Thursday, November 01, 2007

Democratizing anxiety rather than opportunity

Excerpts from a review for The Chosen that is worth reading in its entirety.
Proof of extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, letters of recommendation -- we take all these as natural, necessary and even enlightened elements of the college application process, though they cause us endless anxiety. Actually, they don't resemble in the least the way people in Europe or Japan get into college. They're a result of a particular American challenge at the turn of the 20th century, which President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard then characterized as follows: how to "prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews."

By the end of the 19th century, Harvard, Yale and Princeton were committed not primarily to refining the intellect but to welcoming the well-bred, athletic, public-spirited and sociable scions of the privileged -- young men who may not have performed well academically but were destined to be the leaders of the next generation. The result of such measures, at Harvard and elsewhere, was a horrific surprise: too many Jews! Though most of these students were more than academically competent, they didn't fit the usual definition of "gentlemen." The key code word here was 'character', a quality thought to be frequently lacking among Jews but present almost congenitally among high-status Protestants.

Newly established admissions departments gathered increasingly large amounts of "background" data on each applicant. Race? Color? Religious preference? Birthplace of father? Previous surnames used by the family? Mother's maiden name? The need for letters of recommendation was born; so was the interest in extracurricular involvement. Photographs were required, and personal interviews were encouraged, particularly with local alumni who would be most eager to perpetuate the muscular and sociable undergraduate image dear to them. The mechanism was similar to that of self-perpetuating private social and country clubs where new candidates were admitted only if members vouched for them.

Since the number of admission slots was being limited while more and more applicants were meeting the Big Three's academic criteria, the various nonacademic criteria and "intangible qualities" became decisive. One logical alternative -- raising academic standards even higher to get a more brilliant, intellectual class -- was hardly a consideration. By contrast, it was the well-bred students of average intelligence who university elders insisted were more likely to end up as leaders in business and politics -- and to become loyal, generous alumni. Most university leaders made no bones about limiting the "super-bright" to only 10 percent of each class.

Astonishingly, this subjective college admissions system -- designed in the 1920s to discreetly exclude as many "social undesirables" as possible -- is the system we continue to use today. And the central irony of The Chosen is that the very flexibility that was designed to exclude nontraditional students and placate the alumni up to the middle of the 20th century was subsequently available to administrators to accomplish essentially opposite goals.

As the century unfolds, ... [these] three schools had to process these demands [for diversity in admissions] in terms of its own internal constituencies: faculty pressuring for "more brains," students and the press demanding diversity, and alumni in open revolt against any such changes.

Having decided to change the make-up of their student body in this new direction, each school was successful in doing so because from the 1920s on, admissions officers had at their disposal a variety of nonacademic criteria by which to evaluate applicants. And as Karabel notes, moves to include previously excluded groups were not terribly radical since the Big Three, in fact, "had never been pure academic meritocracies."

Dramatic as these developments appear, they hardly constitute a sea change in how universities make such decisions. University administrations still view a move to completely meritocratic selection as neither in their self-interest nor realistic. Instead, Karabel convincingly shows this new institutional behavior to be the result of constant administrative shifts in order to maintain an uneasy balance among competing demands.

Much has changed in who now constitutes "the chosen" -- the elite prep schools, for example, can no longer count on a high proportion of their graduates getting into the Big Three. "As a consequence, deep apprehension about college admissions now extends to the highest reaches of the upper class," Karabel writes. But much remains the same. "At the same time, the children of the working class and the poor are about as unlikely to attend the Big Three today as they were in 1954. It is no exaggeration to say that the current regime in elite college admissions has been far more successful in democratizing anxiety than opportunity."

No comments: