Oh how college admissions has changed…
An article on how college admissions has changed over time.
In an era when America’s most competitive colleges have admissions acceptance rates in the single or low double-digits, a recent article by Alison Cowan resurrects a seemingly simpler time when even elite institutions accepted most applicants. Using classified ads from the late 1800s, the article explains how Harvard and Columbia advertised for students right up to the opening day of the school year. Entrance exams were held the weekend before classes started. In 1870, 210 students took the exam for Harvard and 185 were admitted. Columbia behaved similarly advertising in the New York Times that classes were to resume the following Monday and that students would be received through Saturday. Vassar ran ads offering “posh room assignments” in professor’s houses for those who applied and were accepted.
A look at the fine print, however, reveals that taking entrance exams at these esteemed institutions was not an egalitarian exercise that any aspiring young person could take advantage of. Harvard’s literature for the 1869-1870 academic year observes that freshman were expected to display a command of Latin and Greek “with the accents” and also to demonstrate their understanding of the “whole of Virgil,” Caesar’s Commentaries, and Felton’s Greek Reader. Knowledge of mathematical quadratic equations, ancient and modern geography, English, and history were also pre-conditions for admission. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that in the 19th century few people made it beyond the eighth grade. In short, the applicant pool for America’s most prestigious schools was tiny and for the most part highly privileged economically.
You may be wondering when applicant pools began their climb culminating in a recent figure of 34,950 applicants for Columbia with an admissions figure just under 7 percent compared to Harvard’s 6.1 percent admissions rate? The answer is that competitive admissions at elite schools didn’t begin until the post-World War II period and picked up momentum in the 1960s. Whatever you think of the latter part of the 19th century with its pocket watches and steamship bookings, it was certainly a different world than ours in technology and admissions alike.