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Need Blind

In an earlier thread and connected to our discussion a few days ago, HWC noted that

On “need-blind”: There is a bit of Alice in Wonderland used in the definitions of these words. What “need-blind” means is that the admissions office doesn’t know the precise amount of financial need for each student and, if necessary, there is the authority to increase the finanicial aid budget. However, make no mistake, the entire budget is predicated on knowing exactly the percentage of students who will pay full sticker price.

I hate to use Swarthmore’s numbers, but I know where to easily find them. Their percentage of full sticker price customers over the last five years has been 49%, 49%, 50%, 50%, 50%. Williams, I am quite certain, shows the same kind of “fortuitous” consistency, although Williams’ number is a somewhat higher percentage of full-fare customers. Wait…I found the Williams full-fare numbers for the last seven years: 59%, 58%, 60%, 61%, 59%, 58%, 58%.

Now, does anyone think this consistency happens by accident? It asks right on the application if the student will be applying for finanical aid. Nesbitt has stated in print that they look at parent education, parent jobs, and even zip codes. Of course, they are not “need-blind” in the true sense. They know how many full-fare kids they need and they get them, year after year after year, like clockwork. Any admissions director who misses his financial aid target is going to be looking for a job.

Amanda gave a very well written presentation of the “official” line on affirmative action. However, there is considerable Alice in Wonderland language associated with that topic, too. Schools are able to maintain the charade that it is not a quota-driven process only because they are unable to hit the desired quotas for Af-Am and Latino kids. For now, the operative quota is “as many as we can get”, so they can say, with a straight face, that there is no “firm” quota in place. I have no doubt that, should Af-Am enrollment ever hit 10% or 12% or whatever the number is within that range, Williams would stop paying Questbridge to find more. Alas, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. There were aggressive affirmative action schools that hit the 10% number 25 years ago, and have never been able to get back there. As more elite schools jumped on the affirmative action bandwagon, the competition for a very small pool of applicants became overwhelming. There just aren’t enough “prep school” URMs to go around.

Actually, I, for one, am ready to believe that “this consistency happens by accident.” Or, rather, that the law of large numbers works well in both theory and practice. That is, with thousands of applicants and hundreds of acceptances (and assuming a stable distribution of wealth and SAT scores — and the correlation thereof), it is completely plausible that Williams might always end up with 60% full-price students even though no one in Admissions is trying to hit that precise number.

But, as always, it would be nice to know what goes on behind the admissions door . . .

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#1 Comment By Noah Smith-Drelich On June 29, 2005 @ 10:50 am

Given that the applicant pool most likely doesn’t change substantially from year to year (in that it is unlikely that one year Williams would have 500 well-off applicants and the next year only have 100) and the admission factors don’t change substantially from year to year, it would be expected that the finaid breakdown of students remain relatively consistent.

#2 Comment By Kim Daboo ’88 On June 29, 2005 @ 11:17 am

It’s kind of like watching sausage being made. You don’t really want to know.

#3 Comment By Eislerman On June 29, 2005 @ 12:35 pm

Look, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, but I hope not tendentiously so. We’re assuming that the consistency is due to an effort to ensure that 60% of the kids are paying full price. However, it could be the inverse- ignoring socio-economic diversity (and factors that contribute to socio-economic diversity) all together, perhaps the top 70% of the ‘best’ applicants would be paying full price.

As someone who came from a high school that produced very few Williams-caliber candidates and reflected ‘diverse’ socio-economic backgrounds (most of the richer kids in the community went to private schools), I can say that it would not be surprising to learn that richer prep schools (public or private) could supply the vast majority of the students at elite colleges. My school could produce maybe 3 or 4 kids a year who could get into Williams, whereas an a elite private prep school might produce 100 or 120 kids who could attend, and a public school from a richer community might produce 20 or 30 a year. And given that many of the best kids from less elite public schools might take full-ride offers to state universities (the OSU honors program and Case Western had more name value than Williams at my school), you can see how the pool of non finaid candidates could be small.

Moreover, Morty recently dropped the loan expectation for incoming students, which is an indicator they want to spend more money on Finaid, not less.

Is this argument waterproof? Not in the slightest. I’m simply pointing out we don’t know which direction the consistency is coming from- if it’s a positive preference for kids who pay full price, or a positive preference for socio-economic diversity and associated attributes with a limited pool of candidates. It could be that each year the school reaches down until 40% of the class is diverse, and that this is of varying strength. Who knows?

#4 Comment By hwc On June 29, 2005 @ 1:46 pm

Kane is correct. The preference for wealthy admits has been built into the system for decades, if not centuries. Thus, “hitting the target” for rich kids involves little more than continuing to accept the bulk of the students from the same relative handful of wealthy high schools, using the same criteria (high SATs, rich-kid extracurriculars, etc.), accepting a big chunk of each class Early Decison and legacies, recruiting squash players (not too many low-income squash players), etc.

Eislerman is also correct. The “rich kid quota” is actually a cap on rich kid admissions at the super elite schools. They could all fill their incoming classes with full-fare customers if they wanted to. They don’t, in part, because offering “diversity” is an important part of the sales pitch to full-fare customers, just as important as a new science center or a winning lacrosse team. Morty has been attempting to increase “diversity” because it was threatening to become a competitive disadvantage for Williams against some of the key competitors in the marketplace (The % of full-price students at Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton are all pretty much like Swarthmore’s, right at the 50% mark).

If you are a well-educated parent in 2005, you probably don’t want your kid to go to homogeneously white/wealthy college and Morty needed to guard against that perception/reality hurting him in the marketplace. To his credit, he has been stunningly successful in increasing the black enrollment by hiring Questbridge to do the recruiting. Only time will tell if the percentage of full-fare customers decreases — the only surefire indication of a commitment to socio-economic diversity.

#5 Comment By David On June 29, 2005 @ 1:56 pm

HWC claims that Morty “has been stunningly successful in increasing the black enrollment by hiring Questbridge to do the recruiting.” Two questions:

1) Is the percentage of African-American students at Williams signficantly larger now than it was in 2000 when Morty arrived? The Diveristy Initiatives site seems to be down, but perhaps this information is elsewhere. It would be nice to know the percentages in, say 2005, 2000, 1995 and 1990.

2) How much impact has Questbridge had on this percentage? My sense is very little. The College has only been using Questgridge for a couple of years and only gets a handful of students from there, not all (most?) of whom are black.

#6 Comment By David On June 29, 2005 @ 2:23 pm

I have saved (!) a copy of the Diversity Report, which is just chock-fulled with fun facts.

1980 7.0%
1990 8.0%
1995 6.3%
2000 6.6%
2004 9.9%

As best I can tell, these are figues for all students present in that year, so Morty’s efforts, to the extent that they are present, will only be felt completely now.

Now, is 9.9% significantly larger than 6.6%? Perhaps. It is 50% larger, obviously, but there are a lot of moving parts to consider.

By the way, was increasing this percentage a high priority of Morty’s? I don’t recall reading any comments by him to that effect. Perhaps the focus of things like Tyng’s and Williams Scholarships has been changed in the last few years. There are, of course, few better ways of attracting students of type X then making Williams cheaper (or free) for them.

With regard to Questbridge, it seems clear that the College only started using Questbridge recently, so no credit can be given to them for the 2004 numbers.

#7 Comment By Rory On June 29, 2005 @ 4:04 pm

A cautionary tale on admissions:

One year, seemingly out of the blue (and the year my brother started at Swarthmore), Swat’s freshman class was something like 40-45% URM. Suddenly Swat was one of the most, if not the single most, diverse school of the selective LACs.

For at least six years after that, they never got close again. Let’s hope/make sure that Williams’s increase to 9.9% African-American (or black? two very different terms) is part of a trend, not a blip!

#8 Comment By hwc On June 29, 2005 @ 4:24 pm

9.9% is a high number of “black/non-hispanic” students for an elite east coast school. Whatever the mechanism, Williams has rapidly increased its black enrollment over the last five years or so. Yield is the big challenge in black enrollment. All of the elite schools are accepting large numbers of black students. Getting them to enroll is another issue.

Where Williams is relatively low by comparison to many of its peers is in Asian-American enrollment. No way to know whether that is a reflection of the applicant pool, a conscious choice, or a side-effect of some other admissions criteria. For example, if you give heavier weight to varsity athletics in admissions, you might well enroll fewer Asian-Americans just by the nature of your admissions criteria.

I do agree with Rory that it is a little dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from the small number of data points at the LACs. Just a handful of kids one way or another can make a signficant difference in diversity percentages.

#9 Comment By David On June 29, 2005 @ 4:56 pm

HWC claimed that:

If you are a well-educated parent in 2005, you probably don’t want your kid to go to homogeneously white/wealthy college and Morty needed to guard against that perception/reality hurting him in the marketplace.

Well, I also don’t want my kid to go to school on Mars, but that is about as likely as her going to a “homogeneously white/wealthy college”, at least if we restrict consideration to elite schools, since there are no such schools in existence. I find it hard to believe that whether Williams is 20% or 25% or 40% non-US-citizen/non-white has much of an impact on the typical “well-educated parent.”

So, while there may be reasons why Williams should do more to increase the percentage of URMs — which might be done with cash by tripling the number Tyng Awards or by standards by letting in URMs that it currently denies admissions to — I don’t believe that these efforts will signigicantly impact demand from white/wealthy applicants and their parents.

#10 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 29, 2005 @ 5:10 pm

My understanding is that Questbridge helps Williams get at students who’ve never even heard of Williams. If you aren’t a Williams feeder school and you have a dismal college counselor, chances are if there’s a bright student the counselor tells the student to apply to Harvard or Yale. The counselor’s job is done, the parents have at least heard of Harvard or Yale, and everyone’s happy.

Questbridge short-circuits the counselor and helps Williams solicit the student directly. So it’s a way to find good students at non-feeder schools.

While we may debate about how diverse Williams has become in the last five years, it has certainly changed in the 30 years since I graduated. My year it was around 7% or 8% non-white, and that was mostly students who’d gone to prep school. One of my roommates was from Kenya, and he was astounded at what lengths these well-to-do students would go to in language and dress so they would appear to come from the inner city. Hopefully such “diversity posturing” is a lot less these days.

#11 Comment By frank uible On June 29, 2005 @ 10:53 pm

For about 20 years I sought respectable candidates for application to Williams from private or public secondary schools of various sorts located in greater St. Louis or greater Detroit. Following some preliminary screening by me at the schools I would first contact those students by telephone, who appeared to be possible prospects. Upon this initial contact roughly 4% of the prospects from “rich” schools confessed that they had heard of Williams; 1% from “poor” schools, but at any rate on that contact almost none of them could tell me much substantive about it. I would continue to recruit (by telephone, mail and occasionally face to face contact) these prospects actively until it became clear that they were not worthy, they lost (or ab initio had no) interest or they were accepted or rejected by the Admissions Office. My proselytizing efforts over that period produced a total of 2 matriculants (both from “rich” schools) from over 1000 prospects contacted (most from “rich” schools but a substantial percentage from “poor” schools), perhaps 30 actual applicants (the vast majority from “rich” schools) and possibly 10 acceptances (all or nearly all from “rich” schools). Draw from this soft information such conclusions about the recruiting process as suits you. One of my conclusions is that Williams is a tough sell in the midwest at both “rich” and also “poor” schools.

#12 Comment By hwc On June 30, 2005 @ 12:47 am

…but that is about as likely as her going to a “homogeneously white/wealthy college”, at least if we restrict consideration to elite schools, since there are no such schools in existence.

There are lot of homogenously white LACs. Here are few with percentage of white US citizens:

Carelton 77% white
Bowdoin: 76% white
Davidson: 86% white*
Haverford: 72% white
Middlebury 75% white
Washington & Lee 88% white *
Grinnell 77% white
Colby 83% white
Hamilton 82% white
Bryn Mawr 74% white
Bates 86% white*
Oberlin 74% white
Kenyon 89% white*
Connecticut College 80% white

* There have probably been Klan rallies that aren’t that white!

For comparison, here are some schools that would be more attractive to students seeking a more diverse environment. Note the preponderance of extremely well-endowed schools. Diversity costs money. It’s a premium option — like leather seats and a power moonroof.

Williams 69%
Amherst 64%
Swarthmore 63%
Harvard 60%
Yale 64%
Princeton 64%
Dartmouth 67%

I can tell you that we looked at that number for every school on my daughter’s list. Why? Because it tells you something about the desire for diversity and/or the ability to afford it. I went to Williams when it was basically all white as Guy mentioned. I thought that the homogenous student body was one of only two significant drawbacks to the school.

In some cases, lack of endowment and/or location explains the poor diversity. I mean, Iowa is a tough sell to Asians, blacks, and Latinos, I imagine. Some of the schools just don’t have the money. Haverford, for example, is constrained by a very small endowment.

However, without mentioning any names, there are few schools on the list above where I think you have to seriously question whether even want any non-white students.

#13 Comment By frank uible On June 30, 2005 @ 6:26 am

Guy: With respect to the attitudes of secondary schools’ guidance counselors, I occasionally and very surprisingly to me found counselors who had not heard of Williams; many knew little about it; and even more had virtually no enthusiasm for it.

#14 Comment By David On June 30, 2005 @ 7:58 am


1) I purposely restricted my comments to elite schools. There may be LAC’s that are “homogenously white,” but there are virtually no elite schools like that.

2) If by “homogenously white,” you meant 80% white (the average of the schools you listed at the top), then I guess that we just have different definitions of “homogenously.” Moreover, 77% white is in the neighborhood of the US population as a whole! Is the US a “homegenously white” country?

Now, I realize that I have ignored all sorts of subtle issues in this discussion. White and Hispanic are, of course, not disjoint categories. The statistics for the US as a whole are not the same as the statistics for 18 year olds (or 18 year old high school graduates). And so on.

You write:

However, without mentioning any names, there are few schools on the list above where I think you have to seriously question whether even want any non-white students.

I think that this is an unfair slur. Let’s say a college decides to be race/ethnic blind — “content of their character”, blah, blah, blah. It refuses to consider race/ethnicity as a matter of principal. (It might or might not consider economic diversity.) Such a school might easily end up looking like, say, Washington and Lee, both because of who it accepted and because of its yield, given comfort and critical mass issues.

Would it be fair to say that such a school does not “want any non-white students”?

#15 Comment By frank uible On June 30, 2005 @ 12:30 pm

Does “does not want” mean eschew or indifferent to?

#16 Comment By hwc On June 30, 2005 @ 1:21 pm

Yes, I think it is fair to say that Washington & Lee has no particular interest in attracting non-white students. They will accept non-white students; I’m not suggesting a “George Wallace blocking the steps to the college” attitude. I’m simply suggesting that W&L has decided, as a matter of institutional priority, that diversity is not important enough to invest much effort in attracting non-white students.

Note that the black population of many southern states is very high: nearly 20% in Virginia, 26% in North Carolina, 28% in Georgia. Schools in the south that make an effort can attract a significant black enrollment (Duke 12%, Emory 9%, UNC-CH 11%) so I’m not inclined to chalk it up to regional hurdles as I would for a school in Maine or Iowa.

Also, note that, in addition to being 88% white, W&L also has the lowest percentage of student not qualifying for any need-based aid (77%) and almost certainly the highest frat/sorority percentage in the country. Add those three metrics together and I think we get a pretty clear picture of their targeted customer base.

Those three metrics: diversity, % financial aid, and frat/sorority % combine to be a very effective indicator of a school’s culture, IMO. Especially for small LACs, I think it’s critical for prospective students to consider the prevailing culture of the school. Unlike large universities where there are large sub-cultures, being out of step with the mainstream culture of a small college can easily make a student feel marginalized.

#17 Comment By Shamus On June 30, 2005 @ 2:10 pm

Unfortunately as a public high school teacher I have learned Williams is not as well known in high schools as I thought it was. I encourage all Ephs to sponsor a book award, it seemed to have a positive impact at my school this year.

#18 Comment By hwc On June 30, 2005 @ 4:28 pm

On this whole issue of top-LACs being “well-known”, I would caution everyone to be careful what we ask for! Seems to me that one reason that LACs provide the educational environment they do is that the students are, to a great extent, self-selected to value the quality of the education above the designer brand-name label. I’m not sure that flooding top LACs with double the number of applications, many of them ill-considered in terms of fit, may not really be a positive development. In many ways, those of us who value small LACs (or at least those of us who would like to see our kids be able to get accepted) would probably be better served by keeping them a secret.

To me, one of the little snobbish pleasures of a Williams degree has been being able to use it to evaluate whether someone knows anything about higher education by their recognition or lack thereof.

#19 Comment By Kevin On July 2, 2005 @ 11:45 am

You mean that Washington and Lee is judging applicants by their individual qualifications rather than the color of their skin? The does sound like a Klan rally!

#20 Comment By Anonymous On July 3, 2005 @ 4:33 pm

Actually, based on how few students qualify for financial aid, I would surmise that W&L is judging their applicants by the size of their checkbooks.

#21 Comment By Semus On July 5, 2005 @ 11:34 pm

Just a somewhat unrelated comment:

I think that the biggest discrimination that exists in the Williams admission process is the one against international students. International students and US citizens are considered to be 2 separate pools by the admission office. The admission offce targets to fill about 6 % of the incoming class with internationals; this is about 30 ppl. Last year, about 900 international applied, and about 80 were accepted (these figgures are “almost righ”–I am quoting from my memory, but the accurate data can be checked in the previous editions of The Williams Record).

Thus, the admistions rate for internationals is about 1 in 10, while it is 1 in 5 for the general college population. Of course, this differs from country to country –Williams seeks to acheive as much “global geographic diversity” as possible. This effectively means that the admissions rate for somebody from China is, say, about 1 in 50 (my friend from China who goes to Williams told me that a bunch of his friend with Math SAT of 800 were rejected — and that’s only one (albeit elitish) high school in China [BTW, imagine yourself doing SAT in Chinese, or Burmese, or Russian, while you take all of your classes in English] . I have heard a person from the admission office saying that (I parafraze) “if we had a truly need-blind admission policy [read “citizenship-blind policy”], a third of the Williams students would be Chinese, a third Eastern European, and a third everyone else.”
Given the admission rate of 1 in 20 for an average intl. student, it is not surprising that although they constitute 6% of the student body, the valecitorians in the two last years have been intl’ students (in 2004, a student from China, and in 2005 a student from Bulgaria).

This said, I need to say that Williams has done an awful lot to put more money towards international admission. Even better, williams does indeed have a 100%need blind admissions policy WITHIN the intl’ application pool. In other words, it will not accept a less qualified rich intl’ student over a more qualified poor one. As a consequence, most intrnational students at williams come from dirty-poor families (by US standard), as oppose to the international students at Brown U, who are almost excusively accademicaly-worse-than-average–student rich brats (by US standard).

And finally, yes, I do accknowlege that US does not have an obligation to give scholarships to all poor (but brainy) people around the world. But, thare should be more campus awareness about the predicament the intl’ students face in the admission process.

Anyway, sorry for the Nader-like rant. Just something that I felt writing about.

#22 Comment By Ananda Burra ’07 On July 6, 2005 @ 4:51 am

Thank you Semus! Thats something I myself wanted to say. As an international student at Williams on substantial financial aid, I can attest to the fact that Williams is an amazing place for an international to come in terms of money. The college is definately generous when it comes to that.
International students applying to the US generally come for a whole range of different reasons. Some come because they dont think their own country’s educational institutions are up to the mark. Others want to do subjects not offered at their home universities. Some want the brand recognition of a big-name US institution and some just like the way people are tought in College in the US. Some, like me, come to the states because if they had to stay back in their home countries they would have to choose exactly what they wanted to do at the beggining of their college career and stick with that.
Academically International students are probably the most motivated students on campus and in recent years they are amongst the most involved students on campus.
I applaud Williams and especially Morty for doing all he has to increase international student representation at Williams but there are definately still members of the Williams community who accept International students as a sufferance. I remember going to a Trustee dinner my freshman year and sitting at a table with a Trustee and his wife. The trustee was a little drunk and we got talking. He asked me where I was from and then asked me if I was on financial aid or not. On answering in the affirmative and making all the right noises about how great Williams’s financial aid package was, I was rather taken aback by what he said. Leaning on the table he looked at me and said “You people should be jolly grateful. You are costing us a WHOLE lot of money and you had better make good use of it. We are really emptying the bank for you peopl.” Luckily no one else in the administration has ever said anything remotely like that to me but debates about affirmative action that make a big point of selecting people purely on merit and not on race make me really angry. As Semus said, if you are serious about that – try it. Then see what the college looks like. You dont see the internationals complaining about being marginalised in the admissions process.

#23 Comment By Eislerman On July 6, 2005 @ 1:00 pm

That’s an interesting point, and not one that gets much attention at Williams; it’s also a tough one to crack, because I think the question of obligation toward educating internationals is up for debate. My guess is most ‘leet US schools treat foreign students like URMs- a necessary component to achieving the desired campus diversity- only rather than treating them leniently w/r/t to admissions they apply more rigorous standards to hit quotas.

That said, being at a ‘leet foreign institution, Williams seems far more welcoming toward internationals both financially and in terms of policy. The place I’m at is incredibly tightfisted toward international students, and moreover I’ve heard some incredibly condescending comments regarding college education elsewhere in the world- and this condescension plays over into their admissions, it seems. If you’re not from their system, or you don’t play by their rules, they’re far less interested in you than in their own students who are of equal quality.