Among today’s news stories was a report that the Trump administration, not surprisingly, will oppose considerations of race in college admissions. As I walked this morning, I carried out an argument in my head, as I so often do, this time against a defender of the administration position arguing in typical self-righteous fashion for college admissions based solely on merit, on demonstrated academic accomplishment or promise. Rather than key my discussion today to the fact that it is the Fourth of July [we anarchists are not big on national holidays], I thought I would put in some coherent form the substance of my imagined argument. As always, I find it useful to begin with some statistics and some history [save when talking about Kant, but that is another matter entirely.]
Higher education on the North American continent is 382 years old, if we take the 1636 founding of Harvard College as our terminus a quo. Over that time, there have been four significant changes in the undergraduate portion of American higher education, all of them taking place in the fifteen years or so after World War II.
The first change was the explosion of public higher educational institutions, dramatically and permanently changing the balance of private and public institutions. Until the end of WW II, the private sector dominated, even though, as a consequence of the Land Grant Act of 1862, a sector of state universities came into existence. Although private colleges are created only rarely, so many state university campuses and state college systems have come into existence in the past sixty or seventy years that there are now more than 2,600 college and university campuses in the United States offering four year degrees.
The second change was the transformation of regional colleges and universities into national [and even international] institutions. Before the war, schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Michigan, et al. served mostly local clientele. It was unusual, for example, for someone from the Midwest or far west or deep south to go to college in New England. Starting after the war, schools actively sought nationally representative student bodies.
The third change was the dramatic rise in the number of applicants to the most highly sought after colleges, a change in part resulting from the sharp increase in the number of young people seeking higher educational degrees [I leave to one side the deeper question whether they were seeking higher education.] A few anecdotal statistics will illustrate this change. In 1950, when I started my undergraduate education at Harvard, only 5% of adult Americans had college degrees. Ninety-five percent did not. Sixty eight years later, 35% of adult Americans have college degrees, still a small minority, but seven times as many proportionately. When I applied 1949 for admission to Harvard, 2200 young men applied, 1650 were admitted, and 1250 of us showed up to form the class of ’54. It was much easier to get into Harvard when I applied than it is today to get into the University of Massachusetts.
There was a fourth change, the change that has given rise to the debate about so-called Affirmative Action. It was a response both to the dramatic rise in the number of high school graduates seeking college degrees and to the transformation of colleges and universities from regional to national aspirations. Let me explain, again by the use of an anecdote. By 1960, I had my doctorate, had done a stint in the army, and was an Instructor at Harvard, living in Winthrop House as a Resident Tutor [free room and board in return for talking to undergraduates.] One day McGeorge Bundy stopped by to visit the Senior Common Room. He was then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, before he went off to Washington to be Jack Kennedy’s National Security Advisor and oversee the Bay of Pigs and America’s entry into Viet Name. He remarked that Harvard now was getting 5000 applicants a year [two and a half times as many as a decade earlier, but of course nothing like the 42,742 who applied this past year.] Bundy said, “One thousand are clear admits, one thousand are clear rejects, and the real problem is making decisions about the remaining three thousand, every one of whom has something to be said for him.”
In short, elite colleges went from having admissions requirements to designing and implementing admissions policies. Until that period, colleges had simply specified the preparation required for admissions – so much Latin, so much mathematics, and so forth. But the flood of applicants at the elite schools presented a problem. Many more young people were applying for admission than there was room for, so some deliberate choices had to be made about what one wanted the entering class to look like. This was not a problem at the majority of colleges and universities, be it noted. They were fighting to fill their classrooms. But with the competition for good jobs in the economy and the rising educational credentials for those jobs, made possible by the increase in the number of college graduates, the value of a degree from an elite college soared, and so did the pool of applicants.
The first result was an expansion of the college bureaucracies. Entire Admissions Departments, headed up by Deans of Admissions, came into existence. Little by little, decisions were made at the administrative level that translated in to admissions policies. A number of admissions criteria were put in place around the country, not only in the private higher educational sector, but in the elite public sector as well. Everyone these days is aware of at least some of these criteria, but it is worth enumerating them to focus our attention on just how much of a change in admissions practices they involved. Here are just a few:
1: Private colleges adopted the policy of giving preference to applicants one of whose parents had attended the college – so-called “legacies.”
2: Co-educational colleges sought to establish and maintain a rough gender balance.
3: Colleges actively sought to achieve geographical distribution, sending admissions personnel on recruiting missions to secondary schools in underrepresented regions of the country.
4: Colleges sought to achieve and maintain a balance of undergraduates pursuing degrees in the Arts and Humanities, in the Social Sciences, and in Natural Science and Mathematics.
5: Colleges sought to restrict the number of Jewish undergraduates [now a somewhat less popular criterion of admissions or rejection.]
6: Colleges sought to recruit young men with special gifts or potential in intercollegiate sports. Later, this policy was extended to young women as well.
7: Colleges sought to maximize their impact on the larger society by recruiting students who gave evidence of a desire to go into public service of some sort.
NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THESE POLICIES HAS ANYTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH ACADEMIC ABILITY OR ACCOMPLISHMENT.
In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, northern elite colleges began admitting, and then even recruiting, students of color. And all hell broke loose. People of the highest and most unimpeachable principle, who had caviled not at all at admission preferences based on legacies, on gender balance, on regional distribution, on fields of concentration, on religion, on sports ability, or on ambitions for public service, suddenly discovered that they were academic purists, concerned that admission be based on academic accomplishment or ability alone.
It would be otiose to observe that these objections are transparently racist.
What in earth would an undergraduate body be like that was recruited solely on the basis of academic considerations? My personal example, which may of course be dated now, is the contrast I observed between the students walking the halls of Harvard and of MIT. The Harvard students looked as though they had responded to a call from central casting for a TV advertising gig: handsome, pulled together, neatly dressed, pleasingly varied in their racial and cultural diversity. The MIT students were utterly different: tall, short, fat, thin, geeky, black, white, red, brown, yellow, weird. Pretty obviously one could see that all they had in common was smarts.
The case giving rise to the dispute about affirmative action is the manifest effort of Harvard to hold down the proportion of Asian students, who are the new Jews. I have no doubt the new assault on affirmative action will succeed, but I do not think I can bear the smug assertions by the supporters of this assault that all they care about is academic ability. Puleeese.