First installment in a two week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

Why two weeks? Because my little bother, Stephen Field ’37, thinks this is a topic worth discussing in depth!

As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.

First, always begin by asking “What is the New York Times choosing not to write about?” In this context, the answer is: All the other metrics that 18 year-olds (and their families) differ on but which colleges, and the New York Times, don’t care about. For example, I would bet that high school students with parents that served in the military or scored about average on their SATs or currently attend Baptists congregations or are divorced are dramatically less likely than other students to apply to, be accepted by, or attend elite colleges. Does the Cathedral care? No. The Cathedral — elite academia and the prestige press — cares about race and money and gender, and maybe a few other things. Being the son of a divorced Baptist veteran of average intelligence counts for nothing, no matter how few of you there are at Williams.

Second, read the whole article. Note how constricted the range of views are: running from the left to the far left. No one who thinks, as I do — that there is nothing surprising in the under-representation of poor students, that there is little that could plausibly be done about it and that attempts to do anything are just as likely to hurt as to help — is interviewed. Does Perez-Pena know that we are out here? Does he care? Or does he view his job as weaving a cushy cocoon of ignorance for Times readers? You don’t have to agree with, say, Charles Murray or Bryan Caplan, to think that a news article ought to mention that they exist.

Ten to 15 years ago, when some elite colleges got more serious about economic diversity, there was a view that increasing financial aid could turn the dial, but “I think we were a little naïve,” said Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, a former president of Williams College and, like Dr. Hill at Vassar, an economist specializing in the economics of higher education.

Cost remains a barrier, but so does perception, he said, adding, “It’s a psychology and sociology thing, as well as a pricing thing.”

Who is the “we” you speak of Morty? I wasn’t naive. Here is what I was writing 8 years ago:

People who see tilts and other injustices in elite admissions have a highly naive view of the possibilities once a student hits 17. These modern day Marxists have a (stupid) a priori belief that the abilities which lead to academic success at Amherst are uniformly distributed across the population. Alas, these abilities — high IQ, a love of learning, disciplined work habits — are very non-uniformly distributed. The children of people in the top half of the income distribution are much more likely to have these abilities than the children of people in the bottom half. This effect is magnified in the top and bottom income deciles.

Smart people have smart children because intelligence like height is largely inherited. People who love learning have children who love learning because they teach them to do the same, both directly and via example. You can bet that children who are read to by their parents each day are much more likely to end up at Amherst than children who are not so fortunate. Hard-working people have hard-working children because these parents make their children work hard, thereby teaching them the value of hard work, of ambition and striving.

Now, it turns out that high IQ, a love of learning and hard work — for shorthand, let’s call these attributes “merit” — are also correlated with wealth. Or, rather, it is unlikely that someone blessed with these three attributes will end up in the bottom 25% of the income distribution.

But people like Marx seem blind to this reality. They really want to believe that there are thousands of undiscovered gems lying in the bottom income quartile, just waiting for open-minded souls (like Marx) to discover them and, Professor Higgins-like, transform them into polished stones.

Tony Marx was the president of Amherst at the time. He, and other naifs like Morty and Cappy Hill ’76, thought that they could meaningfully increase the percentage of poor students at places like Williams without meaningfully decreasing the quality of the student body. Alas, you can’t.

It isn’t a “psychology and sociology thing”, much less a “pricing thing.” It is a reality thing.

If you are upset that I haven’t provided enough evidence for these claims, have no worries! I have nine more days of posts all queued up . . .

In case it disappears from the web, the entire article is below the break.


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Let me try again to explain what Stephen Pinker gets wrong about admissions at places like Harvard and Williams. Outside of academics (grades/scores), sports (that the college plays and recruits for), race (mostly black but also Hispanic) and wealth (mostly being poor but also some super-wealthy), virtually nothing else matters to elite college admissions. This is the central thing that is wrong with Pinker’s description — with its talk of “the arts, charity, activism, travel” — and even with the understanding of sophisticated observers like Eric Rasmusen and Stephen Hsu. Consider Hsu:

Some have quibbled with Pinker’s assertion that only 5 or 10% of the Harvard class is chosen with academic merit as the sole criterion. They note the overall high scores of Harvard students as evidence against this claim. But a simple calculation makes it obvious that the top 2000 or so high school seniors (including international students, who would eagerly attend Harvard if given the opportunity), ranked by brainpower alone, would be much stronger intellectually than the typical student admitted to Harvard today.

First, it is somewhat rude of Hsu to use the phrasing “some” when I (I think) have been the only one to make this argument explicitly.

Second, by “quibbled,” I think Hsu means “demonstrated.” Where, exactly, is the flaw in the argument? A 1590 Math/Reading SAT score is far into the 99th percentile (pdf). (Exactly how far is unclear to me.) Here (pdf) is data from 2008 that uses all three sections and here (pdf) from 2013. The total number of perfect scores is in the hundreds not thousands. I realize that I am playing fast and loose here, that I began by looking at Math + Reading, that these tables use all three sections and that summing percentiles is not the same as looking at the percentiles of the distribution of summed scores. But the basic numbers make clear that there are not nearly as many high scoring students at Hsu naively assumes.

Imagine that the height of the 75th percentile male student at Harvard were in the 99th percentile of the overall distribution. That would be about 6’4”. If 1/4 of the men at Harvard were above 6’4” would you doubt that height was the central factor in admissions? There is no way to get so many tall men if you are selecting on other factors that are not heavily correlated with height.

Third, Hsu admits in the comments that his “simple calculation” is off by an order of magnitude! This is the nice thing about being a theoretical, rather than experimental, physicist! Getting the answer within one or two orders of magnitude is close enough! ;-)

There are not 2,000 high schools students that are much stronger than the typical Harvard student, there are 200. And someone has to go to Yale!

Fourth, Hsu uses phrases like “ranked by brainpower alone” (by which he means a heavily g-loaded IQ test) and implies that this is the same thing that we (me and Pinker) are talking about when we discuss “academic merit.” But it isn’t. “Academic merit” means the highest grades in the most rigorous high school classes along with top teacher recommendations and extreme standardized test scores. This is what Harvard (and Williams) care about. You can be a genius but, if you blow off high school classes that you find boring and stupid, Harvard/Williams don’t want you.

The central issue here is not: What should Harvard/Williams select for? (I expect that Hsu and I would see eye-to-eye on that.) The issue is: What do Harvard/Williams select for? I am trying to explain that Harvard/Williams do not care nearly as much about “extracurricular” activities — at least things like “the arts, charity, activism, travel” — as Pinker/Rasmusen/Hsu think they do. The data demonstrate this because there is no way for Harvard to have such extreme SAT scores and, simultaneously, place much/any emphasis on these other factors. If it did, then, almost by definition, the SAT score distribution would be shifted lower.

To be concrete: Harvard admitted 2,000 high school students out of the 35,000 who applied last year. Imagine that we kept fixed the things that I say matter (academic merit, race, wealth and recruited athlete status) and randomize the things that Pinker/Hsu think matter (arts, charity, activism, travel). That is, Applicant X keeps the attributes that I assert Harvard cares about but then is randomly assigned the extracurricular activities of some other applicant. How different would the admissions decisions be?

Almost indistinguishable! Harvard would let is at least 1,500, and probably more like 1,900 of the 2,000 students it did, in fact, admit even if they were assigned a random set of extracurricular activities from among the pool of applicants, and for all the reasons that I gave in my previous post. These facts turn Pinker’s claim on its head. It is not 5% of the class that is selected on the basis of academic merit. It is 5% that is selected on something other than academic merit, once we control for race/wealth/athletics.

Again, if Pinker had just said that race/wealth/athletics play a big role, and stopped there, I would have no complaint. They do! But Pinker misleads his readers, and people like Hsu/Rasmussen with his talk of “arts, charity, activism, travel.” That stuff plays no material role. In fact, one reason Harvard likes to act like those things matter is so that it can hide the big influence of race/wealth/athletics behind a patina of “We care about great violin players too!”

How to convince Pinker/Hsu/Rasmusen of this fact? Consider Caltech. Hsu suggests (and I agree) that Caltech bases its admissions standards almost completely on “academic merit.” Consider the 75th percentile of its score distribution (pdf):


Now Harvard (pdf):


At 75th percentile of the SAT/ACT, Caltech (800/800/790 and 35/36/35) is indistinguishable from Harvard (790/800/790 and 35/35/35). If we assume that Caltech admits on the basis of “academic merit” (it does!), then it must be the case that Harvard uses, more or less, the same criteria (at least for 25% of its class), otherwise, it would not have the same extreme distribution of scores. (And even the tiny advantage to Caltech is probably explained by Harvard putting more emphasis on the high grades portion of academic merit than Caltech does, not on the (imaginary!) extra bump that Harvard gives to excellent sculptors who score 2390 over average sculptors who score 2400.)

Now, obviously, below the 75th percentile, things change. But that is not because Harvard cares about the arts, it is because Harvard cares about race/wealth/athletics. Key statistics:

Black students: Harvard (7.0%) and Caltech (1.6%)
Pell Grant Eligible students: Harvard (17%) and Caltech (11%)
Division 1a caliber athletes: Harvard (12%) and Caltech (<1% ?)

I lack the energy/data to go through the argument that these factors alone explain the differences in the 25th percentile but they almost certainly do. But, before going further, can we at least agree that I have demonstrated that, at least for 25% of the class, Harvard is at least as focused on “academic merit” as Caltech is? In other words, Pinker’s estimate of 5% or 10% is off by at least a factor of 2.5 to 5. Once we agree on that, we can move on to other portions of the score distribution.

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Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, a stock brokerage and an investment bank, occupied three floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. Lindsay S. Morehouse ’00, a new research assistant, was working on the 89th floor when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46 AM. As The 9-11 Commission Report describes in chilling detail, there was little consensus about what denizens of the South Tower should do. Howard Kestenbaum ’67 and others started to leave the building. Lindsay Morehouse did not. She and her co-workers did not know — they could not know — that United Airlines Flight 175 was only minutes away from impact. They stayed were they were.

“What should I do?”

Flight 175 struck the South Tower at 9:03, crashing in between floors 78 and 84. Lindsay was just 5 floors above. She, and hundreds of others, survived the impact. They did not know — they could not know — that the South Tower would collapse in less than one hour.

Even five years later, the bits and pieces of a life well-lived and yet unfinished remain..

On September 10, a dream came true for Lindsay Morehouse, an investment banker with Keefe, Bruyette and Woods. She was accepted as a volunteer at Big Brothers and Big Sisters of New York and eagerly awaited the name of her new little sister. A college tennis star who led the Williams College women’s team to the NCAA finals in her junior year, she continually sought challenges and new adventures.

Only 24 years old, she had already visited New Zealand, France, Italy, New Mexico and Greece. She had been bungy-jumping and rock-climbing. She was famous among her huge circle of friends, teammates, colleagues and loved ones for her intensity and deep feelings, for being as demanding of herself as she was of each relationship in her life.

Her passions were varied: gnocchi and Indian food, “Rent” and “Les Miserable,” the Yankees and kittens. It seemed that every time she touched a life, she made a life-long friend, as witnessed by the crowd of more than 800 mourners at her memorial service on September 15.

“What should I do?”

Lindsay had come to Williams from St. Paul’s School. Her love of tennis and academic seriousness were clear even then.

Mrs. Maycen also talked about her daughter’s affection for St. Paul’s School and how the scholarship in her name honors Lindsay’s feelings toward the School.

“I remember clearly cleaning out her room on her last day at St. Paul’s. She said, ‘Mom, I’ve just loved this school. I just love St. Paul’s.’ Fast forward and in the last week of her life, she was accepted into the Big Sister program in New York City,” said Mrs. Maycen. “She was coming full circle; wanting to help people less privileged than she was. That’s why this scholarship is just so fitting. Giving a talented student the opportunity to have what she experienced at St. Paul’s is a wonderful way to carry on Lindsay’s desire to help others.”

Lindsay’s mother said that she believes her daughter would be honored to know that a scholarship in her name would provide individuals with leadership potential an opportunity to come to St. Paul’s, and to take full advantage of all the School has to offer; much like Lindsay did herself.

“I just know that, from her perch above, Lindsay is pleased, proud, and humbled to have a scholarship in her name at the school she loved so well,” said Mrs. Maycen.

“What should I do?”

News reached Williams slowly.

In a third message on Friday [9/14] afternoon, President Schapiro announced that one recent Williams graduate, Lindsay Morehouse ’00, was known to be missing in the attack on the World Trade Center. Morehouse was an economics major and a captain of the women’s tennis team. Betsy Brainerd, an assistant professor of economics who had Morehouse in two of her classes, remembered her as “a warm and vital young woman with a great outlook on life.”

Other members of the economics department also shared fond memories of Morehouse. Roger Bolton said that he “still [has] many of the e-mails she sent as ‘Linz’ with questions on how she could make her work as good as possible, and always with a ‘thanks’ in advance.”

“I will miss Lindsay,” Kaye Husbands-Fealing, an economics professor, said. “As I watched television this week and I saw survivors that were about her age, I could see her face in theirs. Her indomitable spirit lives on. May God bless her; may God bless her family.”

“What should I do?”

This was the last question that Lindsay’s father was to hear from his daughter, the last time that he would listen to her voice, the last chance that he would have to try to protect her from a too cruel world. Yet there was little he could do.

Morehouse called her father after the first plane hit the other tower to say that she was safe and that she had been instructed to stay in the building. She called a second time after the second plane hit her tower. That call was cut off.

And that was all. Lindsay, like more than 1/3 of the employees of Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, died that day. Neither fathers nor mothers, husbands nor wives, brothers nor sisters could save them. Although the most important tragedy of 9/11 is the deaths of thousands of innocents like Lindsay Morehouse — thousands of people who gave more to life, and had more left to give, than we can ever fully know — the rest of us must shoulder the burden of survival, of wondering what we might have done differently to save them, of worrying about the telephone call which might come to us someday.

“What should I do?”

I do not dread asking this question. I dread trying to answer it. Lindsay Morehouse was not just one man’s daughter. She was a daughter to all of us. May my own daughters be spared her fate.

Condolences to all.

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Good news:

Princeton, Williams College once again take top spots in U.S. News’ rankings for 2014-15

1) Every time that Williams appears in a headline like this with Princeton, the value of the Williams brand improves. It is very important that we maintain this #1 ranking, mainly for admissions, and especially for international students.

2) Kudos to Adam Falk (and everyone else at Williams) for making this happen. US News can be tricky about its methodology and the changes it makes from year-to-year. They would sell more magazines if there were more changes in the top, so maintaining a #1 ranking can be tricky.

3) As I mention each year, there is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.

4) Is anyone a subscriber to the detailed data. All I can see is:


We need to dive into the details. How far in the lead is Williams and what do we need to do to maintain the lead?

5) Recall my predictions from 5 years ago.

Although the competition is tough, our most serious competitor is Amherst and they will face real headwinds given their financial constraints. Their endowment is in more trouble than ours. Their increase in enrollment will hurt the student:faculty ratio. These ranks are based on data from before the financial crash, so the Williams advantage over Amherst will only continue. Don’t be surprised if/when Amherst falls behind Swarthmore in a year or two. I also suspect that Middlebury’s recent (and deserved) rise may be in danger.

Amherst hasn’t caught us, as predicted, and Middlebury has fallen from 4th to 7th. I still think that Amherst is in danger of falling behind Swarthmore, but we need more detailed data to evaluate that.

6) Below the break are the details of the methodology, which I am saving here for historical purposes.

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Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic (hat tip Razib Kahn) provides a false description of admissions at places like Harvard and Williams.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. … The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

This is not true. Summary: More than 80% of admissions at Harvard (and other elite schools like Williams) is determined by academic merit, measured by past success in high school (high grades in the most rigorous classes with the best teacher recommendations and top standardized test scores), all of which best predicts academic success in college.*

First, leave aside athletics for the moment; the preferences there are real and large.

Second, consider the raw data in terms of 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores. (I have taken the latest available data and simply added the Math and Critical Reading scores together.)

Harvard:  1390 -- 1590
Williams: 1330 -- 1540
Cornell:  1320 -- 1520 

A difference of 50 or 60 points may seem small, but this is (back-of-the-envelope) 1/4 to 1/3 a standard deviation.** If we were talking about height, it would be as if the average student at Harvard were an inch or so taller than the average student at Williams or Cornell. There is no way, in a large population, to get this sort of difference unless the selection procedure has a major focus on SAT scores (or their correlates). In particular, there is no way that the top 25% (!) of the Harvard class has almost perfect SAT scores if only 10% (much less 5%!) is selected on the “basis of academic merit.” It is mathematically impossible.

Third, there are no meaningful preferences given for “the arts, charity, activism, travel” and other non-academic, non-sport reasons. Why?

  • Harvard is not that different from Williams and, as Professor of Music David Kechley explained 11 (!) years ago, there is no meaningful preference given for musical talent.
  • There is no need to give preference for things like music and art because academically strong students are often talented in music and art. Go meet some!
  • There is no reason to give preference for music/arts because schools don’t compete with each other on that basis. Imagine that the quality of the arts and music was twice as good at Williams as at Harvard. Would anyone notice? No! No one goes to enough events at both Williams and Harvard to make that judgment. (This is one aspect by which athletics is different.)
  • Even if you wanted to give preference to those students who would go on to be heavily involved in things like, say, student government and charitable work, there is no way for the admissions department to predict which students will do so, as Jen Doleac ’03 demonstrated in her thesis.
  • Harvard does not have the time or money to meaningfully evaluate the artistic ability of applicants. With 14,000 applicants, the logistics are impossible. As books like The Gatekeepers and A is for Admission make clear, admissions officers make some notes about non-academic talents, but these attributes play a de minimus role in the process.
  • “Travel?” Harvard prefers students who have done a grand tour of Europe? Give me a break! The biggest thing that teenage travel correlates with is family income, and Harvard gets plenty of rich kids already. Might Pinker be able to point to Harvard students who traveled a lot? Sure! But he could also find plenty of blond Harvard students. That fact doesn’t mean that the Admissions Office selects by hair color.

Now, every once in a while does something like music help? Sure! If the orchestra conductor calls up the admissions office and begs for some decent drummers, he may get helped out. But, overwhelming, even those drummers will have amazing academic credentials.

Fourth, even affirmative action does not change the basic story because black (and Hispanic) applicants are accepted under the same criteria as white/Asian students. The same process of looking at high school grades, course schedule, teacher comments and standardized test scores applies to everyone. Whatever it is that Harvard is looking for in white/Asian students, it is looking for the exact same thing in black/Hispanic students. Harvard just sets the bar lower for the latter. Being poor is probably an advantage. Being a non-US citizen is probably a disadvantage. But, whatever bucket you are competing in, the key criteria is academic success.

Fifth, legacy is a red herring. Do the math! There are 1,600 Harvard students in the class of 2018. There were around (I think) 1,600 Harvard students in each class in the 80′s. I can’t find good data on fecundity, but, judging from Williams, elite students from the 80′s go on to, at least, achieve replacement levels of fertility. So, there are 1,600 or so legacy students born in 1995/1996 who would love to come to Harvard (or at least be accepted by Harvard) for the class of 2018. But Harvard only enrolls about 200 of them!*** You think the other 1,400 go to Stanford? Ha! It is easy for Harvard, like Williams, to ensure that enrolled legacy students are academically equivalent to non-legacy students because the legacy pool is so strong. Turns out that Harvard parents tend to have academically talented children. Who knew?

Sixth, even in the case of athletics, academics matter because the admissions department insists. See here for some details. But, to the extent that Pinker has a point, he is correct that athletics plays an important part. And so does major wealth. But even if we combine the athletes and the donors, we are still talking about less than 20% of the class.

Big picture, Pinker’s description of Harvard admissions is fundamentally flawed because the vast majority of it (80%?) is, in fact, driven by “academic merit.” Unless you are a recruited varsity athlete or a billionaire’s child, you got in because your classes/grades/scores were better than the other applicants (at least within your race and/or socioeconomic class and/or nationality).

And this is easy to see if you follow the admissions process at your local high school, assuming it is the sort of school that sends lots of students to elite schools. On average, the high school students who get into Harvard have done better — higher grades in tougher classes with better teaching recommendations and standardized test scores — than the students who get into Williams, and then the same down the academic pecking order.

Steven Pinker is a voice of reason in many of the debates surrounding higher education. It is too bad that he is so misleading about Harvard admissions in this essay.

* Of course, it is not clear what scale Pinker is using for his 5% or what scale we should be using for our 80%. The main clarification that applies to the 80% is that, although the academic evaluation system is the same across categories of students, students are mostly competing against peers in their own racial, citizenship, and socio-economic bucket. If you are, say, rich and black, then Harvard admits use on the basis of academic merit in comparison with other rich/black applicants.

My preferred scale is to imagine that the Harvard admissions system is blinded to everything non-academic. All they see is your high school transcript and standardized test scores. Even in this scenario, more than 50% of the students in Harvard today would still have been accepted. Athletics and affirmative action do have a meaningful impact on admissions, but most of what is going on is still Pinker’s “academic merit.”

** Yes, I realize that this is a rough estimate. The standard deviation of individual SAT tests is around 100. I can’t find good estimates of the standard deviation of combined scores. If the scores from the two tests were uncorrelated, then the combined standard deviation would be around 141. But the positive correlation means that this is a lower bound. And, of course, we are talking about the far right tail of the distribution, where all sorts of weird stuff might happen. The larger point stands: it is impossible for Harvard’s combined SAT scores to be 50+ points higher than Williams/Cornell, year after year, without significant focus on SAT scores by the Admissions Department.

*** See our legacy admissions category for various calculations with regard to Williams. I doubt that things are much different at Harvard or any other elite school. Why would they be?

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Martha Coakley ’75, EphBlog’s favorite gubernatorial candidate, has some lobbyist issues.

A politically wired Beacon Hill lobbying firm let off with a light penalty by Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley for a possible violation of state law hosted a fundraiser for Coakley’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2009, the Herald has learned.

The fundraiser calls into question the attorney general’s repeated attempts to distance herself from the lobbying powerhouse, which negotiated a controversial settlement with Coakley’s office for allegedly charging illegal contingency fees to the Franciscan Hospital for Children.

Coakley’s campaign finally acknowledged to the Herald that the Brennan Group hosted the November 2009 fundraiser for her 2010 Senate campaign after repeatedly denying the firm gave any money to her gubernatorial bid.

Ho, hum. Elections cost money and some of the biggest givers will always be those who want to get something out of the government. The larger and more powerful the government becomes, the more intensely will people seek out fixers like Brennan.

The Brennan Group is a politically connected firm whose clients include the MBTA Retirement Fund, Delaware North and Tufts Veterinary School. Brennan is a former Democratic lawmaker, and he and his staffers have donated tens of thousands to a slew of politicians, mostly fellow Democrats.

Its website even boasts of its successful track record in influencing Bay State power brokers:

“We transform regulatory challenges into political opportunities.”

Ha! Life is often more absurd than any satire.

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Are you a writer for the Record interested in a journalism career? First, read Clay Shirky on the future of print and follow his advice:

The first piece of advice is the most widely discussed in journalism circles — get good with numbers. The old ‘story accompanied by a chart’ was merely data next to journalism; increasingly, the data is the journalism. Nate Silver has changed our sense of political prediction. ProPublica has tied databases to storytelling better than anyone in the country. Homicide Watch can report more murders (all of them, in fact), using fewer people, than the Washington Post. Learning to code is the gold standard, but even taking an online class in statistics and getting good at Google spreadsheets will help. Anything you can do to make yourself more familiar with finding, understanding, and presenting data will set you apart from people you’ll be competing with, whether to keep your current job or get a new one.

Exactly correct. The Williams statistics major is a good place to start. Even better, start using data in your Record reporting. For example, how about an update on grade inflation at Williams?

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From Jim Brigg’s ’60:

There was no Mountain Day from after WW II that I know of and there wasn’t one for sure from 1956-1960. When I returned to Williams in 1968 there still was no Mt. Day. When Ralph Townsend retired in 1983-4 I took over the Outing Club and resurrected Mt. Day and suggested to President Chandler that we ring the bells one morning and give all the students a day off from classes like in the early part of the century, and we head for the Mountains. He rejected this idea as did President Oakley. So we had Mt. day on a Saturday or Sunday in October. We had hikes to various places with cider and donuts, several times going to the top of Greylock with various members of the Faculty leading the hikes especially the Geology Department. Some years we did trail work in the mornings and hiked to some peak in the afternoon. It took a couple of years to figure out that it was more fun to have all the hikes to end at the same place. This we did in the late 80′s.

When Morty Shapiro became President he put Mountain Day on the calender and it was to be one of three Fridays in October. Now, the Bells are sounded and classes are off with Outing Club planning the days activities. (Actually the internet is more important than the Chapel Bells). Scott Lewis can fill you in on what happened during his era as director of the Outing Club and when the change took place from a weekend day to a day off of classes on one of the October Fridays.

Apparently, there was a big fight in the faculty about the idea of canceling a day of classes for Mountain Day. When was that? Who were the heroes and who the villains?

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From the Chronicle of Higher Education four years ago:

A year ago, I wrote a column called “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” advising students that grad school is a bad idea unless they have no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.

The main point of another column I wrote six years ago (“If You Must Go”) is that students considering graduate school should “do their homework.” But the problem is that there is still almost no way—apart from the rumor mill to which they do not really have access—for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions). Programs often claim that graduates who are working as adjuncts or visiting faculty members are successfully placed in the profession.

Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so. I can see no way for that information to become available unless it becomes part of accreditation or rankings in publications such as U.S. News and World Report. Perhaps departments might start offering details if students started demanding it in large numbers, with support from organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. Maybe it’s possible for graduate students themselves to start gathering and reporting this information on a Web site.

Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

If you are in one of the lucky categories that benefit from the Big Lie, you will probably continue to offer the attractions of that life to vulnerable students who are trained from birth to trust you, their teacher.

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

Related discussion here. Read the whole thing. Do Williams professors tell their undergraduate students this harsh truth, a truth that is becoming more and more true in the social and natural sciences as well? I hope so.

But, from an institutional point of view, the more interesting case is the Masters Program in Art History. Does Williams tell students interested in the that program about “the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions).” I doubt it. Perhaps we should crowdsource some of that data? Below the fold are the Masters in Art History graduates of 2000. Where are they now?


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Fall classes start on Thursday. What courses should you take? See our previous discussions.

1) Any tutorial. The more tutorials you take, the better your Williams education will be. There are few plausible excuses for not taking a tutorial every semester. Although many tutorials are now filled, others are not. Recommended:

ANTH 328: Emotions and the Self with Peter Just. This is available for first years. Too many first years take a big intro class because they think they “should.” They shouldn’t! Even a “bad” tutorial at Williams is better than almost all intro courses.

HIST 140: Fin-de-Siècle Russia: Cultural Splendor, Imperial Decay with Bill Wagner, former Williams president. It does not matter if you care about Russia. As always, choose the professor, not the class. If you are a first year and you don’t take a tutorial like this, you are doing it wrong.

BIOL 405: Sociobiology with Manuel Morales. Even though this course, in theory, is more junior/senior biology majors, I bet that Morales would let you in if he has space. Assuming you had a decent biology class in high school, you won’t need any other prerequisite.

2) STAT 201 (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1400, you might start with STAT 101). No topic is more helpful in starting your career, no matter your area of interest, than statistics. Students who take several statistics courses are much more likely to get the best summer internships and jobs after Williams. Also, the new Statistics major looks amazing.

3) CSCI 136 (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1400, you might start with CSCI 134). Being able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well.

4) PHIL 222: Minds, Brains, and Intelligent Behavior: An Introduction to Cognitive Science with Joe Cruz, former EphBlogger and all around great guy. And don’t worry about the silly prerequisites. Just tell Joe that EphBlog sent you!

What courses would you recommend? What was the best class you took at Williams?

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Wish that I had been invited to this party!


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From Professor Joe Cruz ’91:

Here’s something for ephblog. I spotted the attached scanned add in a recent issue of National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine. Nikki Kimball — the athlete depicted — was class of ’93. Indeed, I was her JA. She was, then, as she apparently is now, a first rate athlete in addition to being smart and a successful scholar.

Thanks Joe and congratulations to Nikki!

This message came in to EphBlog Central 4+ years ago. We have a lot to catch up on!

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The Financial Times has nice things to say about The System Worked, the latest book by Dan Drezner ’90.

While reading Dan Drezner’s The System Worked, I kept thinking of the well-publicised conversation between Barack Obama and Tim Geithner that took place shortly before Obama’s inauguration as president in January 2009.

As related in Geithner’s book…

Geithner: Your accomplishment is going to be preventing a second Great Depression.

Obama: That’s not enough for me. I’m not going to be defined by what I’ve prevented.

Geithner: If you don’t prevent a depression, you won’t be able to do anything else.

Obama: I know. But it’s not enough.

For global economic governance, as opposed to Presidential legacies, avoiding economic catastrophe when catastrophe was a non-trivial possibility is enough.

That’s the case made by Drezner . . .

Read the whole thing.

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Economic ignorance rears its misshapen head on WSO. AB complains about a firm which bought some Zambian debt and expects, you know, the Zambian government to honor that debt. AB, despite writing beautifully about monsoons, does not seem to understand how markets work. If you prevent investors from making money on Zambian debt, then the Zambian government won’t be able to borrow again.

Andrew Goldston claims that

Buying debt to call it in is legal, but dishonorable. In a more civilized age, guys like Sheehan would have been shunned by their neighbors for this kind of crap. But as bringing home money has become its own goal, normative restraints seem to have eased up on using thoroughly evil means to do it.

Does Andrew Goldston actually know anyone who buys debt? He should meet some of the (many) Williams alums involved in this type of work. A great example would be Hans Humes ’87, legendary member of WUFO and big wheel in the Argentinian debt restructuring of a few years ago.

UPDATE: This post was drafted 7 years ago. So, the Argentinian debt restructuring it refers to is not the current one but the last one.

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From the Wall Street Journal several years ago:

Odds are California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger meant to deliver more than one message in a recent veto to the state Legislature, mathematicians say.

In the body of the message accompanying the veto, consisting of a four-line paragraph and a three-line paragraph, Mr. Schwarzenegger lamented that he was sent an “unnecessary” measure while “major issues are overlooked” in the cash-strapped state. But as the San Francisco Bay Guardian noted last week, the first letter of each of the seven lines spells out a profane rebuke that starts with “F” and ends with “you.”

The governor’s spokesman said the vertical vulgarity is a coincidence, which spurred mathematicians and statisticians to assess the probability that the coarse coded message could arise by chance.

Even if the profane message was intentional, Mr. Schwarzenegger deserves some credit for finding a creative way, outside the schools budget, to stimulate discussions of probability and language. “Let’s give the governor a break,” says Williams College mathematician Edward Burger. “If nothing else, he’s encouraging math education.”

Count on Ed Burger (now the president of Southwestern) to find the bright side!

If I were more clever, what would I have titled this post?

Everyone Prefers Hyptheses Because . . .

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The First Years arrive today. Welcome to Williams!

The 274 women and 272 men who make up the Williams College Class of 2018 will arrive on campus on August 25 for First Days, their official orientation to the college.

SATs for the cohort averaged 727 on the verbal test and 713 on math. The class is also diverse. Thirty-eight percent of students in the incoming class are U.S. students of color, and nearly 9 percent are international students. The 546 students in this year’s class come from 41 states and represent 38 foreign countries. Forty-seven percent of the class is receiving financial aid, with an average aid package of $47,285.

1) Here is the schedule.

2) Isn’t 1440 combined SAT scores a step up from the recent past? Classes of 2008 and 2009 were 1413 and 1425.

3) 9% are international. Regular readers will recall that the quota for international students is an EphBlog perennial. 9% is better than the 6% quota of 2005, but we were already at 9% in 2008, so there has been no progress over the last 6 years, despite the fact that Williams is no longer need-blind for international applicants.

4) Only 47% of the class is receiving aid. In 2008, it was 50%, but I seem to recall numbers in the low 50s a few years ago.

So, the class of 2018 is richer and smarter than . . . any Williams class in history?!

Not that there is anything wrong with that!

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Missed this New York Times letter from six years ago.

To the Editor:

“The Bruising Will Go On for the Party, Too” (news analysis, front page, April 23) says that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s substantial victory over Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, thus continuing the battle, is believed by many Democrats to hurt their (our) election chances against John McCain.

But I, as a Democrat, would rather find out now rather than later who would be the weaker candidate for the general election, given the advertisements and speeches I expect from the Republicans.

I would love to see the battle go on until the Democratic National Convention, restoring what conventions used to be, with the general public enthralled with the discussion.

Then, and only then, the superdelegates should do what they were set up to do — decide who the better candidate is to represent the Democratic Party in the general election.

Jay M. Pasachoff
Williamstown, Mass., April 23, 2008

In 2008, I was quite pleased that Obama won the primary and election. But I suspect that my reasoning was somewhat different from Pasachoff’s . . .

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Curious what his fellow physicists think about Williams President Adam Falk? An anonymous physicist friend told me five years ago:

Falk is definitely one of the best researchers of his age cohort. His work had a lot of impact, which led to his early career success. However, much of that work was done with more senior and more famous colleagues (e.g., his advisor Howard Georgi). I would guess that to, e.g., get tenure at a place like Harvard or Caltech he might have been required to do something of equal impact and by himself.

But I think all of this is irrelevant to his qualifications to lead Williams. For the type of ability you are asking about Adam is already at the level of diminishing returns when it comes to being a university president. He certainly is well above the intellectual caliber necessary to command the respect of Williams faculty. In fact, I doubt there are more than a dozen faculty on the Williams campus who are as bright as Adam. How he does there will be more a function of his people skills, judgement, strategic thinking, leadership ability, etc.

I’ve known Adam for many years and I would say he is a very good person, and very sincerely dedicated to the ideals of higher education. I think Williams made a great choice.

Some time ago (like 5-10 years ago, I can’t recall exactly), I heard through some common friends that Adam had lost “the fire” for research in theoretical physics, and was headed into administration. (Actually I already knew something was up because Adam’s productivity had dropped off.) Luckily for him he was taken on as a protege by the then-dean of arts and sciences at JHU, becoming assistant or associate dean. When that person left JHU for another position, Adam was (amazingly, given his age) promoted to the dean-ship.

I don’t know how long he’s been looking at the college president market, but it would be natural that after a few years as dean at JHU the recruiters would come around, assuming (which is quite likely) that he had a good reputation in that job.

I really do think Williams did well in getting Adam. So many college administrators are just “suits” — they lack passion, are risk-averse, not creative, etc. Adam is none of those things, at least as I knew him :-) It’s possible that these traits are inevitable outcomes of the pressures and incentives of the system, but for now I think it’s possible for him to do a lot of dynamic things.

What I would really be worried about if I were an Eph is that Williams is just a stepping stone for Adam on his way to an Ivy-level presidency!

That was written in 2010. Has Falk done “a lot of dynamic things” at Williams? Not that I have seen. My faculty contacts report that his main focus in the first few years was an attempt to upgrade the quality of the faculty (meaning the quality of academic research produced by the faculty, especially those coming up for tenure), an attempt that was largely beaten back by academic departments jealous of their own prerogatives.

What have you heard?

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Before they disappear down the memory hole, I wanted to archive these three documents from the Williams Speaks Up archives:

View incident reports from three different sources:

* The Record
* Campus Safety and Security (PDF)
* The Multicultural Center Timeline (PDF)

I have been meaning to provide a thorough Fisking for several years, but there is never enough day in the blog. Standard example:

Williams humor magazine, The Mad Cow, distributed an all campus leaflet on the “Goth Studies Initiative,” which poked fun at the Latino Studies Initiative. This disturbed many students who had been ardently working toward the creation of a Latino Studies program (MCC Annual Report 2000-2001).

1) Are the MCC Annual Reports on-line? I bet that they would make for interesting reading.

2) Don’t the writers at Mad Cow know that making fun of minority students/causes is verboten! Time for some re-education . . .

3) Now that Williams is eliminating the position of MCC Coordinator, who will be keeping track of these “incidents?”

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A blast from EphBlog’s past:

We never got around to finalizing a graphic for the Catch Mr. Bernard Moore scandal. But Dick Swart ’56 kindly created this one. Like all of Dick’s work, it is excellent! But, after much debate, it seemed like the best theme catch phrase was “Catch Mr. Bernard Moore,” inspired by the Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio film “Catch Me If You Can.” And don’t forget Jeff Zeeman’s inspiring lyrics!

UPDATE: I think that Moore is now out of prison. The Record should seek him out for an interview.

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Almost five years ago, WSO featured a discussion about Claiming Williams and the issue of White Male Althletes Who Drink (WMAWD). Alas, the link I used then does not seem to work. Fortunately, I saved much of the discussion.

Basic idea was that many people felt that Claiming Williams, as an institution, was actively hostile toward WMAWD and that, therefore, many WMAWD did not bother to attend WMAWD events.

I’m not even sure how to express how much I agree with all of the above. In many, many conversations I’ve noticed this trend of looking down on the idea of the white male (not even just white male athletes who drink) simply because of the history, and not necessarily because of specific examples. I think a lot of WM do feel the pressure to be ashamed of who they are though they themselves have done nothing.

But it sure doesn’t help when very few of the allegedly marginalized Straight White Male Athlete Drinkers show up to any of the events in which I participated (which are the only ones I can speak for). Their absence was noted by some of their coaches, who were present and contributed in valuable ways.

I would bet a lot of money that the reason there wasn’t a huge percentage of the white male athletes at the events is because of people like you, who in trying to fight against “abjection” and “exclusion” make the mistake of excluding those people from the process and creating an air of hostility. I think that the Claiming Williams events were wonderful and the people involved were earnest and open, but it’s people who create unnecessary conflict like this who keep the WMAWD away.

I’ll argue that I think CW this year made an effort to be unassuming and unhostile, but I agree that the general perception on campus remains that any time we talk about “diversity” we’re talking about the evils of the WMAWDs. How to change that perception, I don’t know – but I do feel that oftentimes, in an effort to find safety, security, and solidarity on campus, groups can create a feeling of “us vs. them.”

That being said, I think that the marginalization of the WMAWD is that he feels unwelcome and uncomfortable even attending and participating in these sorts of conversations. Is that “as bad” as the challenges associated with facing racism or classism on a daily basis? Perhaps not. But these types of discussions shouldn’t be about trying to decide who’s been the most oppressed – they should be about moving forward as a community

Do you honestly believe white male athletes who drink aren’t marginalized?

In my time at Williams, I have witnessed/heard just as much anti-WMAWD attitude as anti-gay, anti-(*), etc. attitudes. *Substitute race here. Not that my experience is necessarily representative of the whole school, but i think it definitely occurs. … So if they [white males] are made to feel unwelcome and are uncomfortable in the situation, they are cowards for not attending anyway? That just doesn’t make sense.

I’m a white straight male, and I after hours of conversations, I still don’t fully understand why people of various identities feel excluded from this campus. That doesn’t mean that I’m deliberately ignorant, or that issues don’t exist. It just means that there are some things that you can’t understand, or are reallyhard to understand until you experience the same thing, and that THAT IS OK, so long as we keep talking. … I guess I’m just bothered that you seem to think that you can treat people on campus differently because of worldwide trends and patterns. If there’s a problem on campus, then we should address that, but I don’t think you can cite what goes on outside of the Purple Bubble as a reason to treat a certain group of people differently within it.

On the other hand, I whole-heartedly agree that some WMAWD’s are misjudged, but getting to know them solves that (it’s really not that big of a deal). WMAWD’s who don’t fall into the stereotypes make an effort to not be what people think they are. I have WMAWD as friends, and some fall into their stereotype whereas others don’t. True, I do judge some WMAWD’s, but that may also be because they walk in herds and seem to have no awareness about the world surrounding them.

I really hope that this entire passage was intended to be as ridiculous a joke as it reads.

Let’s replace “WMAWD” with some other social/ethnic labels and see how we react.

1) While some black people are misjudged, getting to know them solves it, so prejudices don’t cause any damage. Anyway, it’s incumbent on the African-Americans who don’t want to be stereotyped to make an extra effort to show us that they’re different. Sure, I apply stereotypes to some black people, but that’s only because they congregate in groups and don’t try to reach out to me: their fault. . . .

If anyone had posted either of those absurd statements, they justifiably would have had the living shit Claimed out of them in a hailstorm of indignant criticism. Your identical post deserves no less.

shit man let them get a taste of what others having been getting/and will get.

Awesome. Thanks for assuming, based only on the amount of pigment in my skin, that I must have spent my nineteen years slinging racial epithets or embodying prejudice and therefore deserve to have this vindictive nonsense unleashed on me.

Making presumptions about the content of my character based on my ethnic and socioeconomic identity. . .man, if only we had a word to describe this kind of behavior: oh hey, neat! We do!

Cry me a river. Really? The fact that you automatically believe that none of the white students here ever had to “prove” themselves is exactly what this thread was about.

Your main point of argument seems to be that because history has shown that there were more white males with better jobs than any other subgroup in our society that it’s automatically going to be real easy for them to live life. You really don’t think that they don’t even have to try here because out there they’re not going to face the economy in the shitters, that they’re somehow more special and will not have to worry about being put under a certain image and treated unfairly when going for a job interview or applying for grad school? Or that none of the unemployed people in this country are white males?

Maybe in the hustle of I-had-to-overcome-so-many-disadvantages-because-of-what-I-look-like you missed the blaring sign– everyone hurts the same way. You think you’re so different from the WMAWD because of the color of your skin or where your ancestors might have come from? Cut everyone with a knife and see if we don’t bleed the same red blood.

I don’t believe it’s quite so that they [white males] don’t feel that they have things to contribute to a day devoted to diversity, as in so much that other people don’t expect them to be able to contribute to the talks because they are automatically assumed to have never experienced adversity because of color of their skin, their gender, sexuality, etc..


Why should the onus be on me to prove myself to you? Your assumptions about me are being made just by the groups of people that I walk with has to be one of the more baseless reasons for judging someone that there is out there. Because I am white and I am walking with other white kids I don’t see the world around me? Don’t get that logic. You said its not hard to get to know them, well then give “us” that chance. So maybe in large groups we act differently but that is a moot point. One on one everyone is different than they are in large groups, but that doesn’t just apply to white males, it applies to everyone.

So maybe I will get to know you once you give me a clean slate to operate with. But I won’t get to know you if you assume certain things about me right off the bat even if I try to get to know you. Don’t stereotype minorities, don’t stereotype white males either. It is not a hard compromise because equality doesn’t involve subjugating white people, that is revenge for historical wrongs that, while I admit would probably be fair, is not helpful. Equality isn’t turning the tables, it’s making sure everyone has a seat.

Do people really feel unsafe or discriminated on campus? Maybe I’m just oblivious to such things, but this seems a little ridiculous to me.

I feel like I’ve had different experiences than some of the other people posting. You may never have encountered the “I’ve had it bad, it’s kind of your fault, you bad bad white man” attitude here on campus, but I ASSURE you, I most definitely have. Whether this is as widespread as I have come to see it as, or if it is not as prevalent as I thought is a matter that I will leave others to decide. The most important thing for me is not so much the self-victimization as what is relatively undisputed: the bias against WMAWD that is pervasive on this campus.

As far as the word “privilege” goes, I think it can be misleading. I think Claiming Williams should encourage EVERYONE to reflect on the privilege they have, rather than assuming that certain groups are privileged while other groups are unprivileged. This may not be the fault of CW or anyone who participates in it, but it seems that we perceive privilege as only occurring within certain demographics. Again, I’m not denying any differences in “stark material realities,” but I’m trying to expand my notion of privilege beyond that.

Several posts have bemoaned the lack of WMAWD at CW, and several have offered hostile or disappointed takes on this. I speak only for myself, but I did not stay away due to laziness or hostility to any group of people. This WMAW (occasionally) D is very concerned about this kind of issue, but finds CW objectionable for various reasons and therefore elected to exercise his right to choose not to attend.

The issue for me is not that “no one knows what I’ve faced,” but that my being privileged should not impact your perception of me. The fact that I don’t know what it’s like from your perspective doesn’t make me irrelevant. My opinions can be valid without my being shaped by overwhelming oppression. I do frequently feel less welcome or less valued by some because I have had certain advantages. This is not crushing oppression; I am by no means marginalized, but it is an issue.

None of the people who wrote these words is still on campus. Has Williams changes much in the last 4 years? I doubt it.

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Fascinating article about the future of higher education.

Most people are so invested in the idea of education-by-institution that it’s hard to imagine another way. There’s also a sense that for-profit schools are a little sleazy (and some of them are). Because Web-based higher education is still relatively new, and the market lacks information that allows students to compare introductory courses at one institution to another, consumers tend to see all online courses in the same bad light. “The public isn’t good at discriminating,” says Larry Gould. “They read ‘online course’ and they think ‘low quality,’ even when it’s not true.”

But neither the regulatory nor the psychological obstacles match the evolving new reality. Consumers will become more sophisticated, not less. The accreditation wall will crumble, as most artificial barriers do. All it takes is for one generation of college students to see online courses as no more or less legitimate than any other—and a whole lot cheaper in the bargain—for the consensus of consumer taste to rapidly change. The odds of this happening quickly are greatly enhanced by the endless spiral of steep annual tuition hikes, which are forcing more students to go deep into debt to pay for college while driving low-income students out altogether. If Burck Smith doesn’t bring extremely cheap college courses to the masses, somebody else will.

Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily accessible than it has ever been before. Much of that money will end up in the pockets of students in the form of lower prices, a boon and a necessity in a time when higher education is the key to prosperity. Colleges will specialize where they have comparative advantage, rather than trying to be all things to all people. A lot of silly, too-expensive things—vainglorious building projects, money-sucking sports programs, tenured professors who contribute little in the way of teaching or research—will fade from memory, and won’t be missed.

But other parts of those institutions will be threatened too—vital parts that support local communities and legitimate scholarship, that make the world a more enlightened, richer place to live. Just as the world needs the foreign bureaus that newspapers are rapidly shutting down, it needs quirky small university presses, Mughal textile historians, and people who are paid to think deep, economically unproductive thoughts. Rather than hiding within the conglomerate, each unbundled part of the university will have to find new ways to stand alone. There is an unstable, treacherous future ahead for institutions that have been comfortable for a long time. Like it or not, that’s the higher education world to come.

Read the whole thing. What are the implications for Williams?

Williams is selling a luxury product. And everyone in such a business knows that you compete on quality, not price.

Williams should increase tuition by 50%, decrease the student body to 400 per class, guarantee every student a single room and eliminate lectures. Offer the most serious and luxurious college experience and you will occupy a desirable niche in the elite education ecosystem.

UPDATE: The above was written in 2010. (Alas, our delays from submission to publication can be lengthy at EphBlog.) Have the subsequent 4 years made them seem prescient or ridiculous?

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From the Bob Herbert in the New York Times five years ago:

That period right after college graduation is when young people tend to think they can set the world on fire. Careers are starting, and relationships in the broader world are forming. It’s exciting, and optimism is off the charts.

So the gloomy outlook that this economy is offering so many of America’s brightest young people is not just disconcerting, it’s a cultural shift, a harbinger. “Attention,” as the wife of a fictional salesman once said, “must be paid.”

Correct. If you can’t find a job doing X, listen to the market. The world is providing you with a (free!) reality check. Not enough people value X (or, at least, your attempts at X) to make it worth doing. Look elsewhere.

As jobs become increasingly scarce, more and more college graduates are working for free, at internships, which is great for employers but something of a handicap for a young man or woman who has to pay for food or a place to live.

“The whole idea of apprenticeships is coming back into vogue, as it was 100 years ago,” said John Noble, director of the Office of Career Counseling at Williams College. “Certain industries, such as the media, TV, radio and so on, have always exploited recent graduates, giving them a chance to get into a very competitive field in exchange for making them work for no — or low — pay. But now this is spreading to many other industries.”

Every time that Noble, or any College official is quoted in the New York Times, Williams wins.

These recent graduates have done everything society told them to do. They’ve worked hard, kept their noses clean and gotten a good education (in many cases from the nation’s best schools). They are ready and anxious to work. If we’re having trouble finding employment for even these kids, then we’re doing something profoundly wrong.

Well, the recession didn’t help. But, reading between the lines, the main problem, at least for elite students is a misunderstanding about the market realities for people, without any technical skills, interested in journalism and related fields. The jobs weren’t there in 2009, they are still not here in 2014, and they aren’t coming back.

Listen to the market.

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We need more videos at EphBlog. Who will post them?

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Grade inflation is a a scourge at many schools, including Williams. See our previous discussions here. In the last decade, the best hope for those interested in fighting grade inflation has come from Princeton. We discussed there efforts here, almost a decade ago. (EphBlog is old!). Alas, it appears that Princeton may be about to give up the fight.

A number of colleges and universities adopted policies designed to curb grade inflation. But one of the most prominent of those institutions — Princeton University — now appears poised to roll back the most controversial part of its policy: a limit of 35 percent on the A-range grades awarded in each course. A faculty report released Thursday made that recommendation, and it was endorsed by the university’s president.

See their recent report (pdf). I hope that the Princeton faculty stands firm.

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Forbes has ranked Williams the #1 college in the US.



1) This ranking, while nice, is not nearly as important as the US New ranking. If Adam Falk does not do everything he can to ensure that Williams stays on top there, then he is not doing his job.

2) Always remember that, at bottom, Williams is selling a luxury good. And the people in the market for luxury goods care both about actual quality — to the extent that they can judge it directly themselves — and about its perceived or reputational quality. The more often that Williams is ranked #1, the stronger our applicant pool will be and the more likely admitted students are to choose Williams over Amherst or various Ivies.

3) Always remember that the fundamental reason why Williams is a great school is not the quality of the faculty. You really think that, say, the average Williams faculty in, say, English is meaningfully better than the average English professor at, say, Connecticut College or any other NESCAC school? Hah! You’re deluded. But the average student at Williams is much stronger than the average students at lower tiered NESCAC schools, and that is what makes a Williams classroom, and therefore a Williams education, much better.

4) Rankings will be even more important over the next 20 years than they have been over the last 20 as the liberal arts college business becomes more global. High quality East Asian (read: Chinese) applicants and their families care a lot about rankings.

5) Details on the methodology are here or here. Score components here. Color me skeptical. The problems with these variables, and how they are measured, are almost too numerous to bother with. But the organization behind the data analysis, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) is credible, so I suspect/hope that there are not any glaring errors.

6) The main clue that these ratings are suspect is how variable they are from year to year. (Williams was ranked 8th last year and 2nd the year before that.) Whatever you think about the relative quality of, say, Williams and Harvard, your evaluation should be more or less the same next year as it was last year. Institutions change very slowly. But stasis does not sell magazines! So, these ratings are constructed to change much more often than they ought to.

What do readers think of the methodology?

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To the JA’s for the class of 2018:

At the 1989 Williams graduation ceremonies, then-President Francis Oakley had a problem. Light rain showers, which had been threatening all morning, started mid-way through the event. Thinking that he should speed things along, and realizing that virtually no one knew the words to “The Mountains,” President Oakley proposed that the traditional singing be skipped.

A cry arose from all Ephs present, myself included. Although few knew the words, all wanted to sing the damn song. Sensing rebellion, President Oakley relented and led the assembled graduates and guests through a somewhat soaked rendition of the song that has marked Williams events for more than 100 years.

Similar scenes play themselves out at Williams gatherings around the country. At some of the Williams weddings that you will attend in the future, an attempt, albeit a weak one, will be made to sing “The Mountains.” At reunions, “The Mountains” will be sung, generally with the help of handy cards supplied by the Alumni Office. It is obvious that most graduates wish that they knew the words. It is equally obvious than almost all do not.

We have a collective action problem. Everyone (undergraduates and alumni alike) wishes that everyone knew the words — it would be wonderful to sing “The Mountains” at events ranging from basketball games in the gym to hikes up Pine Cobble to gatherings around the world. But there is no point in me learning the words since, even if I knew them, there would be no one else who did. Since no single individual has an incentive to learn the words, no one bothers to learn them. We are stuck at a sub-optimal equilibrium.

Fortunately, you have the power to fix this. You could learn “The Mountains” together, as a group, during your JA orientation. You could then teach all the First Years during First Days. It will no doubt make for a nice entry bonding experience. All sorts of goofy ideas come to mind. How about a singing contest at the opening dinner, judged by President Falk, between the six different first year dorms with first prize being a pizza dinner later in the fall at the President’s House?

It will not be enough to learn the song that evening. Periodically over the last dozen years, attempts have been made to teach the words at dinner or at the class meeting in Chapin. Such efforts, worthy as they are, have always failed. My advice:

1) Learn all the words by heart at JA training. This is harder than it sounds. The song is longer and more complex than you think. Maybe sing it between every session? Maybe a contest between JAs from the 6 first year houses? If you don’t sing the song at least 20 times, you won’t know it by heart.

2) Encourage the first years to learn the song before they come to Williams. There are few people more excited about all things Williams in August than incoming first years. Send them the lyrics. Send them videos of campus groups singing “The Mountains.” Tell them that, as an entry, you will be singing the song many times on that first day.

3) Carry through on that promise! Have your entry sing the song multiple times that day. Maybe the two JAs sing the song to the first student who arrives. Then, the three of you sing if for student number 2. And so on. When the last student arrives, the entire entry serenades him (and his family).

4) There should be some target contest toward which this effort is nominally directed. I like the idea of a sing off between the 6 first year dorms with President Falk as judge. But the actual details don’t matter much. What matters is singing the song over-and-over again that first day.

Will this process be dorky and weird and awkward? Of course it will! But that is OK. Dorkiness in the pursuit of community is no vice. And you and your first years will all be dorky together.

For scores of years, Ephs of goodwill have worked to create a better community for the students of Williams. It is a hard problem. How do you bring together young men and women from so many different places, with such a diversity of backgrounds and interests? Creating common, shared experiences — however arbitrary they may be — is a good place to start. Mountain Day works, not because they is anything particularly interesting about Stone Hill, but because we all climb it together.

Until a class of JAs decide as a group to learn the words (by heart) themselves during their training and then to teach it to all the First Years before the first evening’s events, “The Mountains” will remain a relic of a Williams that time has passed by.

But that is up to you. Once a tradition like this is started, it will go on forever. And you will be responsible for that. A hundred years from now the campus will look as different from today as today looks from 1914, but, if you seize this opportunity, Williams students and alumni will still be singing “The Mountains.”

Congratulations on being selected as a JA. It is a singular honor and responsibility.


Dave Kane ’88

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Even with the economic troubles of the college and the beginning of another semester, Williams students are as busy as ever in their extracurricular activities. An idea has been proposed to create the Williams College Commons Club (WCCC) which will target the lack of variety of social activities that students often complain about on campus. Interestingly enough, two of the four candidates for my year’s Class Representative in the current CC election are involved in the start of this new club.

Chris Hikel ’13 described the Commons Club on WSO.

“The WCCC was formed in response to what we viewed as a general discomfort towards meaningful interpersonal engagement among students on the Williams College campus. In our view, this discomfort is not exclusive to social engagement, it also envelopes intellectual and political engagement. What does this mean, and how do we intend to address it?


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A question for the EphBlog brain trust, from Matthew Swanson ’97

Hello Ronit,

I wonder if you’d be willing to raise a challenge to the Ephblog readership. Robbi [Behr '97] and I (the husband/wife, writer/illustrator team behind Idiots’Books) are going to be the subject of an article about creative collaboration that will be published in the spring in a popular online magazine I’m not yet at liberty to name. The guy writing the article plans to examine the mysteries of collaborative pairs, trying to answer the question of what makes them tick. He’s focusing on a number of famous collaborators throughout history, but is including Robbi and me because we have expressed a willingness to be his guinea pigs. In short, he’s going to subject us to a number of evaluations that run the gamut from fully scientific to downright whimsical, all in an effort to get at the question of how we do what we do.

Robbi and I have already undergone a number of evaluations, including some psychological surveys, a visit to our home/studio by a Feng Shui master, and an examination of our written correspondence by a psychologist. We are in the process of creating drawings of our ideal work space, creating a dictionary of our “private language”, and are anticipating a trip to an actual laboratory, where we will be hooked up with sensors and electrodes that will evaluate our unconscious biorhythmic utterances. We feel thoroughly investigated already, but the guy writing the article will not be content until he has examined our collaboration in each and every manner imaginable.

Here is where your readers might come in. The guy writing the article has asked us to turn to the smart people we know for additional ideas for ways in which our collaboration might be measured, analyzed, tested, or scrutinized.

If you’re willing, please ask Ephblog readers to put on their lab coats and take out their test tubes. To dig deep and see what they can come up with. No idea will be unconsidered.

As an added incentive, we will provide a free print of an illustration Robbi did for the Alumni Review last year to the person who comes up with the best idea. It’s a townscape of Williamstown, and can be seen at the following link:

Thanks, Ronit (and thanks, Ephblog readers).

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Every Friday afternoon, this will be the space to post random links of interest / comments without any even tangential Eph connection at all (movie reviews, restaurant recommendations, naked self-promotion, weird photos, taxicab confessions, rants, raves, anything at all).  Have at it!

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