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'The Power of Privilege'

'The Power of Privilege'
April 11, 2007

Conventional wisdom and plenty of books tell a story of how the post-World War II years saw a great shift take place in elite higher education: As a result of the G.I. Bill, the civil rights and women's movements, changing demographics, and some forward thinking academic leaders, you no longer needed to have the right ancestors and the right prep school to get into the top universities. Meritocracy emerged as a dominant force. The bureaucracy of college admissions -- and particularly the role of standardized testing -- grew, in part to make it possible for students who never attended Choate or Andover to aspire to Harvard and Yale.

A book just released by Stanford University Press challenges that perspective head on. In The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges, Joseph A. Soares, an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, writes that much of what is seen as opening up American higher education was actually the result of looking for new ways (albeit with mixed success) to keep the elite elite (and WASPy). Using material from college and other archives, Soares argues that the meritocratic impulse was much weaker than is commonly believed. And he argues that a better understanding of what did and did not change in the 1960s at elite universities suggests reforms of admissions that are needed today.

The Power of Privilege in many ways runs counter to the image Yale and similar institutions have for themselves today -- of having moved past their more class-conscious roots. The book notes specific policies (preferences for athletes and alumni children, for example) that have been used to keep Yale and other universities a certain way. And the book argues that the SAT -- proclaimed as a meritocratic tool by those who introduced it and supported it over the years -- was pushed with the explicit aim of having a "scientific" justification for limiting the enrollment of Jewish students.

Soares has become something of an expert on the social transformations of universities. His first book, also from Stanford, was The Decline of Privilege: The Modernization of Oxford University, which traced the way Oxford evolved from its Brideshead Revisited image to an institution that had meritocratic values. In an interview, Soares said he wanted to do an American companion and started off assuming he would find the same sort of evolution in the United States. But with a focus at Yale, that's not what he found. Given that Yale has described itself repeatedly as having gone through such an evolution, this was surprising to Soares, and he argues that the differences between myth and reality point to important steps for a number of colleges to consider today.

The analysis in the new Soares book is likely to be controversial. A spokesman for Yale said that no officials there had read the book or were prepared to do so to comment, and at least one author who has studied the similar period of time comes up with different conclusions and questions the thesis of The Power of Privilege.

But that doesn't surprise Soares, who is interested in how the history of higher education doesn't always reflect reality -- and this sometimes makes Yale look better than people imagine. In fact, in his early chapters, one thing Soares explores is the myth that in the pre-1950s era, anyone with good connections could get into Yale. From looking at admissions files -- and the correspondence between Yale officials and disgruntled (typically alumni fathers) of rejected applicants, Soares establishes that even in the "bad old days" of the 1920s to '40s, someone had to be smart to get admitted. Yale regularly turned down socially well connected, but academically inferior, applicants -- much to their fathers' dismay.

The bulk of Soares' book concerns the period after World War II, when Yale experienced a surge in applications -- and a surge in applications from people (many of them Jews) who met the academic qualifications Yale set out, but did not meet the university's social class expectations.

Over time, attention would be focused on black applicants and eventually female applicants (who enrolled as undergraduates in Yale College for the first time in 1969). In the heroic version of this period, Yale leaders -- most notably Kingman Brewster, who served as president from 1963 through 1977 -- stood up to stodgy alumni and protected the interests of good students from a range of backgrounds. There is some truth to that image, Soares writes, crediting Brewster for eliminating the quota system that limited Jewish enrollments (although chiding Brewster for never quite admitting that the system existed) and for not using the anti-Semitic language that can be found in much Yale correspondence of earlier generations of leaders.

But Soares asks how it is that, post-1963, when Yale officially went "need blind" and abandoned limits on students on financial aid, the university didn't become much more diverse than might have been expected. For example, using Yale records, Soares shows that a smaller proportion of students on financial aid enrolled in 2002 than in 1952, and that the percentage hovered around the same level (40 percent) for decades, even as Yale ostensibly changed its policies. Likewise, Yale seemed never to have abandoned an earlier goal of admitting 60 percent of its classes from very high wealth levels, he writes. And again citing Yale data, Soares shows how the percentage of "legacy" students (children of alumni) was higher in 2000 (14 percent) than in 1920 (13 percent) -- although in between those years, it was sometimes much higher.

How is that all those progressive policies didn't result in more low-income students, fewer alumni children and generally a more diverse Yale? Soares focuses on Yale's quest to define "leadership" and to reward that in the admissions process. The SAT became more and more important (if disappointing to Yale) when Jewish students started to score well on the subject matter tests (the predecessors of what are now the SAT II) and it was more difficult to justify rejecting them. Soares describes how Yale officials were frustrated by these good test takers, and talked about how these students might be better at memorizing than thinking, and so forth (much of the rhetoric is remarkably similar to anti-Asian bias heard in some quarters today). Many at Yale hoped the SAT's emphasis on "aptitude" (a word long abandoned now by the College Board) would help the Protestant wealthy elite applicant. Even as Yale boasted about a "scientific" approach to identifying leaders, it kept talking about character in ways that could be defined by the establishment. Soares quotes from Brewster talking about how Yale would try "to go behind the test scoring, behind the grades in order to rely on personal judgment of the people who knew the boy" and for a preference for the "subjective record" over the "testable record."

In essence, Soares writes, these approaches enabled Yale to protect a high number of spots in its classes for children of wealth and privilege. And of course, there were also the athletes.

The emphasis on leadership qualities favored student body presidents and student newspaper editors (and at the schools for which Yale recruited most heavily in those days, that was not a diverse group), but especially athletes. In 1948, 21 percent of new Yale students had varsity letters from high school. But Soares notes that the percentage nearly doubled -- to 39 percent -- by 1966, the height of the period in which Yale's "new" approach to admissions was supposedly aimed at producing a meritocracy. Varsity captains went from 3 to 10 percent of new Yale students during that period.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of journalism at Columbia University, covers much of this same period in his book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, and he thinks Soares is off base. Lemann hasn't read the Soares book and Lemann's research was focused on the archives of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service. He also noted that many of the key players had multiple audiences -- so people pushing for reforms in admissions may not have been fully open about their intention in every communication.

So while Yale leaders "may not have been perfect social reformers," they did enact reforms, Lemann said. And if the goal of Yale admissions was to restrict Jewish enrollments and to keep Yale a preserve for a certain kind of establishment, "seldom has a policy worked so poorly," Lemann said.

Soares acknowledged that Yale is much better than it used to be in its diversity. And Soares, who taught there as a junior professor while he was doing research on the book, said he genuinely enjoyed his time there. (Because Yale had yet to reform its tenure system at the time, Soares said he never considered even the possibility that he would be promoted to tenured professor from the junior ranks, so this book's conclusions have nothing to do with his experience there -- except for the great access he received to records and documents.)

But he think the myths about Yale's supposed shift to meritocracy continue to be present today, and to affect policies today. "I think it is just a myth that these people were ever really about trying to make higher education an academic meritocracy," he said. "They never aimed at that. They understood, even when they were making changes, that they were doing a better job of selecting among their economically privileged clientele. They wanted to select the leadership class."

He noted that when Harvard and Princeton Universities moved to abandon early decision last year -- saying that it favored wealthy applicants, Yale declined to follow. And much of the creativity about financial aid has come from those Yale arch-rivals, not from New Haven.

If colleges more closely understand their histories, Soares said, they might be more likely to adopt truly progressive policies today. His book ends with a series of recommendations along those lines, not just for Yale, but for other elite colleges. He calls for affirmative action policies based on socioeconomic status, a de-emphasis on standardized testing, and the elimination of preferences that defy true meritocracy (such as those for legacies and athletes).

Favoring athletes, he said, makes very little sense if talking about the social mission of higher education. Even at top universities, this has become "the doorway in," and counter to the images many people have of athletics as a pro-diversity force on campuses, most of the beneficiaries are white. "What is it that athletics contributes to higher education? Why is it a part of higher education?" Perhaps showing the impact of his Oxford history, Soares noted that the admissions preferences offered by top American colleges make no sense to educators anywhere else in the world. "At Oxford and Cambridge, you are not going to be admitted just because you are good on the rugby field."

While Soares has experienced the elite of worldwide higher education (writing books about Oxford and Yale, earning his Ph.D. at Harvard), he also speaks from personal experience in talking about the realities that for whatever changes have taken place in higher education, much of it is seen as off limits to many Americans. The first generation in his family to go to college, Soares "bumped around a lot" growing up, while his father was in the Air Force and worked as a construction representative. He ended up at Rutgers University, the only institution to which he applied. "I'm like most people," he said, in not having tried to for the more privileged gates of Yale. "I just applied to one place."

 

 

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