Despite their perfect grade-point averages and SAT scores and stellar extracurricular activities, the number of top-achieving high school seniors who made the cut at the most elite universities reached record lows this year. Stanford, for example, only admitted 5 percent of applicants, the fewest in its history; other top institutions reported similar numbers.

This may look like meritocracy reaching its ultimate rarefaction, yet the motives that led top colleges and universities to introduce highly selective admissions a century ago were far from lofty. The aim was to keep out one group in particular: Jews.

Until the turn of the last century, there was no such thing as “selective admissions,” even at the top universities. If students could pass an entrance exam, or belonged to the right family, they were in. There was no dossier, no need to show that you were “well-rounded.”

Nor was there any pretense of seeking diversity. Ivy League schools in the early 19th century were remarkably homogenous. The standard class at Harvard, for example, contained a staggering number of white Protestants drawn from elite families in Massachusetts.

The huge influx of immigrants in the mid- to late-19th century sparked a shift in the pool of potential applicants. By 1900, first and second-generation Jews were applying in droves. (At Columbia, the construction of the subway connecting the West Side to the Lower East Side seems to have contributed to a significant increase in the number of Jewish students.)

For universities, the growing number of qualified applicants meant they either had to expand or institute some kind of selective admissions process. In any case, the number of Jews in attendance would surge.

This brought out the worst in the aristocratic leaders of the Ivy League. Historians such as New York University’s Harold Wechsler have found plenty of evidence of anti-Semitism among university elites. Frederick Paul Keppel, a Columbia dean, wrote in 1910 that the university’s position “at the gateway of European immigration” might make the institution “socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement,” though he believed that “Jews who have had the advantage of decent social surroundings for a generation of two are entirely satisfactory companions.” Even less enlightened were those administrators who decried the “Jewish invasion,” and counseled the adoption of quotas.

Still, the percentage of Jewish students at top schools increased. At Harvard, it shot from 6 percent in 1908 to 22 percent in 1922; at Columbia, Jewish enrollments reached as high as 40 percent.

In response, elite universities imposed new admission criteria. Now, applicants needed to submit information about their religion, mother’s maiden name, along with a photograph. Applicants to Columbia also had to submit to a “psychological test,” which later became known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.

These tools gave admissions officials the power to discriminate, ostensibly on the basis of “objective” evidence. And any number of reasons could be invoked to deny an applicant. As Harold Wechsler has observed, “selective admissions deflected much criticism precisely because it singled out no single status as ‘key.’”

The restrictions allowed administrators to limit Jewish enrollment while pretending to uphold higher standards. One dean at Columbia wrote that “We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant, and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York City Jews.”

In the 1920s, Harvard found an even more clever plan of discrimination, under the watch of President Abbot Lawrence Lowell, who was characterized by a colleague as someone who “hates [Jews] and is afraid of them.”

Lowell initially tried to institute a crude quota system for Jewish enrollment. When his plan was condemned in the press, a committee stacked with his sympathizers produced an alternative that seemed remarkably enlightened. Its real purpose, historians have argued, was to implement a kinder, gentler form of discrimination against Jews. It also gave us the admissions process that remains in effect at top universities today.

The plan consisted of two parts. The first was to require that students come from the top 1/7th of their graduating class. More significant, however, was the resolution that Harvard would no longer consider admissions from the “standpoint of race.” Rather, it would create an undergraduate population that “will be properly representative of all groups in our national life.” This meant actively recruiting applicants from around the country, particularly areas “situated outside the regular Harvard recruiting ground.”

Historian Oliver Pollak has observed that “by focusing on geographic representation, while ignoring blatant racial and religious characteristics, the plan obliquely discriminated against Jews.” In other words, Harvard could recruit high-achieving students from an applicant pool in which Jews were just one of many groups.

The result was dramatic: Jewish enrollment in Harvard quickly plummeted back to 10 percent. Similar declines occurred at other schools that made a fetish of a highly selective, national admission process designed to bring geographic diversity. Increasingly, admission officials recruited students who would have never considered applying to an Ivy League school thousands of miles from home.

An unintended consequence of expanding the applicant pool was that elite colleges ensured they would receive far more applications than they had slots to fill. Admissions became increasingly selective, particularly after Lowell’s successors embraced the idea of recruiting students from an even wider variety of backgrounds: geographic, religious, urban, rural, and so on. The number of categories has continued to proliferate in recent years, but the number of slots available at the nation’s top colleges and universities has not increased at a corresponding rate.

It’s no surprise, then, that most of this year’s applicants to elite schools ended up with rejection letters. High-achieving students probably will find little consolation in the knowledge that their failure to get into the college of the dreams may have less to do with a lack of merit than admissions procedures adopted by anti-Semitic college administrators almost a century ago.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Stephen Mihm

Stephen Mihm an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.)