Lani Guinier in Salon:
“Manly, Christian character.” That was the ideal that Endicott Peabody, a member of the New England Brahmin class, hoped to cultivate in the boys who attended his private boarding school, Groton. Peabody founded Groton in 1884 with the purpose of building character and embedding the value of “noblesse oblige” into the social fabric of late-nineteenth-century America. Groton students, like young men from seven other boarding schools in the northeastern United States, were to embody character, manliness, and athleticism. The “Big Three” colleges—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—validated these ideals by admitting nearly all boarding-school applicants and conferring honorary degrees upon Peabody.
Admission into the “Big Three” was fairly easy if the applicant possessed a “manly, Christian character.” He had to pass subject-based entrance exams devised by the colleges, but the tests weren’t particularly hard, and he could take them over and over again to pass. Even if a student didn’t pass the required exams, he could be admitted with “conditions.” Once enrolled at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, he would focus primarily on his social life, clubs, sports, social organizations, and campus activities, while often ignoring his academic work.
Admissions began to change, however, when Charles William Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869. Annoyed with “the stupid sons of the rich,” Eliot sought to draw into the university’s fold capable students from all segments of society. To ensure that smart students could attend Harvard regardless of their means, Eliot, in 1898, abolished the archaic Greek admission exams that were popular up until that time. He also replaced Harvard’s admissions exams with exams created by the College Entrance Examination Board because it tripled the number of locations where applicants could be tested. The result of Eliot’s changes was the admission of more public school students, including Catholics and Jews.