This article presents an overview and discussion of college and university admissions policies in the United States. American higher education began as mainly catering to an elite class of aspiring gentlemen. Over time, admissions policies at institutions, sometimes provoked by actions of the federal government and court cases, have moved toward serving a goal of universal access to American higher education. The land grant and coeducation movements, Title IX, and affirmative action programs are among various factors that have pushed universal access further along. Institutions have also recently established need-blind and score-optional admissions policies to work toward making higher education more accessible. According to some scholars, admissions policies like early admissions and legacy admissions may curtail accessibility.
Keywords Affirmative Action; Coeducation; Early Admissions; Discrimination; Land Grant; Legacy Admissions; Need-blind Admissions; Score-optional Admissions; Title IX; Universal Access
Higher Education > Admissions Policies
Historical Overview of Admissions Policies
While minimal, the requirements for entrance to early American colleges were essentially out of the reach of the general population, who did not have access to the necessary preparatory training. Geiger (1999) noted that the colonial colleges "served, among others, a constituency of aspiring gentlemen" (pp. 42–43). Until 1745, the only subjects in which students had to fulfill entrance requirements in order to gain admission to a colonial college were the Latin and Greek languages and literatures (Rudolph, 1990). These were the basic course of study at the colonial colleges at that time (Rudolph, 1990). College preparatory training was mainly available by way of private tutoring, Latin grammar schools, or instruction with a local minister (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). The Latin and Greek tradition finally ended in 1745 when, as fervor over science grew, Yale also made arithmetic a requirement for admission (Rudolph, 1990).
As time has unfolded, there have been many efforts to make a college or university education more accessible than it was in the early system of American higher education. Some scholars point to the land grant movement in higher education as the start of such universal access efforts (Kerr, 2001). According to Rudolph (1990), "ingrained in the land-grant idea was the concept of collegiate education for everyone at public expense" (p. 260). The early land-grant colleges were established under the Morrill Act of 1862 to support agricultural and mechanical studies (Rudolph, 1990). Mainly an agricultural nation at the time, the land grant movement facilitated access to some form of higher education for the American citizenry at large, such as farming families (Kerr, 2001). According to Kerr (2001), in an increasingly democratic nation the land grant movement served "less the perpetuation of an elite class and more the creation of a relatively classless society, with the doors of opportunity open to all through education" (p. 36).
Another effort to make a college or university education accessible to everyone was the establishment of public high schools. State universities, which began to flourish after the Civil War, were the drivers behind the movement to form high schools that would prepare students for a college education (Rudolph, 1990). Public high schools were an institution of "the people at large" and thus helped to democratize collegiate education by making it a possibility for more students (Rudolph, 1990, p. 286). Colleges and universities began to accept for admission credit subjects other than Greek, Latin, and arithmetic (Rudolph, 1990). Specifically, college entrance requirements were expanded beyond Latin, Greek, and arithmetic by 1870 to include history, geography, and English (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). Requirements in modern foreign languages and science were also added (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). By 1895 already 41 percent of students admitted to colleges and universities were public high school graduates (Rudolph, 1990).
As secondary education expanded, colleges were essentially able to extend their requirements for admission because subjects formerly taught at the collegiate level were dropped down into the secondary level of education (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). However, the ability to expand entrance requirements gave "scope for each college to emphasize its own idiosyncrasies" (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997, p. 241). For instance, as the science requirement for admissions Yale required botany while Columbia asked for physics and chemistry (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). The need for some degree of order became clear not just due to such idiosyncrasies but also due to a period of growth in American higher education that occurred during the last quarter of the nineteenth century (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997; Rudolph, 1990). As such, the College Entrance Examination Board was formed and the first College Board examinations were held by June 1901 (Rudolph, 1990). In addition to the benefit of uniformity of admissions requirements and examinations, colleges and universities that accepted the results of the College Examination Board were able to save time and money previously spent on administering their own examinations (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997).
Geiger (1999) offers that the formal transition from elite to mass higher education occurred between World Wars I and II, when enrollments approximately doubled during the 1920s. However, according to Geiger (1999), American higher education has always been "somewhat hierarchical in terms of … admissions requirements" (p. 57). For example, in the transition to mass higher education, new forms of higher education (e.g., junior colleges, teachers colleges) emerged to serve the expanded student population, which included part-time and commuting students as well as those interested primarily in technical or semiprofessional fields (Geiger, 1999). Meanwhile, existing forms of higher education still served the mainly residential, full-time student population that had characterized elite access and was interested in liberal learning, character formation, and high-status professions (Geiger, 1999). At the same time, the transition to mass higher education was a major step on the way to universal access.
The most expansive phase of American higher education up until that time took place during the thirty-year period following World War II (Geiger, 1999). There was an excessive demand for college that originated in returning veterans who took advantage of the educational benefits provided by the GI Bill in unexpected numbers (Geiger, 1999). "In the decades following World War II, the primary and most persistent demand that government made on higher education was to increase capacity" (Levine, 2001, p. 39). According to Kerr (2001), during the time after World War II the passage of the GI Bill positioned the universal access movement further along by making higher education a possibility for many students who were the first in their families to attend college.
In the 1850s various women's institutions were chartered to offer college degrees to women (Geiger, 1999). Some institutions also began providing a college education to free African Americans during that time (Geiger, 1999). Yet, it was not until after the Civil War that the notion of a collegiate education for women was readily accepted (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). The general paths to college education for women differed, however. In the eastern states and in the older seats of learning women were provided a separate college education. Entirely new colleges for women, like Vassar and Wellesley, were created or coordinated colleges affiliated with existing colleges (e.g., Radcliffe at Harvard) were established (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). At the same time, in the western states and in the newer seats of learning, coeducation was readily accepted and women were generally admitted on the same terms as men (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). By 1900, the idea of coeducation had begun to take greater hold and 71.6 percent of American higher education institutions accepted women as well as men on similar terms (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997). The number of coeducational colleges and universities increased as time passed but there was still enough of a debate to spur the federal government into action in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997).
Traditionally, higher education institutions have had a great deal of freedom in formulating their admissions standards because of the notion that the development of admission policy is best left up to the expertise of educators (Kaplin & Lee, 1995). At the same time, certain court decisions have led to a degree of regulation over the admissions process (Kaplin & Lee, 1995). There are three basic constraints that administrators must adhere to when formulating admissions standards (Kaplin & Lee, 1995). First, the selection process for admissions must not be arbitrary or unpredictable. Related, published admissions standards should be adhered to by the institution and admissions decisions upheld. Finally, institutions cannot have admissions policies that unduly discriminate on the basis of race, sex, disability, age, or citizenship. A great deal of attention has historically been focused on discrimination on the first two bases and, as such, these will be covered in more detail in this section.
Discrimination on the Basis of Race
The Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution as...
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