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January 18, 2011 6:11 PM “The Committee Will Expect a Careful Answer to This Question”

By Daniel Luzer

JFK.jpg

As part of its effort to digitize the entire collection of President Kennedy’s papers, last week the Kennedy Library put the future president’s 1935 college application online.

It’s not so impressive. Kennedy explained his desire for higher education like this:

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

Ah yes, “not just another college, but… a university with something definite to offer.” He was, as we all know, admitted. He graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1940.

Many people commenting on the Gawker article about the Kennedy application suggest that the future president was admitted because his father was a wealthy alumnus. No doubt that didn’t hurt (“Father’s occupation? Chairman Securities and Exchange Commission”) but it probably didn’t matter too much either. In 1935 it simply wasn’t that hard to get into college, any college.

Harvard College now admits about 7 percent of its applicants. In the 1930s the school admitted more like 80 percent of applicants.

The whole massive rejection pile Americans now see as an obvious part of college admissions is actually a little unnatural.

As the University of Southern California’s Jerome Lucido writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

…Zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

Someone like John F. Kennedy, of course, is precisely the sort of person that a school like Harvard should have admitted. He was intelligent, ambitious, interested in ideas, and affluent enough to support the scholarships of several other students.

But he certainly didn’t appear to be brilliant, or exceptionally hard working, or even especially creative. That’s because he wasn’t. He was just another rich kid from Bronxville, New York and it was time for him to go to college.

And that was pretty much good enough. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer