Karabel talks admissions

At the turn of the twentieth century, the only official criterion Yale and other Ivy League universities used to grant admission was a student’s performance on a standardized entrance examination. But in the 1920s, these universities began to consider other factors when making admissions decisions — a change made to limit the number of Jewish students studying at elite schools, according to Jerome Karabel.

Karabel discussed this theory and other issues raised in his book “The Chosen” with a crowd of about 25 students, faculty and community members Tuesday night at the Yale Bookstore. In his book, Karabel, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, chronicles the history of admissions at the “Big Three” — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — from the past century.

“Looking at the history of admissions policies at America’s elite universities provides a lens to look at the development of the elite in America,” Karabel said.

Some of Karabel’s findings — including his claim that elite universities changed their admissions policies to “solve the Jewish problem” — stirred controversy among those in attendance.

“At the turn of the century, academic standards were low [at the Big Three],” Karabel said. “[When universities] increased their standards, socially undesirable people, namely Jews, started getting admitted.”

Karabel said the increased presence of Jews caused a “crisis” among university administrators.

“One Yale dean complained, ‘There are too many Jews. We must ban the Jews,’” Karabel said.

After the Big Three’s initial attempt to limit the number of Jewish students by setting quotas prompted a “huge public outcry,” elite universities created a “flexible” system of admission, which emphasized nonacademic criteria such as an applicant’s “character,” Karabel said.

Karabel said this flexibility permitted the Big Three to exert more control over whom they admitted, enabling them to accept fewer Jewish students.

“The genius of this system is that it allowed colleges to admit and reject whomever they wanted,” Karabel said.

While the Big Three’s current admissions processes are not as discriminatory as they once were, they still depend on “opacity and discretion,” Karabel said.

Karabel commended Yale’s current administration for being “very open with information” concerning its past admissions practices.

“Yale has come to terms with its history,” Karabel said.

Hong Tao GRD ’09 said she believed Karabel’s research was relevant to her personal experience with university admissions.

“This is a very interesting topic for me,” Tao said. “I’m Chinese, so I wanted to hear whether the history of admissions discrimination might suggest something about the exclusion of Chinese students from Yale and other universities.”

Yale College Council President Steven Syverud ’06, who was in attendance at the talk, praised Karabel’s research, which he said is bound to raise debate.

“It’s amazing work,” Syverud said. “It’s really revealing.”

But Diane Martinez ’05 EPH ’07 said she found flaws in Karabel’s argument.

“He completely contradicted himself,” Martinez said. “First he said he preferred the exam-based admission [from the turn of the century] to the policies of the 1920s. Then he said you can’t rely solely on admissions exams. I don’t understand his argument.”

Jason Blau ’08 said that as a Jewish student at Yale, he found Karabel’s research especially significant.

“I am extremely proud of Yale’s Jewish community,” Blau said. “It gives me pride in a sick way to know that they tried to keep us out and we’re here anyway.”

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