A History of Privilege in American Higher Education

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In 1642, Harvard College held its first commencement. The graduating class consisted of just nine students. It goes without saying that all were white, Christian, and male.

Harvard reinforced the exclusive nature of higher education by not ranking its graduates by their grades or alphabetically. Instead, these elite men crossed the stage "according to the rank their families held in society."

For the next 121 years, Harvard continued to classify its graduates by their family status.

Higher education began as a privileged institution, designed to advance a certain kind of student and exclude others. Although generations have fought to broaden access to colleges and universities, privilege continues to shape higher learning in the 21st century.

College and the "Poor Boy"

Starting in the Middle Ages, Europe's colleges and universities were meant to train the sons of wealthy men for careers in law, medicine, and the church. Higher education had little to offer the sons of cobblers and farmers, who learned the crafts from their fathers. As a result, higher education remained nearly inaccessible to all except wealthy sons for generations.

A 14th-century depiction of a university lecture, including a student who has fallen asleep.
A 14th-century depiction of a university lecture, including a student who has fallen asleep.

Prior to the 20th century, the high cost of higher education was not due to tuition; rather, only the wealthy had the luxury of spending years out of the workforce to pursue an education.

When influential English physicist Isaac Newton wanted to attend the University of Cambridge in the 17th century, his farmer stepfather couldn't foot the bill for his living expenses, leading Newton to pay his way through school by becoming a servant for wealthy students.

Meanwhile, in the American colonies, Harvard devised a similar solution. In 1653, Harvard student Zachary Bridgen paid his way by ringing the bell and waiting on the tables of his fellow students.

Poor students attending elite higher education institutions were often considered second-class citizens.

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Even though students like Newton and Bridgen gained admission to elite institutions, they were forced into a second-class status simply because of their poverty.

By the early 20th century, many colleges and universities began administering financial aid programs to expand access to higher education. But these new aid systems raised complicated questions about which students merited support.

An illustration of the different outfits college students wore across four centuries, from 1409 to 1709.
An illustration of the different outfits college students wore across four centuries, from 1409 to 1709.

In a 1933 essay for The Atlantic, Russell Sharpe wrestled with what he titled "College and the Poor Boy." Sharpe lamented a recently announced policy at Yale University, which stated that the school would only admit as many "financially needy students" as its current aid level could support. Such policies, he feared, would punish deserving students without the means to pay for college.

Working students was a relatively new phenomenon back in Sharpe's day, when only 1 in 3 college students sought part-time or summer work. Nowadays, 70% of full-time students balance school with a job.

A persistent myth identified by Sharpe survives today — the idea that working while in school will "rob college of much of its value" and even "exert a harmful influence upon the individual." Yet this myth rests on the assumption that economic privilege is the norm in college and the less well off are a deviation from that norm.

So what was Sharpe's solution to the problem of college and the poor boy? Admit fewer students. By making college more exclusive, he reasoned, institutions could fund academically excelling, impoverished students.

Russell Sharpe believed that making colleges more selective would allow them to better fund impoverished students.

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"Those who are disturbed by such a prospect should remember," he argued, "that the poor boy of real ability would still be able to gain entrance under an intelligent system of limitation."

Ironically, Sharpe's proposal reinforced the privileged nature of higher education. Even as 20th-century colleges and universities reimagined their student bodies, the "standard" student remained white, male, and wealthy.

The 19th-Century Battle for College Access

For centuries, college remained almost exclusively the domain of white men. But in the 19th century, those excluded from higher learning battled furiously for access to the institution. Not surprisingly, colleges — and college students — fought back.

When Sophia Jex-Blake applied to Harvard in the 1860s, the college rejected her application using the rationale that there was "no provision for the education of women in any department of this university."

A portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake.
A portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake.

Jex-Blake eventually gained admission to Edinburgh University to study medicine, where she and six other female students — known as the "Edinburgh Seven" — were forced to pay higher fees than the male students. In addition, the university let professors refuse to teach women, forcing Jex-Blake and the other female students to arrange their own lectures with supportive faculty members.

In 1870, a mob of hundreds surrounded the women as they took an anatomy exam. Now known as the Surgeon's Hall riot, male students attempted to force the women out of the university, even shoving a sheep into the exam room. The professor proctoring the exam reportedly quipped, "The sheep can stay, it is clearly more intelligent than those out there."

Ultimately, the university refused to grant degrees to any of the seven women. Institutional barriers, such as universities denying admission to women or allowing faculty to refuse to teach female students, created nearly insurmountable barriers to higher education, which were designed to protect the privilege of students who saw college as their domain and theirs alone.

Similar barriers excluded Black people from U.S. colleges. In 1850, when Harvard Medical School admitted three Black students, white students spoke out against the decision so forcefully that Harvard withdrew its admission offers.

Institutional barriers have historically prevented women and Black citizens from attending college and earning their degrees.

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What's more, many states legally banned Black education. The Virginia Code of 1819 outlawed teaching enslaved people to read or write. Many colleges and universities maintained a policy of refusing to admit Black applicants. As a result of being shut out of the education system, Black Americans established historically Black colleges and universities, more commonly known as HBCUs.

The battle for access continued well into the 20th century. Take again, for example, Sharpe's 1933 article, which confidently declared, "It has been a part of the democratic creed of many Americans that every mother's son is born with an inalienable right to a bachelor's degree." Sharpe assumed, as did so many others, that by definition college students were men.

The 20th century introduced a new method to maintain privilege in higher education: the fiction of a purely meritocratic admissions system.

Debunking the Myth of Meritocracy

Though colleges had grown more diverse by this century, many institutions continued to fight for a more exclusive atmosphere. In their fight, they used a new weapon: meritocracy.

As Harvard increased its student diversity, President A. Lawrence Lowell, who ran the university from 1909-1933, suggested a quota system. Specifically, Lowell wanted to keep out Jewish students, arguing that too many of them would drive away Christians. Lowell also banned Harvard's Black students from the dormitories and dining halls.

A 1923 portrait of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell.
A 1923 portrait of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell.

In the end, Harvard didn't adopt an overt quota system — it changed its application process. Rather than simply using test scores to admit freshmen, the school prioritized factors like family background and the nebulous concept of "fit." Harvard claimed that the new approach would create a more inclusive school, describing it as a "policy of equal opportunity regardless of race and religion."

In practice, the admissions system intentionally favored already privileged students — i.e., the wealthy white men who would make up the bulk of Harvard's alumni for centuries. New factors, such as legacy admissions and athletic recruitment, made it easier than ever to justify admitting the same type of students.

While publicly arguing that anyone of merit could and would rise to the top, colleges privately reinforced exclusionary policies.

In the words of Yale law professor Daniel Markovits, "American meritocracy [has] become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations."

Under the system of admitting students by merit, rejected students found a new scapegoat: beneficiaries of programs designed to expand access to higher education.

Though colleges claimed to base admissions on merit, most privately reinforced exclusionary practices.

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According to NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund senior counsel Rachel Kleinman, opposition to affirmative action, which began in the 1960s, stems from "this fear of white people that their privilege is being taken away from them and given to somebody else who they see as less deserving."

In practice, admissions policies at selective schools still favor wealthy, white, male students.

Privilege in Higher Education in 2020

In 2020, colleges and universities actively promote diversity in their student bodies. Diversity and inclusion programs work to recruit and retain students of color and other underrepresented groups — yet many policies still favor privileged students.

For example, about 40% of institutional financial aid goes to students without demonstrated financial need. At some of the most exclusive colleges, the student body contains more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.

Educational systems created to privilege one group over others resist change. A recent report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce concluded that the American higher education system perpetuates white privilege.

The most selective colleges still enroll predominantly white students, while students of color largely attend less selective public institutions. This systematic exclusion affects the graduation rate and lifelong earning potential of students of color.

Even today, at some of the most exclusive colleges, there are more students from the top 1% than there are the bottom 60%.

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The rising price of tuition has become another barrier that privileges wealthy students. Although the cost of college more than doubled between 1974 and 2012, the maximum Pell Grant, which was designed to support low-income students, remained relatively stagnant.

In practice, the rising cost of college and the lack of financial support excludes students who have been fighting for centuries to access higher education.

Today, the admissions process still offers hidden, backdoor access to privileged students. In 2019, education researchers argued that "the most damaging myth in American higher education is that college admissions is about merit." In reality, privileged students boost their chances through test-prep coaching, legacy admissions, and athletic admissions.

Consider last year's college admissions scandal. While celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman broke the law to secure spots for their children, thousands of other wealthy families lean on legal donations or legacy status to reinforce their privilege.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, leave a courthouse on August 27, 2019.
Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, leave a courthouse on August 27, 2019. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Similarly, admissions preferences for athletes largely benefit white men at elite institutions, where playing lacrosse or water polo can secure students a spot in the incoming class. A 2002 study found that athletes fared better during admissions than even legacy students. Athletes got nearly double the boost of legacy students and received admission offers at almost three times the rate of students of color.

In an article for Vox, Jason England, former dean of admissions at an elite liberal arts institution, argued, "I don't believe you can reform college admissions from the inside. The game favors the wealthy and powerful, and that's an extension of our society."

But privilege doesn't end after the gauntlet of the admissions process. In fact, over the past 45 years, the college graduation gap between rich and poor students has widened. In 2013, 99% of wealthy students finished their bachelor's degree, while only around 20% of students in the lowest income group earned theirs. Compared with 1970, this gap is much wider — and much more discouraging.

Colleges and universities committed to diversity and inclusion still face a daunting challenge today: undoing centuries of policies designed to privilege a certain kind of student.