The Diversity of College Diversity

John R. Thelin is University Research Professor in Higher Education & Public Policy at the University of Kentucky.  He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The New York Times ran a story on June 14 about diversity in admissions to selective colleges, focusing on students “gaming” the system when some applicants reported their racial and ethnic background.  Having a parent who is African-American, for example, was attractive to a dean of admissions interested in enrolling a diverse entering class.  The high-stakes contest becomes tricky when a high school senior whose heritage is a mix of Asian and Black has to come to grips with a strategy emphasizing one legacy while down-playing another.

What a difference a century makes!  A hundred years ago diversity in American higher education was usually approached via a strategy of accommodation and segregation—as distinguished from today’s emphasis on diversity within a campus.  In 1900 it meant that American colleges and universities were diverse in the aggregate since each interest group created its own institutions.  A college might be exclusive in gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.  Women’s colleges, men’s colleges, black colleges, and denominational colleges were the norm.  Furthermore, as sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman way back in 1968, colleges officially defined by religious affiliation often broke down along ethnic lines.  A Lutheran college tended to enroll children of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia; a Catholic college was college of choice for Irish, Italian, and Slavic students.  Presbyterian colleges were founded by and filled with Scots.  Perhaps the single best illustration of this American arrangement of diversity by exclusion came about when it was challenged.  Joseph Kennedy, famous as the founding father of the Kennedy dynasty, perplexed both his own Irish Catholic family and the Boston Brahmins when he insisted on going to Harvard rather than Holy Cross.  For the ambitious young Kennedy, the choice was clear and compelling: he wanted success as a member of prestigious and exclusive institutions—namely, the classrooms and boardrooms of the WASP establishment.

The prospect of outsiders becoming insiders by enrolling at Yale or Princeton started to change the rules of the college game after World War I.  “Selective admissions” did not necessarily favor students with strong academic records.  More often than not meant that what we now call Ivy League institutions used detailed applications to gather information that allowed a dean of admissions to exclude or limit minorities.  Asking a high school senior to include a reference letter from clergy, for example, quickly could alert a dean as to the applicant’s religion and/or ethnicity.  It was the same information gathered today, but for the opposite goal of denying or containing racial and ethnic diversity.  What is most interesting about the admissions quotas that surfaced in the 1920s was that they tended to appear in those universities that were the most diverse—historic East Coast urban universities which heretofore had accommodated a growing number of applications simply by expanding the size of the entering class.  The problem with this strategy was that ultimately it stretched campus facilities like dormitories and classroom space, and the growing size and diversity meant that a dean no longer could count on cohesion within the student body.  Splintering into cliques was likely to take place at Columbia, where enrollment by Jewish students whose families recently arrived from Eastern Europe surpassed 20 percent of the undergraduate body.  To make matters worse, these newcomers often were commuters and “grinds” —the odd men out according to historian Helen Horowitz’s typology of “college men” as the homogenous power core within a campus culture.

In the landmark 1978 University of California Regents vs. Bakke ruling by the Supreme Court, Justice Lewis Powell lectured the nation’s colleges to pay attention to modern Harvard in selecting the “brightest and the best” from a racially diverse pool of strong academic applicants.  This was bittersweet advice to presidents and deans at colleges who were far removed from Harvard’s advantages of wealth and heritage.  Nonetheless, Justice Powell’s perspective has for the past four decades set the tone and standard that any college who has more applicants than admission slots should consider racial, ethnic, and religious diversity—at very least within the bounds of applicants who have academic credentials commensurate with the institutional profile.  In other words, when an admissions office has to choose to admit two students from a pool of ten students, diversity (along with other prized attributes) can be a deal maker.

Is it wrong that an applicant might gain an edge in self-reporting a particular minority identity?  That’s a good (and hard) question because “gaming” is in the vague land that is not necessarily illegal or even unethical.  Furthermore, college officials fill out the survey forms for  the U.S. government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or, to another extreme, the U.S. News and World Report ratings,  are hardly strangers to the lure of “gaming” their own profiles.  So, if the institution can respond to the compliance and rankings criteria, why fault savvy applicants in their high-stakes strategies for prestigious college admissions?

I present this more as a question for deliberation rather than as an answer.  The New York Times profiled Rice University and Emory University, a welcome departure from the paper’s ubiquitous visits to the Harvard admissions office.   Ironically, as found by such historians Melissa Kean and Nancy Diamond, the academically elite private universities of the South—Rice, Emory, Vanderbilt, Tulane and Duke—demonstrated an institutional record of deliberate foot-dragging in the 1950s and 1960s as calls poured in for the schools to end their racially-exclusive admissions policies.  At that time, their trustees and presidents viewed any initiative for racial diversity as a nuisance in the quest for academic stature.  In fact, the private universities lagged behind the state universities of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky in adopting racial desegregation.  So, although it is good news to learn that Rice and Emory have come to their senses, we also need to remember that their “doing the right thing” was neither prompt nor inevitable.

Deliberations about college admissions now rival baseball as our national pastime.  Still, amidst all this competition and furor, we would do well to remember that only a small number of colleges and universities have the luxury of selective admissions among a pool of academically strong candidates.

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