Prestige in the Ivy League: Meritocracy at Columbia, Harvard and Penn, 1870--1940

Richard Albert Farnum, University of Pennsylvania


All colleges are not created equal. The American system of higher education is stratified by prestige, and the summit of the resulting hierarchy is occupied by a number of elite institutions, among which are prominently featured the colleges of the Ivy League. Today it is axiomatic that the prestige conferred on these elite colleges is based on their universalistic or meritocratic selectivity, applied both to students and to faculty. However, within the Ivy League there also exists a gradient of prestige, which is less amenable to interpretation in meritocratic terms. This study attempts to understand the sources of these prestige differences by a comparative analysis of the historical development of Harvard, Columbia and Penn from 1870 to 1940.^ During that period many prestige schools abrogated meritocracy in favor of policies of particularistic discrimination against Jews and other minorities. It is found that the social composition of the students was the crucial factor in determining a college's subsequent status. Harvard, which managed to retain connection with old elites, was also able to establish ties to new ones, thereby enhancing its prestige. Columbia and Penn, which either deliberately or unwittingly "democratized" their student bodies, lost status.^ Analysis of the three colleges also focuses on the institutional "ideals" that inspired their development. It is found that only where the collegiate ideal of "liberal culture" predominated was prestige sustained. Where the democratic utilitarian ideal of service to society prevailed, the college lost both its prestige and its autonomy.^ Between 1870 and 1940 America's prestige colleges evolved functionally from "status-confirming" to "status-creating" and "class- creating" institutions. The distinction between status and class creation is found to be crucial to an understanding of both the discrimination of the inter-war period and the differential prestige of elite colleges today. Only those like Harvard, which took the problem of status-creation seriously, retained their prestige. Penn and Columbia, which abjured status-creation for the more democratic process of class-creation, suffered diminished prestige. Status-creation as a crucial educational function is also found to be largely moribund in the present era. ^

Subject Area

Education, Sociology of|Education, History of|Education, Higher

Recommended Citation

Farnum, Richard Albert, "Prestige in the Ivy League: Meritocracy at Columbia, Harvard and Penn, 1870--1940" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9026549.