20th-century Quotas Limited College Access for Jews
by Sherri Kimmel
January 1, 2011
Being Jewish once was seen as a barrier to achieving a
college education, with Ivy League institutions leading discriminatory
enrollment practices, starting in the 1920s and into the 1950s.
Harvard’s Jewish quota was 15 percent in 1926, according to
Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and
Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In a 2005 column about Karabel’s book, New York Times
columnist David Brooks wrote, “University administrators sensed that if they
admitted too many Jews, they would alienate themselves from the power centers
around them. So they restricted the number of Jews by shifting their admissions
criteria and putting more emphasis on ‘character,’ measured by alumni
connections, athletic skill and personal letters of recommendation. Applicants
were less likely to be admitted if all they demonstrated was academic
Ben James ’34, who insisted on open enrollment when he
accepted the dean of admissions job at Dickinson in 1946, says that during his
student days and later, quotas were the norm at other colleges. “In fact, every
college I knew had its quota, but I never saw it in writing here.”
Some Dickinsonians, however, remain skeptical that the
college could have stayed above the fray when all its peers had quotas. Jerry
Epstein ’57 feels Dickinson’s steady 10 percent Jewish enrollment during the
1950s provides evidence that there was a quota in effect.
“There were 20 Jews among 1,200, and I felt there was a
quota, though not overtly stated,” opines Epstein who, like many of the Jewish
students of his era became a physician. “I didn’t mind. I had a good time. The
quota system was invoked everywhere.” Still, there is no hard evidence that
Dickinson ever had a quota system.
According to Elizabeth Pincus Rubin ’78, whose 1976 paper on
Jewish-recruitment practices remains the most thorough examination of
Dickinson’s early Jewish campus life, the fluctuation of Jewish enrollment
numbers from the late 1930s into the 1960s supports her belief that there were
Rubin pointed out that at Dickinson “there was a smaller
percentage of Jews than any other religious group,” which, she posited, could
be a result of the college’s remoteness from urban centers, where Jews tended
to live. Still, after sorting through materials in the archives and
interviewing a dozen college-affiliated people, including Hyman Goldstein ’15,
she concluded that “the college did not practice discrimination against its
Read “The Experience of Jews in American Colleges between 1930 and 1960, with Special Emphasis on Discrimination Against Them and a Brief Study of the Treatment of Jewish Students at Dickinson College during the Same Time Period” by Elizabeth Pincus Rubin ’78.