Assessing Admissions

Why gaining access to elite universities is such sharply contested ground

In his new book, The Chosen, Jerome Karabel ’72, Ph.D. ’77, offers a provocative account of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale from the late 1800s to the present—a period when the “Big Three” were transformed by the addition of representative numbers of women, minorities, and others who could never have enrolled before. Such a dramatic shift warrants explanation, and two decades of original research uniquely qualify Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, to provide it.

At heart, The Chosen is a great story. Karabel brings life to a century’s worth of faculty meetings and administrative maneuvering, providing an account that is both entertaining and authoritative. He also reveals many dirty secrets of the admissions process: primarily that the definition of “merit” was slanted in the past to ensure a sufficient number of “paying guests” for the universities to thrive financially. This will disquiet readers—particularly graduates of the Big Three—because of its clear implication that the admissions process is suspect, rather than sacrosanct.

Karabel intends his retelling as social criticism, arguing that “admissions policy tends to reflect power relations between major social groups.” To support this thesis, the history described in The Chosen parallels the social his-tory of the United States, warts and all. As recently as the 1950s, racism and anti-Semitism seethed beneath the veneer of ostensibly egalitarian practices. All three of the colleges changed their rules in the 1920s to limit Jewish enrollment; Princeton was so lily-white that, when it unwittingly admitted a black student in 1939, its admissions director told him not to enroll when he arrived on campus. Eventually, the civil-rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s led these colleges to remove restrictions, paving the way for the diverse student bodies that we have come to expect today.

Karabel views the 1920s as the watershed moment when the current process of discretionary review was institutionalized. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were all worried that they would suffer from “WASP flight” (which had overwhelmed Columbia and Penn) if they did not find some way to limit Jewish enrollment. All three introduced a system of holistic review that gave their admissions offices discretion to reject applicants with impeccable academic qualifications; no other system could have limited Jewish enrollment at that time. Today, when the black mark of anti-Semitism is long gone from admissions practices, a system of holistic review and admissions discretion remains firmly in place—and Karabel finds it particularly intriguing that it is now essential to the maintenance of affirmative action, as discussed below.

Karabel originally explored these issues in a brilliant academic article published in 1984, “Status Group Struggle, Organizational Interests, and the Limits of Institutional Autonomy: The Transformation of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1918-1940.” That article quantified the extraordinary dependence of the Big Three on a handful of feeder schools. In 1930, nearly two-thirds of the graduates of 12 prominent preparatory schools attended one of the Big Three, and these students comprised more than one-quarter of the entering classes at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Karabel’s 1984 article also documented the purposeful changes in their admissions processes made by the Big Three to exclude Jewish applicants during this period, and connected these changes to sociological theories of class struggle. One disappointing feature of The Chosen is that it devotes limited attention to these sociological underpinnings, even though Karabel’s 1984 article provides a detailed and nuanced discussion of these themes. Without this grounding, his assertions in the book sometimes come across as oversimplified.

Two other weaknesses stand out. First, Karabel devotes considerable attention to the straw-man theory that today’s admissions decisions might be based solely on academic qualifications if the anti-Semitism of the 1920s had not prompted the Big Three to endow their admissions of-fices with institutional discretion. The argument is based on the fallacy that admissions offices exercised no particular discretion prior to 1920, when the Big Three were technically open to all students who could pass a set of entrance exams. But Karabel’s own research undercuts this argument. As he explains, more than half the students who enrolled before 1920 under the examination system were admitted “with qualifications,” meaning that they did not actually pass all of the exams.

The real change in the 1920s, therefore, was that the nature of admissions discretion changed from inclusion of applicants who did not meet stated academic criteria to exclusion of applicants who did. While this transition was important, it is impossible to imagine that any other system could have prevailed. First, it would have undercut the interests of universities to adopt a system based only on academic criteria, for this would have limited enrollment by the wealthy applicants they hoped to attract. Second, had any one university adopted such a system, it would immediately have been imperiled by competition from its rivals. Finally, it is not clear that an admissions system based solely on academic criteria, with no discretion for admissions officers, would have identified the most promising students in the 1920s: Karabel’s 1984 article cites a 30-year follow-up study of Yale students admitted from 1927 to 1933: “the most successful businessmen were found among the ranks of the alumni with the worst scholarship records.”

A second weakness is that admissions theories based on social movements and class struggle—those emphasized by Karabel—appear to be of limited relevance for recent history, and the book devotes only two of 17 historical chapters to the past 30 years. Among the main developments in admissions in this period have been: 1) a dramatic rise in the number of applicants to the Big Three and other selective colleges (Harvard received 11,000 applications for the class of 1980 and today receives more than 20,000 applications each year) and the related increase in early applications to these colleges; 2) the rapid rise in prominence of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which in turn has increased the need for universities to compete to improve their positions; and 3) the growth of university endowments during the 1990s, which have supported the maintenance and expansion of need-blind admissions policies. Apart from two Supreme Court decisions that upheld the legality of affirmative-action programs at Harvard and other selective colleges, these developments are quite detached from the social movements emphasized throughout The Chosen. And even the admission of women to the Big Three was driven more by competition than by any social movement. As Karabel summarizes, “unless Yale wished to fall even further behind Harvard, it had no choice but to admit women.”

The last chapter of The Chosen makes a more concerted effort to link the history of the past century to present-day admissions issues, but even so, this link remains tenuous. Although he proposes four reforms to modern admissions practices (emphasizing policies that favor applicants from low-income backgrounds and reducing the existing preferences for alum-ni children, athletes, and early applicants), Karabel confesses that, “Taken together, these four measures would bring the Big Three a bit more into conformity with their professed ideals, but would not dramatically transform them.”


Even though it does not provide all of the answers, The Chosen prompts a number of essential questions about selective college admissions.

How did the Big Three maintain their positions?

Karabel does not answer the most striking question about the Big Three: how have Harvard, Princeton, and Yale maintained their preeminence for more than a century? The Chosen provides examples of mistakes made elsewhere—e.g., the University of Chicago’s decision to eliminate its football team—but does not explain what actions a university must take to maintain stature over time. What positive role, if any, did admissions policy play in maintaining the predominance of the Big Three?

What are the constraints on admissions offices?

From the perspective of applicants, an Ivy League admissions office is unsupervised and all powerful. There is no appeal process (except perhaps for litigation) for disappointed applicants—and thus no way for them to know if they were rejected for good reason, by whim, or as part of some sinister conspiracy. But The Chosen paints exactly the opposite picture. The book quotes Kingman Brewster, president of Yale from 1963 to 1977, saying, “The dean of admissions at any first-rate university college has the toughest job of anyone in the society.” Karabel also cites John Osander, former director of admission at Princeton: “…the pressures on the admission office from various special-interest groups continue somewhat uniformly: faculty, alumni, coaches, parents, school principals or headmasters, may lobby from different points of view, but all do so against each other in competition for a set number of places.…what is referred to as admission ‘policy’ is actually a slowly evolving set of practices to more or less seem to balance, or at least satisfy, a variety of pressures.”

The history Karabel recounts indicates that administrators who fail to balance these pressures are at risk of losing their jobs. A misstep that alienates any of these groups, particularly the alumni, can lead quickly to a financial crisis, as experienced by Princeton in 1910, when Wood-row Wilson attempted to eliminate its dis-tinctive eating clubs, and by Yale in the early 1970s, after it changed its admissions paradigm to limit its dependence on alumni children and prep-school graduates.

Cynics might argue that university decisions always come down to money. But competition is an important factor that is not directly related to bank balances. Clearly the need for each of the Big Three to outdo the others is never very far from the minds of administrators and admissions offices.

How are the constraints on admissions offices eased when university finances improve?

The Chosen asserts that pressures on the admissions office shrink for colleges that experience dramatic growth in their endowments. Karabel finds a direct connection between university finances and need-blind admissions: as recently as 1993, Yale did not have the funds to admit all qualified international applicants. No doubt, Harvard’s financial-aid initiative for low-income students (see “Class-Conscious Financial Aid,” May-June 2004, page 62) and similar reforms at Princeton and Yale would not have been possible without the recent upturn in investment performance for all three schools.

But a healthy bank balance does not completely remove alumni power over the purse: despite its record endowment, Harvard’s plans for future expansion still rely heavily on donations. In addition, the Big Three rely on alumni in many ways that are not explicitly financial, notably as volunteers who interview applicants and oversee various aspects of university administration through visiting committees. This leaves an open question: apart from need-blind admissions, how does the university’s endowment affect the admissions office?

How should the admissions office define merit?

As described in The Chosen, there are three distinct elements of merit in student applications: 1) intellectual capacity; 2) character and potential for leadership; and 3) diversity. Kingman Brewster observed that these definitions frequently clash: “It is the fate of Presidents as well as Deans of Admission to have to bear the brunt of a two-front war. On one flank will be urged upon us men of high character and low intellect; on the other will be pressed the cause of young men of high intellect and moral callousness.”

Karabel documents a shift from emphasis on character to emphasis on intellectual qualifications in the post-Sputnik era. The result was an increase in academic credentials for students at the Big Three, and also a shift in demographics. As he writes, “In 1956, the sons of business executives (22 percent of all freshmen) outnumbered the sons of professors (5 percent) by a ratio of more than 4 to 1; in 1976, the sons of professors—who constituted perhaps one-half of one percent of the American labor force—made up more than 12 percent of Harvard freshmen, compared to 14 percent for the sons of business executives.” But how can we know if these changes are desirable?

The Chosen documents consistent ambivalence by the Big Three toward brilliant but narrowly focused applicants. Wilbur Bender, admissions director of Harvard from 1953 to 1960, summarized this view: “Do we really want a college in which practically everyone [is] headed for a career as a scholar, scientist, college teacher, or research doctor?”

As Bender and others have observed, neither Franklin D. Roosevelt nor John F. Kennedy nor many others among the Big Three’s most accomplished graduates would probably have been admitted had they been evaluated only on academic qualifications. Herein lies the dilemma of the admissions office. It is much easier to identify future academic superstars than future political leaders from their college applications—but the payoff from admitting the latter is much greater. So what is the right balance between intellectualism and leadership potential?

Can the admissions office transcend the flaws of an unjust society?

One goal of admissions is to identify students who will make the greatest contribution to society if admitted. But if society does not offer equal opportunities to all, then the most impressive applicants may not be those most likely to become leaders in the (unjust) society.

Karabel describes the historically discriminatory policies of the Big Three as the “realpolitik” of admissions: it may not have been fair for the Big Three to admit nearly every prep-school student who applied, but it was certainly beneficial to these institutions to do so. Though clearly repelled by the exclusion of Jews during the 1920s and 1930s, Karabel observed in his 1984 article that “even prejudice-free administrators whose sole concern was to maximize organizational interests would have been under enormous pressure to do the same thing.”

His description of Yale’s decision to admit women echoes a similar conflict: “Yale’s admissions policy…embodied an uneasy compromise between two competing logics: an educated guess about who would be in the elite of the future and a determination about who should be in this elite. In the case of women, these two logics were on a clear collision course. Even those female applicants with outstanding ‘merit’…were less likely to become leaders than men with weaker qualifications, given the existing patterns of power in business and government.”

This discussion raises larger questions. If women, by choice or by societal limitations, are less likely to become leaders than men, should Ivy League colleges still aim for equal representation by gender? (I intentionally choose a farfetched example to highlight the point.) More generally, can an admissions office retain idealistic policies if society is not consistent with those policies?

Can selective admissions ever provide equal opportunity?

Karabel observes the irony that the same discretionary powers that supported discrimination by admissions offices before World War II now enable them to act progressively. For example, Roland Fryer, a Harvard Junior Fellow, and two coauthors recently estimated that five times as many black students are enrolled in selective colleges as would be under “race neutral” policies, an estimate that is consistent with discussion of affirmative action in The Chosen.

The problem is that if an admissions office used any single scale to evaluate applicants, it would not enroll a representative group of students. Karabel observes: “[B]y conventional definitions, the privileged are the meritorious; of all students nationwide scoring over 1300 on the SAT, 66 percent come from the top socioeconomic quartile and only 3 percent from the bottom quartile.” This is not to say that privileged applicants are the most qualified, but simply that they have the means and the wherewithal to excel in terms of any known measure of merit. As Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers commented in 2004, “Many very talented students from low- and middle-income families cannot compete with their more auent peers in the apparent level of cultural or athletic extracurricular pursuits reflected in their college applications.”

Thus, an enduring question: does the ideal of admitting the most outstanding applicants clash with the ideal of providing equal opportunity to all?

Should admissions offices be subject to oversight and regulation?

The Chosen laments that “in recent decades, as inequality has grown and insurgent movements have receded, the pressure to further incorporate the disadvantaged has waned at the same time that the efforts of the privileged to maintain their privileges have intensified.” For these reasons, Karabel suggests that reforms—such as requiring colleges to “disclose the admissions rates of legacies and nonlegacies”—are necessary to promote class diversity at selective colleges.

But The Chosen also highlights one example that undercuts this view. Despite “little political mobilization in recent decades on the issue of class inequality,” Karabel notes that Harvard’s long-serving admissions dean, William R. Fitzsimmons, has been speaking out on this issue for many years. Fitzsimmons first wrote about the importance of enrolling students from all walks of life in 1982: “Prospective students from modest economic backgrounds must not come to feel that Harvard and Radcliffe are closed to them.” The 2004 financial-aid initiative helped dispel those concerns.

The remaining question is: Can we trust admissions offices to continue to introduce progressive reforms without legislation and regulatory oversight?

Admission to elite colleges and universities matters deeply—to parents, to students, and, in a real sense, to society at large. That concern fuels attempts to game the admissions process, a burgeoning industry of SAT-preparatory programs and private college counselors, and recurrent debate. Given the highly charged environment that accompanies a world where the Big Three reject nearly 10 applicants for each one they admit, The Chosen provides an important reminder that there is no single definition of “merit,” that admissions decisions are necessarily subjective, and that current admissions mandates and processes are the result of years of controversy and struggle both inside and outside Ivy walls. Jerome Karabel has brought his years of scholarship together in an indispensable history that will leave readers appropriately unsettled, for the practical and philosophical questions The Chosen raises are fundamental and yet inherently unanswerable. It is rare to find a book that is so well researched, so readable, and of such broad interest.


Christopher Avery ’88 is Larsen professor of public policy and management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and coauthor of The Early Admissions Game (see “Entering the Elite,” May-June 2003, page 15).


You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

The Placebo Phenomenon

An ingenious researcher finds the real ingredients of “fake” medicine.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets