College admission process seeks to shed racist roots

Emma Pettit

This past Thursday, Brian Galloway, Director of Student Retention Services at the University, gave a lecture on a subject all students are familiar with: the college admissions process. The talk focused on a book titled “The Chosen,” by Jerome Karabel and was part of The Freedom School lecture series given by faculty across campus on race-based topics in honor of MLK Day. The students in the audience were well aware of the facets of the Common Application (two freshmen indicated they had applied to an overwhelming 19 schools this past year). However, few were familiar with Galloway’s main point: most items required on college applications were originally established to keep Jewish people out of higher education. 

Galloway explained that until the beginning of the 20th century, students applying to colleges such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale often took entrance exams in Latin, Greek and sometimes mathematics. There was no limit on the amount of times a student could take the exam, and if a student passed the minimum score, they were admitted. “That was really the extent of the admissions process,” Galloway said. No interview, no letters of recommendation, nothing except those test scores were required.

Presumably, this process would have continued if it had not been for the massive increase in immigration. Between the 1880s and the middle of the 1920s, 2.8 million Eastern European Jews settled in northeastern America. By the beginning of the 1900s, these immigrant parents had their children earning seats at elite colleges around the country. They were so successful that at one point, Jews made up 25 percent of Columbia’s student population.

“This was really perturbing to administrators and to alumni,” Galloway said. He described a phenomenon known as WASP flight: the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants that had been the primary donors to these elite schools were fleeing to less-Jewish institutions. And with them went their money. As a solution to this problem, schools like Columbia and eventually Harvard, Princeton and Yale, began to get creative.

“This was the first time we started thinking about limiting people from going to college,” Galloway said. “They (the colleges) thought, ‘Why don’t we start to think about other ways that these students could get admitted.’” So universities began to ask for the applicant’s mother’s maiden name and their father’s occupation to see if they seemed Jewish. If they did, they were not admitted. Interviews came into fashion to see if a student looked Jewish. Students were required to list their alumni connections, a task that would benefit non-Jews. They had to submit letters of recommendation, write essays, attach photographs of themselves and were even required to state their religion. All of these things were added to the application process for the sole purpose of eliminating Jews from higher education. Other institutions began to observe what these elite colleges were doing and followed suit.

Thankfully, someone brought this issue to light in the 1960s. Colleges and their admissions departments realized they were denying some of the best and brightest because of a discriminatory standard. Hence the advent of what is known today as Affirmative Action. Since then, the factors used by college admissions departments to weed out students began to be used to diversify the student body. 

However, Galloway encourages students to be aware of the dark past of collegiate admissions. “Many things we take for granted or accept on the Common Application stem from these racist roots,” Galloway said. Indeed most of these things mentioned—the essay, letters of recommendation, interviews—are encouraged, if not required, in the college application process today. 

This is also not to say that the issue between college admissions and race is settled. Galloway pointed out that a lawsuit was filed against Harvard this past year claiming that Asian American students have to average a considerably higher score on the SAT and ACT than their white counterparts to be admitted. An Asian American student in the audience elaborated on the point and said she felt hesitant to mark her race on her college applications. “I felt maybe I would be put into a different pool and measured against a different standard,” she said. “I kind of felt like it was working against me.”

The relationship between race and college admissions is still being defined on college campuses across the United States. This University is no different. When speaking to Michael M. Gaynor, Director of University Admissions, about the racial stereotype of “Vanilla-nova” students being mainly white, he stated, “I’d be less than honest if I said I had never heard that before.” But Gaynor was also quick to mention that the stereotype is incorrect. “It’s a perception from the past that I don’t think rings true today on campus.” Gaynor explained that University Admissions looks at diversity in three ways: financial need students, first-generation students and multi-cultural students. According to Gaynor, 23 percent of students here are international students or students of color, 13 percent are first-generation college students and 12 percent are students from families whose income is less than the value of the university’s annual tuition. 

Like Galloway, Gaynor believes it is important to draw on the past experience of racial diversity to have an accurate portrayal of the present. 

“We are so much further down the track than we were when I began here in 1982,” Gaynor said. “But there isn’t a finish line.” Galloway echoed  a similar sentiment: “The college admission process is supposed to be a force for good, a force for upward mobility, and a force for opportunity…but it’s not a perfect process.”