent of its legacy applicants in 2010, despite the fact that it only a 14 percent overall acceptance rate. From 1985-92, Harvard admitted children of alumni at twice the rate of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants despite the fact that legacy students statistically lag behind their peers. 

One justification for legacy admissions is that legacy admissions contribute and uphold each school’s unique school spirit while also maintaining a lasting sense of community fostered through a discipline of tradition, loyalty, and pride in the school. Another argument is that legacy admissions ensure that alumni keep giving back to the school. Finally, the argument rests on the fact that legacy admissions usually only make up a small portion of each incoming class.

Legacy preferences were originally created out of a desire to exclude Jews from elite Ivy League schools. While legacy applicant pools are more racially and ethnically diverse than they have ever been in the past, they are still heavily white. Therefore, legacy admissions just end up perpetuating racial disparity. Furthermore, there is also very little evidence that legacy admissions encourage alumni donations. Thus, even if legacy admissions only make a small part of an incoming class, the artificial advantage needlessly displace applicants that otherwise would qualify under a merit-based approach to admissions.

Social Networks and Employment

Social network contacts help job seekers by providing them with (1) information about where to find employment and (2) influence, which they can use to get around the normal hiring process. 

Social class tends to define people’s social networks, both online and offline. That is, people tend to associate with those in their immediate social and professional lives more than with others and this is reflected in the make up of people’s social networks. Research suggests that affluent users are much more likely to use social networking platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter then, say, MySpace. In essence, online social networks are a microcosm of the divides that already exist in the real world.

With that said, people who identify with a lower social status imagine having a smaller, less diverse social network than is actually the case. As a result, people of a lower social status do not end up reaching out to social network contacts as much as those people that have (or perceive that they have) a higher social status. Thus, how a person perceives their social status appears to be central to how effectively a person uses his or her social network to find a new job. However, perception of social class is definitely not everything. 

Informal recruitment via social networking has helped about 27 percent of people in the United States obtain a job. Jobs paying more than $100,000 are 86 percent more likely to be filled through informal recruitment through social networks than minimum wage jobs. This data seems to suggest that favoritism in highly skilled job markets is very entrenched in the United States. This may be part of the reason why income inequality in the United States is such a big issue. Social networks can help a person gain suitable employment and clearly become more important with higher social status. However, people already have to be part of the elite in order for their social network to really help them land a well paying and prestigious job. That’s a Catch-22 if there ever was one.