Should college students gain admission based on academic merit—or who their parents are? That question has become more pertinent than ever with the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of affirmative action and the Department of Education’s announcement of a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s preferential treatment of “legacy” students with family connections.
Although it may seem like a modern problem, it’s only been about a century since U.S. colleges and universities began factoring family relationships and other criteria like extracurricular activities, interviews, and standardized test scores into their admissions decisions. These policies, it turns out, are rooted in anti-Semitic attitudes that aimed to keep Jewish students out of elite schools.
Here’s how anti-Jewish discrimination fueled modern college admissions—long before affirmative action ever existed.
Training grounds for society’s elite
Before the late 19th century, a college education was largely out of reach for anyone but wealthy Protestants, who founded universities and colleges to prepare their sons for cultural and community leadership. Though these institutions extended preferential treatment to the sons of previous graduates, their entrance requirements were relatively lax. In a time before widespread public education, few who could afford to pay were turned away.
But beginning in the 1840s, the makeup of American society changed with waves of immigration that brought Catholics and Jews into the country in large numbers. As these emigrants flooded into the nation, write sociologists Deborah L. Coe and James D. Davidson, their presence threatened white Protestant groups who had previously dominated mainstream culture.
“As a result,” Coe and Davidson write, “anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiments found their way into a variety of mechanisms that were created in response to the undesirable demographic changes.” This soon filtered into college admissions too.
Catholics quickly founded their own universities and encouraged members of their religion to attend them. So it was Jewish college enrollment that generated special concern at predominantly Protestant institutions.
Panic over 'undesirable' college applicants
Institutions historically tolerated some Jewish students, but only those whom officials felt had the proper class standing and had appropriately “assimilated” into mainstream American culture.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newer arrivals from majority Jewish enclaves didn’t fit that mold, so elite Protestants attempted to close ranks. University officials who bought into longstanding stereotypes of Jews as clannish, conniving, and socially undesirable worried that admitting Jews would taint the reputation of the schools. Plus, they disliked the idea of their sons being educated alongside them.
No longer was mere money sufficient for acceptance into elite social circles. As historian John Higham writes, Protestant elites of the era “grasped at social distinctions that were more than pecuniary,” including “the cult of genealogy.” Suddenly, institutions including social clubs, sports organizations, prep schools, and even neighborhoods emphasized family connections as part of the price of entry—shutting Jews out by default.
It was no different in higher education, where leaders were alarmed by rising Jewish enrollment. In response, they began to brainstorm how to limit Jewish applicants without endangering public funding or damaging their reputations.
Elite universities’ anti-Semitic legacy
Yale University was one of those institutions. “There seems to be no question that the University as a whole has about all of this race that it can well handle,” wrote Robert Nelson Corwin, Yale’s admissions chairman, in 1922. Though Jewish students showed the same academic achievement as their counterparts, Corwin wrote, “members of this race…graduate from college as alien in morals and manners as they were upon admission.”
He recommended that Yale implement “non-intellectual requirements,” including letters of recommendation, in-person interviews, and psychological testing, to limit its number of Jews.
Corwin was far from alone. From Harvard to Rutgers, Columbia to Tufts, elite colleges and universities began trying anything and everything to control the makeup of their student bodies. Some implemented quotas to limit the number of Jews in new classes. Others focused recruiting in areas they knew had lower populations of Jews, and began looking more closely at extracurricular activities that indicated the social class and religion of applicants. More admissions requirements meant more reasons to turn down students—and a way to mask anti-Semitic school policies.
When Jews won more academic scholarships, schools like Harvard and Yale discontinued them in favor of financial aid. They also embraced the new field of psychological testing, offering tests that measured aptitude and not achievement, such as the Thorndike Tests for Mental Alertness.
“The primitive and biased tests effectively reduced Jewish enrollment [at Columbia] by half,” write education historians Jim Horn and Denise Wilburn, noting that many such tests were developed by eugenicists in search of “a purportedly objective way to quantify the structural racism of the day and to have it accepted as scientific.”
Another new requirement was so common it became almost ubiquitous during the period: the photograph. Historian Marianne R. Sanua writes that at Columbia, one fraternity publication satirically recommended that to get around newly tightened admissions requirements, applicants should dye their hair blonde, pretend they were taller, and have photos taken that downplayed stereotypically “Jewish” facial features.
Finally, higher education institutions also implemented internal legacy admissions policies, actively recruiting relatives of alumni and offering them a leg up on other applicants.
“All properly qualified sons of Dartmouth alumni and Dartmouth College officers will be accepted,” wrote Dartmouth College in its alumni magazine in 1922. The school also required applicants to submit multiple letters from Dartmouth alumni, promising that it would prioritize “men who plainly possess the qualities of leadership or qualities of outstanding promise” over those “qualified by high scholarship ranks but with no evidence of positive qualities otherwise.”
The persistence of legacy admissions
As anti-Jewish sentiment became less mainstream in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust and with the rise of the civil rights movement, many universities phased out their more overtly anti-Semitic policies. But many of the restrictions put in place to limit Jewish applicants stuck. Standardized testing and interviews are still common requirements for college admissions, and today’s institutions of higher learning still admit more wealthy students.
One recent analysis found that children from the top 0.1 percent income bracket are more than twice as likely to gain admission to Ivy League schools compared to poorer students with the same test scores—and that 46 percent of their advantage can be attributed to admissions policies that extend preferential treatment to “legacy” students.
Despite some institutions like Amherst, Johns Hopkins, and Wesleyan announcing that they’ve abandoning the practice, the system is still common today. In a 2018 survey by Inside Higher Education, 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said legacy status is a factor in their admissions process, compared to 6 percent at public institutions.
Among those institutions is Harvard, whose legacy admissions policy is now facing scrutiny by federal civil rights investigators. The Harvard Crimson reports that among its 2022 freshman class, more than 14 percent surveyed said they were legacy students, and self-reported legacies were likelier to be white. Over a third with one or more parents who attended Harvard reported a combined family income of $500,000 a year or more.
Will legacy admissions go the way of affirmative action? Until the results of the Department of Education’s reported investigation become clear, there’s no way of knowing. But many of the policies once implemented to keep Jews out of higher education in the U.S. are likely to persist.