The Qualified Student: A History of Selective College Admission in America
reviewed by Hugh Hawkins - 1978
One of many impressive things about this book is its author's refusal to settle for the easy satisfactions of an expose. Harold Wechsler has unearthed enough unsavory data about Columbia University's past discriminatory practices to have written a lurid volume and gained a quick celebrity. Instead, he has placed the Columbia story and three other case studies in context and presented the scholarly world with the best history of American college admissions' policy in existence. Beyond that, he uses the theme of admissions to illuminate the development of higher education in the last hundred years. New histories of single colleges and universities we have always with us. When a scholar ranges across institutional lines to draw comparisons, trace influences, and make regional and national generalizations, let us give credit for a harder task and a more significant one.
Not least of Wechsler's achievements is his instructive new periodization of American higher education, using as his measure the availability of students. The years before World War I he depicts as an era of scarcity, those since as one of abundance (which will probably be ending during the 1980s). The issues raised when certain colleges began to find they had a superfluity of candidates are the heart of this study. Should abundance be used as a basis for selectivity, for either higher academic standards or new criteria of "social suitability," or should the increase in potential students be taken as a challenge to enlarge institutions of higher education and broaden their mission beyond the old elite-creating functions?
Few university presidents were more explicit than Nicholas Murray Butler in his plan for shaping higher education to produce a leadership class. He had a vision of Columbia as replenishing that class by providing a ladder for some not born into elite families. He saw the city high schools that laggard New York opened in the 1890s as an appropriate source for such students, and Regents' examinations were accepted in lieu of Columbia's own entrance examinations. But when it shortly turned out that at least 41 percent of the yearly graduates of New York City high schools were Jewish, Butler concluded that something in his plan had gone awry.
"Since the high schools failed to eliminate students Columbia considered socially unqualified," Wechsler says, "university authorities would have to employ their newly created bureaucratic apparatus to do the job themselves" (p. 133). A complex program, relying on an admissions' bureaucracy that judged "social" characteristics, was not immediately effective in lowering the proportion of Jewish students, and precise figures are hard to come by. By 1934, however, the percentage of Jews admitted to Columbia College had dropped from a previous 40 percent to 17 percent. The admission application form (wittily incorporated into the jacket design of this book) tells much of the story. Second line: "What professional school, if any, do you expect to enter later?' (Columbia was proud of its unified liberal arts-professional degree program, but a Jewish applicant was more likely to be admitted if he did not aspire to professional study.) Sixth line:
"Religious Affiliation________" Lower lefthand corner: "Please attach here a photograph showing your full face." Columbia's Dean Herbert Hawkes explained: "We have not eliminated boys because they were Jews and do not propose to do so. We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York City Jews" (p. 161).
But I am falling into the trap that I congratulated the author on avoiding. The unlovely record of discrimination at Butler's Columbia is here, but the book can by no means be reduced to that. It opens by tracing the creation at the University of Michigan in the 1870s of the widely imitated certificate system, which examined high schools rather than high school graduates. This alternative to the old-style university-administered admission examination served to improve the high schools and, in an era of scarcity, to enlarge the number of entering students. Many applicants could merely present their high school certificate of satisfactory preparation. The certificate system charged the high schools with some of the credentializing function that was beginning to set a professional elite apart from the general population. A similar role was played in the east by the College Entrance Examination Board, whose origins are here shown linked to Nicholas Murray Butler's general plans for American society.
After the section on Columbia (roughly half the book), comes the third case study, on the University of Chicago. A brief but instructive chapter shows Chicago adopting admissions selectivity in the 1920s neither because it had too many applicants nor because it wanted to keep out certain ethnic groups, but rather in hopes of gaining prestige. The plan worked. An aura of exclusiveness led to a larger applicant pool and one of notable academic seriousness.
The alternative approach toward abundanceexpanding institutions so that they could admit all who cared to comefound a spokesman in President Lotus D. Coffman of the University of Minnesota. He argued that the late bloomer and the intelligent follower were as deserving of college education as the future leader. There was probably an element of simple institutional aggrandizement here. Presidents, especially in public universities, could not readily break the pattern that Veblen described of measuring success by numbers. This view of institutional motives is not explored in this volume, and neither is the role played in challenging bigness by ideas of community. The author clearly favors Minnesota's General College, Truman's Commission on Higher Education, and open admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY).
The last, the subject of the fourth case study, traces the leadership of Chancellor Albert Bowker in efforts to make CUNY respond to the changing population of the city. The shrinking ratio of university places to aspirants led many to equate the new exclusive-ness of the 1950s and 1960s with the adoption of higher academic standards, especially given the influence of attitudes toward the intellectual capacities of blacks and Puerto Ricans that recall animadversions in the early 1900s concerning newly arrived Europeans. Recognizing the injustice and danger in this, Bowker and his allies among the branch presidents engaged in battle with the Board of Higher Education and political leaders, and finally won genuinely open admissions. In this account, Bowker emerges as one of the boldest and most effective university leaders in American history.
The book concludes with some predictions, suggesting that whatever the outcome of the Bakke case, purposeful admission of the educationally and socially deprived will continue. Admission offices, orginally developed for purposes of exclusion that led them beyond merely applying academic measurements, are now so complexly professionalized that they can continue their more recent policies of inclusion, whatever the courts decide about "reverse discrimination."
Far from closing the field of admissions' history, this book opens it up. Other studies will doubtless show Columbia with plenty of company in its practices of invidious ethnic discrimination. The author consciously omitted treatment of the exclusion of women, the use of scholarships to affect admissions' results, and the relations of sports to admissions. Although he briefly discusses admissions in Columbia's professional schools (where a happy note is struck: The law school seems not to have discriminated against Jewish candidates), this general area is left invitingly untilled. There is still plenty to learn, and this volume makes clear that studying admissions is an exceptionally fruitful way to place academic history in its social setting.