Today, white privilege isn’t anywhere near as present as it was for the last couple of centuries. The proof of this is that the latest admissions survey shows that more than 50% of students are women, people of color, and those who do not come from wealthy families.
While this is progress, there are still traces of a common practice from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The same surveys found that legacy applicants (students with parents who attended the same college) had a five times higher chance of being accepted than regular applicants.
With that in mind, it is essential to review the history of privilege in higher education and discuss what’s to come.
The First Harvard Commencement
The first students who graduated from Harvard were all male, white, and wealthy. Nine men attended the commencement in 1642. According to historians and other sources, the order in which they were called upon to receive their degree was determined by their family status.
This is a far cry from the practice of the 21st century, in which students are called by name alphabetically or by the levels of their grades.
Were “Second-Class Citizens” Welcomed To Higher Education Institutions?
Since the founding of the first universities in the Middle Ages, it was customary for sons of wealthy men to be allowed to study law, medicine, and other important disciplines. On the other hand, those coming from “second-class” families were instructed to learn practical skills and crafts.
The perfect example is Isaac Newton, one of the most influential physicians in history. His father couldn’t cover the expenses of higher education, but Newton still decided to pursue a college education by serving students who came from wealthier families.
The Essay “College and the Poor Boy”
This concept continued throughout the decades and into the 20th century. The first time someone publicly condemned this practice was in 1933 after Yale suggested that they would support only a couple of students with their financial aid and that anyone else applying needed to cover all of their expenses.
Throughout his essay “College and the Poor Boy,” Russell Sharpe addressed that the admissions committees should be more selective regarding the intellectual potential and factual interest of students. According to him, by doing so, poor students would have a higher chance of being accepted.
Things have changed over the past couple of decades, with higher education institutions and colleges promoting diversification through the selection process. Still, many institutions continue to be selective, especially regarding students of color.
With that in mind, we hope that the centuries-long practice of privilege is something that colleges and other universities will completely overcome in the upcoming years.