Among the great mysteries of the world is the formula for college admissions at top colleges. In an effort to help demystify the process, John Thelin takes an historical perspective here at insidehighered.com:
“Fair Harvard” is not always fair. That allegation cuts to the heart of the lawsuit about admissions decisions made by Harvard University. The suit has created a courtroom drama in Boston fueled by voluminous statistical data and provides an arena for dueling economists and also for wistful recollections by deans and alumni, who tell about their own college application experiences. The case has attracted national headlines because reporters hope that court testimonies will reveal the secret of getting into Harvard.
In addition to looking forward to each day’s court proceedings for revelations, it is also useful to look backward to explain the mysteries of selective college admissions. If you want a blueprint for the admissions master plan, take a look at the 1961 book by Katherine Kinkead, How an Ivy League College Decides on Admissions. The author provided readers an insider account of a round of admissions decisions, all of which reinforced the message that this was no easy job. Even though the story is more than a half century old, this slim volume provides a glimpse and an approving, sympathetic nod to the design and culture of selective admissions still in place today. And since Kinkead’s focus was on Yale of 1961, we get a reprieve from exclusive preoccupation with Harvard of 2018.
In the early 1960s, brochures, correspondence and interviews used by an Ivy League college admissions office sought to promote at least the appearance of a personal touch. Ultimately, however, all information, from transcripts, reference letters and test scores, had to be coded so that staff members could make succinct ratings for comparisons across the applicant pool. Yale was innovative in using “computing machines” for processing student data. This early foray into technology was simplistic by our standards today, but was cutting-edge at the time. It signaled reliance on quantitative records to help make qualitative decisions. Despite such technological innovation, stacks of manila folders and file cabinets stuffed with application materials made admissions offices crowded and hectic places to work.
Then as now, it was all about the luxury of choice in creating an entering class. Each student’s folder had to be dissected and then reconnected to other applicants. Fine-tuning included safety valves to allow reconsideration of an unusual, interesting candidate.
Yale, along with several of the Ivy colleges at the time, admitted only men. Although this was pervasive in 1961, by the end of the decade it would be contested — and, at the Ivy institutions, changed.
An applicant was not always compared to the whole pool. If a student passed the first cut of academic review, he landed in a category based on some defining characteristic. It could be merit, academic or otherwise, with such specialties as biology, history, journalism, music or varsity swimming. If a student claimed a particular talent, the crucial deliberation was whether this student would bring honor to the college. The worst odds were those facing an applicant who remained in the “general pool,” with no claim to a category for special consideration.
For applicants placed in the various special categories, the colleges wanted assurance that a student could survive academically and excel in his selected and designated activities. It was an internal numbers game. If a theater arts director was allotted five admissions slot each year for future thespians, the director had to choose well among the 15 academically strong applicants who reported drama as a pursuit. This played out across numerous specialties.
Furthermore, allocation of admissions slots included nonmerit groupings, such as legacies and relatives of donors. The Ivies also gave preference to applicants from prep schools that were their traditional feeder schools. These special categories elicit criticism today for the favoritism they receive. But what’s important to keep in mind is that systematic, selective admissions may not have eliminated their privileged status — but did cause it to decline over time. Admissions deans and presidents were increasingly deluged with irate letters and phone messages from angry prep school headmasters and alumni who had long presumed that acceptance letters were a sure thing for their children.
The success story of the era was the academically strong public high school, especially one with an outstanding science and math curriculum. Prep schools of the time were hard-pressed to keep up with the growing cohort of academically excellent applicants from public high schools in metropolitan areas. In other words, the traditional upper crust of legacies, donors and prep schools became a thinner crust in the acceptance letters the Ivies sent out in the 1960s.
Today the Ivy League colleges are envied and applauded for using their scholarship grant offers that make $70,000 affordable to modest-income students. It came to be known for the powerful double-play combination of need-blind admission guaranteed to lead to need-based financial aid. This was not yet the case in the 1960s, as institutional aid packages relied on loans that recipients were expected to repay, “bursar jobs” on campus, with no promise of much in grants. Federal student aid programs we take for granted today, such as Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans, did not yet exist. The upshot was that financial aid decisions still shaped admissions decisions, as the dean also kept one eye on how much financial aid an admitted applicant would drain from college coffers in making admissions offers.
Athletics provided an edge. However, the Ivy League policy prohibiting athletic scholarships or any financial aid not based on need often meant that top student athletes turned down the Ivies in favor of a full ride at Stanford, Northwestern or Vanderbilt Universities. The distinctive Ivy policy of no athletic scholarships also led to some interesting twists. When Bill Bradley applied to college in 1961, he turned down a full athletic scholarship to Duke University in order to enroll at Princeton University, where he received no financial aid. So the competition for athletes became increasingly complex in the mixing and matching of talent and colleges.
To complicate the matrix, a college admissions office sought geographic diversity. Here, the “rural prospect” cited in the Harvard court case today gained attention as admissions officers claimed to be prospecting for the small-town diamond in the rough.
Kinkead’s story about Yale was reinforced in a 1960 report by the Harvard faculty about the dilemmas of selective admissions: “No one who has ever participated in the April meetings of the admissions committee could fail to appreciate the difficulty of keeping balance, or even in mind, all the particular arguments which can be brought to bear on the acceptance or rejection of any boy, be he from New York City, Roxbury, or a Dakota farming town, from Phillips Exeter or Blue Earth High School.”
Top students from public high schools gained ground on prep schools. A bittersweet corollary was that a quest for geographic diversity often meant that applicants from New York were rejected in favor of applicants outside the Northeast. Sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman echoed the complaints of many rejected students that the geographic diversity whether by accident or design suggested some anti-Semitism. As time has gone on, evidence has emerged of anti-Jewish quotas at Harvard and elsewhere — quotas that advocates for Asian Americans say are similar to what they believe is taking place today (an analysis denied by Harvard).
How hard was it to get into an Ivy League college? The Oct. 12, 1964, issue of Newsweek featured an article, “Brown Grows the Ivy,” with 10 applicants per slot. High grade point averages, high SAT scores and class valedictorians led Newsweek to exclaim, “It was like having a baseball team with all the line up having .300 batting averages.” The article gave readers clues about the changing landscape of college admissions. Ten applicants per admission slot in 1964 certainly cannot match Harvard or Stanford today, which receive 20 applicants per slot. It did show that the number and quality of college applicants to the Ivy League colleges were on the rise — and at a competitiveness level unheard-of in the rest of higher education.
College admissions may have been complicated, but it was not mysterious. The luxury of choice brought with it a burden of decisions based on small differences among talented applicants. Today the heat rises due to an applicant pool expanded by demographics and technology along with a commitment to diversity and social justice. Admission of women raised academic standards and changed the character of the Ivy League colleges. In some cases, this meant increasing enrollment and adding sports and other programs for women.
Admissions offices have gained the ability to broadcast recruitment materials and to analyze student records. This coexists with soaring student consumerism. The notion of a class-action lawsuit demanding access to a college’s admissions records in the 1960s would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile, the Common Application and internet forms have increased ease and options to apply to numerous colleges. One unexpected consequence for admissions offices is that a rise in number of outstanding applicants fosters an exaggerated sense of selectivity.
The caution is that most articles covering the Harvard lawsuit focus on the plight of applicants who face admissions uncertainty. However, another unsolved mystery is how each college fares after the admissions letters go out. Harvard officials were worried that the court proceedings would expose their “trade secrets” for attracting strong applicants, bringing comparisons to revealing the formula for Coca-Cola. In fact, there are other secrets that all deans of admissions are reluctant to reveal.
If you want to see a dean of admissions squirm, ask to see the numbers on the box score in the overlap of the trifecta sweepstakes of applications-acceptances-enrollments for Harvard against Stanford University, California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Will a nationally ranked swimmer turn down Princeton to accept a full athletic scholarship at University of California, Berkeley? How many Columbia University admits chose Amherst College? Did Cornell University reject many applicants that Dartmouth College accepted? Has the University of Chicago’s decision to make the SAT optional provided a new edge against the Ivies?
Since no prestigious college wants to be teased by rivals as a “good backup” or a dreaded safety school, these data remained well-kept secrets. Competition and disappointment was a fate for admissions offices as well as applicants in the American scramble to go to a prestigious college that has been ratcheted up several notches today.