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Qualifications For Sale

How what WASPs like and tend to do became our criteria for deciding who does and does not get into college.

In my last post, I argued that we need to look more seriously at the class composition of colleges. The idea is a rather simple one: The present system, wherein about half the students who go to the Ivy League are from the richest 5 percent of American families, is unfair. It helps perpetuate inequality, and inequality is bad for a nation (more on this in a later).

But, you might argue, aren’t those students who get into colleges just better qualified, well-rounded students? And don’t we want better students to receive the enormous investment of a top-rate education? Won’t that serve the greater social good?

The answer to these questions is yes. The catch is what counts as a “qualification.” While a high SAT score matters for college admission, your SAT score is only a weak predictor of your first semester in college. Beyond that, it’s fairly useless at figuring out how a student will do. This reveals something interesting about fairness and merit: There is always a standard. But that standard did not come down from above, through some kind of magical objectivity that tells us what really counts as valuable. Instead it was manufactured. And the history of that making is important—it helps reveal just how artificial and problematic our standards can be. We can see this clearly when we look at where the SAT and the idea of a “well-rounded student” came from.

To thank for the SAT, we have Henry Chauncey, a descendant of Puritan ministers who arrived in this country in the 1630s. His family were firmly part of the American WASP establishment; they were among the very first students at the Groton School, one of the nation’s premier boarding schools, and Chauncey himself was a graduate of and later dean at Harvard. Chauncey’s sense of noblesse oblige led him to argue for a more equal, or meritorious, elite. Creating that class required a better instrument for judging students. And so the SAT was born.

At its core, “meritocracy” is a form of social engineering, aimed at identifying the talents of members of society so that individuals can be selected for appropriate opportunities. In the case of the SAT, this means evaluating particular mathematics, reading, writing, and vocabulary skills—and then using those as predictors of academic ability. Rather than accept students because of their heritage, this new system sought to reward people’s inherent, individual talents. When meritocracy began to make its way into college admissions, then dean of Harvard admissions, Wilbur Bender, worried: “Are there any good ways of identifying and measuring goodness, humanity, character, warmth, enthusiasm, responsibility, vitality, creativity, independence, heterosexuality, etc., etc., or should we care about these anyhow?”

As Jerome Karabel has shown in The Chosen, many of these traits were used as proxies for elite status. This reveals the underbelly of our present admissions criteria—hence, “the well-rounded individual.” At the turn of the century, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton chose to give up on pure academic performance as standards for admission and instead focus on something more varied, ambiguous, and amorphous as “character.” The reason being deep anti-Semitism.

In the early 20th-century, the children of Jewish migrants were academically thriving and their success was allowing them access to the most prominent schools in the nation. The schools that had served as training grounds for established, wealthy Protestant families largely despised the increasing presence of Jews and sought to find ways to exclude them. The solution was to de-emphasize academic credentials and focus instead on the personal traits that tended to be found among WASPs.

Gradually, “a good or interesting character” was introduced to the college admissions process, and what made someone interesting tended to be defined by what WASPs liked and tended to do. For non-WASPs these character traits were costly to acquire. And rather unfortunately, this is still the case today.

As Mitchell Stevens has shown in his own work, Creating a Class, schools across the nation continue to focus on character. And what was once rooted in exclusion is now mobilized to celebrate the triumph of diversity in the higher levels of educational institutions. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny that elite schools are far more diverse than they once were. But we must also think of the ways selection based on “character” continues to help students from elite schools as they are given more opportunities to develop “interesting characters” through the wide range of activities that are a central part of their everyday schooling.

On a budget of $8,000 per pupil, most high schools cannot provide music, painting, photography, sculpture, and dance programs; they cannot have seemingly countless clubs for students to join, from literary, philosophical, and language societies to science teams that build robots and observe the heavens from their own observatory. Most high schools have trouble covering a basic curriculum. Further, most kids cannot look to their parents to help them purchase these traits.

But on a budget of around $80,000 per pupil, as some private schools have, or with familial wealth to purchase “qualifications” that make you interesting, the wealthy can do much more. Just as the SAT is not an aptitude test, but instead one wherein higher scores can be purchased through private training programs, so too can "character” be bought.

Hiking Kilimanjaro, not having to work for a summer to start a non-profit, being able to develop an interest in astronomy because of access to summer camp—all of these things make you interesting and therefore more likely to be admitted to college. But you know what else they make you? Rich. And what’s most nefarious about all of this is that the system is defined as “meritorious,” or fair.

So what’s a better system? I have one word for you, friends. And you’re not going to like it: Texas. Stay tuned until next week.

Illustration by Will Etling

Shamus Khan is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School.

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