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The 'iron law of admissions' - and its consequences
Jerome Karabel shows how Ivy League policies developed in the 1920s set the stage for today's admissions practices

12 October 2005

The first time that sociology professor Jerome Karabel made his name synonymous with undergraduate admissions was at Berkeley in 1989, when the Academic Senate committee on admissions and enrollment that he chaired produced a seminal report on the topic, still universally referred to as the Karabel Report. Among the principles embedded in Freshman Admissions at Berkeley: A Policy for the 1990s and Beyond were the following, as expressed by a later incarnation of that Senate committee:

"As a teaching and research university of international renown, Berkeley gives priority in admission to students with exceptional academic accomplishments..At the same time, Berkeley must strive to serve all of California's people by training the future leadership of a remarkably diverse state . and should seek to create a stimulating educational environment by recruiting a student body that represents a broad diversity of backgrounds, values, and viewpoints.."


Jerome Karabel (Mikhail Lemkhin photo)
Those principles have permeated the culture of the university in the years since 1989, and they resonate, albeit indirectly, throughout Karabel's new book, The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin), even though its explicit focus is on an environment rather different than Berkeley's, both geographically and culturally. The book - which seems likely to make Karabel's name synonymous with undergrad admissions once more, though on a national scale this time - traces the ways in which the Ivy League's "Big Three" colleges - Harvard, Yale, and Princeton - have selected their freshman classes over the past century. In subtitling his book a "hidden history of admission and exclusion" at those campuses, Karabel alludes to some of the themes his research underscores - among them, that the notion of "merit" in undergrad admissions, far from representing some Platonic ideal, is highly variable, changing from era to era as power relations in the broader society change; and that colleges and universities, in adherence to an "iron law of admissions," pursue such noble goals as equity and diversity only insofar as they are consonant with the maintainance of institutional autonomy and discretion.

The product of years of research, much of it conducted in the Big Three's own archives, The Chosen is being published at the end of this month, accompanied by a publicity campaign of an intensity rarely committed to an academic title. The about-to-be-very-busy Karabel found time recently to sit down with Public Affairs' Dan Mogulof for a conversation about the book, a few of its key findings, and the role of public universities in providing "channels of mobility" for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

What, in a nutshell, is The Chosen about?
It's about the battle over opportunity in America as seen through the lens of the admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton over the last century. More specifically, it's about who was admitted, who was excluded, and why; how and why admissions policies changed over the course of the past 100 years; who won and who lost with each of these changes; and, most important of all, what this fierce battle over places in the freshman class at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton tells us about America.

Which audiences do you think will be most engaged by the book?
First, anyone interested in how colleges actually do admissions, as opposed to how they say they do admissions - what they do, why they do it, and who gains and loses. Second, that broad group of people who are interested in American history of the 20th century, because the history of the Ivy League's Big Three is entangled with virtually all of the major events of the last 100 years. Third, people interested in the American upper class, and more specifically the Protestant Establishment, whose history is totally interconnected with the history of the Big Three. And finally, anyone who cares about inequality in America, because all the major divisions in America - whether by class, by religion, by race, by ethnicity, by gender -have played themselves out in battles over admissions to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Excerpts from The Chosen
What's the most important thing you learned about the way colleges "actually do admissions"?
I suppose that, most fundamentally, I was stunned to see that the system of admissions that we take for granted now - the system with personal interviews, personal letters of recommendation, the emphasis on highly subjective qualities such as "leadership," "character," and so forth - was in fact invented in a particular time and a particular place for a very specific purpose.

Tell us about that.
The time was the 1920s, and the purpose was to reduce the rising number of Jewish students. That system was put in place overwhelmingly for that single purpose, though ultimately it became institutionalized. It has since been used for other purposes, but its origins are clear. So some of the strange things that we take for granted about the system of admissions at America's leading private universities, as well as many leading publics - the fact that your father is an alumnus is relevant to whether you should be admitted to the school - were born in that period. The same is true of everything from the emphasis on athletes, to geographical diversity, to extracurricular activities - all of that is rooted in this period.

And if you step back from it you very quickly see that the admissions system that is very familiar here is actually very strange. Imagine a student in Japan or France being told that getting into Tokyo University or the École Normale would be related to whether they run well with a ball. They would find this extraordinarily bizarre, but it is just part of our landscape and we consider it normal. Similarly, the fact that we have so-called development cases, that is to say people who contribute a lot of money for the purpose of helping their son or daughter get into the institution, would be considered a textbook example of corruption in other countries, but here this is just the way we do business. This is our system.

In The Chosen you look at the historical development of this system. What did you find?
Before the 1920s our system was much more consistent with the systems of other countries. Getting into Harvard, getting into Yale, getting into Princeton was exam-based. What your background was, your personality, your character, your appearance - none of these things mattered. If you passed, you were in. If you failed, you were out.

But from the perspective of the Protestant patricians who ran the Big Three and similar institutions, there was a flaw in this system: far too many Jews were passing the exams. Indeed, had there not been what Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell called the "Jewish problem," the old system of admissions probably would have been retained. It was objective and impersonal - quite similar to the system that prevails today in other countries such as France, Japan, China, and India.

How then have student bodies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton changed in the last 50 or 60 years? And do they remain the same in any significant area?
Most visibly, they have women now. All three institutions are close to 50 percent female, and all follow a policy of sex-blind admission. They're also racially integrated - not only African Americans, but also Latinos and lots of Asian Americans. Moreover, they have globalized to some extent. So they have more students from different countries around the world. And in recent years they have adopted a policy of need-blind admissions not only for students from the United States, but for students from around the entire world. So in all those ways, they are more diverse and arguably more democratic.

But in one fundamental way they have hardly changed at all, and that is in terms of their class, or socioeconomic, composition. Though good data are hard to come by, it's possible that there are fewer working-class students there now than there were 50 years ago. I'd say roughly the top 5 percent of the income distribution provides 50 percent of the students. By their own estimate, the bottom 50 percent may provide only about 10 percent of the students. Insofar as there has been a change, it's been a change within different segments of the elite. Overall there has been some shift away from what sociologists would call the "economically capitaled," those who have a lot of property, to the "culturally capitaled," those who have a lot of credentials and knowledge.

I do think that these schools would be happy to see more students from poor and working-class backgrounds that they consider qualified. But the definition of merit that they use pretty much guarantees that the overwhelming majority of poor and working-class students won't even be in the ballgame.

What is that definition of "merit"?
Let me emphasize that there is in fact no neutral definition of merit; every definition will advantage some groups and disadvantage other groups. Because the institutions I've written about in my book are pathways to power and privilege in America, there is a lot of struggle over who has the right to be there. When you fight over the definition of merit, you're fighting in essence over which people will be included and which people will be excluded.

Now, over time a definition of merit has emerged that requires a level of academic performance that in America - given the vast material, cultural, educational, and residential inequalities between social classes - is heavily concentrated among the privileged. Take something as seemingly objective as SAT scores and immediately you see that they are very highly correlated with class background. And so the number of students with high scores who are children of people who have been to graduate or professional school is vastly greater than the number of children with high scores who come from impoverished families or working-class neighborhoods. As a consequence, the neutral application of that definition of merit will effectively exclude most people from poor and working-class backgrounds. Even at the University of California, where a very strong effort has been made to include people from all segments of the society, inequality of opportunity remains a serious problem.

So this is by no means a problem unique to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Not at all. It's a problem that runs throughout American society, and one that higher education is trying to grapple with today.

Now with that said, I do think that there is a connection between the composition of these institutions and what they see as their mission, which is to educate the next generation of the elite - the people who hold the positions of power, especially in the economy and the government. And if that's your mission, then you are not unhappy with the outcome of educating a lot of the children of the current elite, because that is the best predictor of who will be in the future elite.

Is class discrimination an intended consequence of these colleges' admissions strategies?
I think it is largely unintended, in that the schools would be happy to see more students from poor and working-class backgrounds that they consider qualified. Certainly it's not intentional to the same extent that limiting the number of Jews enrolling at Harvard was. But I think what ties the two patterns together is that they're both based on particular definitions of merit that tend to favor socially dominant groups.

At the same time, the elite privates have a social-mobility function that they do believe in, even though they actually don't perform very well in that area. But if socioeconomic diversity is the objective, then the performance of these institutions is woefully inadequate. For example, in a recent study of the proportion of students on Pell grants - those who come from families with income roughly below the median - at the leading 50 universities in the U.S., Princeton ranked dead last, and Harvard and Yale were not much better. In contrast, UC Berkeley ranked second and UCLA ranked first.

That partly reflects the different composition of California's population - but it also reflects the different sense of mission. I think public universities take their social-mobility mission somewhat more seriously, and also they have a much more vigorous and systematic policy of what might be called class-based affirmative action.

The elite privates, in comparison to public institutions like Berkeley, have, it would seem, far greater latitude to take unilateral steps to address problems of diversity. In the area of race, for example, they're not in any way governed by state laws or regulations having to do with affirmative action. Why then are they not taking similar steps to address their lack of socioeconomic diversity?
Class has never been nearly as visible in America as race; in fact America prides itself as being a country that doesn't really have social classes. So whereas there was a redefinition of the concept of merit in relation to race in response to both the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and, in particular, the great urban race riots of the late 1960s - when there was a real feeling that the country was falling apart and that, if we didn't do something drastic, the country might unravel - there has been no parallel redefinition around the issue of class. I think that reflects the relative lack of power of poor and working-class people in the United States. But I also think the broader point is that there is a very powerful connection between the particular definition of merit that prevails in a particular period and power relations in the larger society. As power relations between groups shift, the definition of merit will shift.

Here at Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau has made a powerful case for the educational benefits of racial and ethnic diversity, saying that it's more than just a matter of having a student body that reflects the state that we serve. We need that diversity to prepare students to live and function in a multicultural environment. Do you see educational benefits from having a socioeconomically diverse student body?
Definitely. And I think Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have themselves come to realize that the relative lack of socioeconomic diversity is not good for the education of their students. What they're trying to figure out is how to increase that diversity without sacrificing other things that they see as important to their mission.

The key thing to remember here is that every extra person admitted is someone else excluded: If you bring in more students from poor and working-class backgrounds, you have fewer students from other backgrounds. It's a very intense zero-sum game, an extremely delicate and contested issue. But this issue has now been put on the table not only by scholars like myself and other researchers, but by the administrators of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton themselves. I think William Bowen, who was formerly president of Princeton and is now president of the Mellon Foundation, put it best: At an admissions meeting where places in the freshman class spots are being allocated, there's somebody representing the alumni, there's somebody representing historically excluded minorities, there's somebody representing the development office. But right now, as this process is organized, there's nobody representing poor and working-class students. If there were ever such a person, whose job performance would be measured by how well they did in that regard - in the same way the athletic department's performance is measured, or the development office's performance is measured - that would almost certainly change the dynamic.

Your research also suggests that when it comes to providing real opportunity to rise in society in socioeconomic terms, there's absolutely no comparison between what the elite privates do and what the elite publics, like Berkeley, do.
It's partly a function of scale. Berkeley educates so many more students than these institutions do. The size of the privates' freshman classes range from 1,100 or 1,200 to 1,600 or 1,700; Berkeley is closer to 4,000, and UCLA is even larger. But even controlling for scale, I think it is fair to say that the public universities admit far more people from non-privileged backgrounds and that they do provide important channels of mobility, primarily into the middle class, sometimes into the upper-middle class. And while I think that both the elite private institutions and the great publics have a role to play in terms of the mobility function, of keeping the American dream alive, the public universities basically have a better record of performance; they've done more in this regard than the elite private institutions have over the years.