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International Quotas

In commentary on this thread, “Semus” wrote:

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 is interesting stuff and, as always, I wish we knew more details. In particular, is there really a 6% quota? Are the grounds for this quota any better than the quotas that elite schools had for Jewish students 50 years ago?

But, I think that what little evidence we have contradicts Semus’s claim. For example, consider the juniors and seniors selected into Phi Beta Kappa (more or less than highest 12.5% of GPAs in the class).

If Semus were correct, we would expect that more than 6% of these students would be international. After all, if standards are higher (competition stiffer) then the typical international student should be smarter and/or harder working and/or more academically gifted than the typical US student.

There is some evidence in looking at the juniors inducted. By my count, 4 of the 25 (16%) are international. But, among the 42 seniors inducted, none were international. So, only 4 out of the 67 Phi Beta Kappa students in the class of 2005 were international students.

And, mirable dictu, 4 is almost exactly 6% of 67. There are exactly as many international students in PBK as one would expect if the null hypothesis — that the college does not discriminate for or against international students — were true.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of complications here, especially in terms of course choices and major selection. One could do more by looking at actual GPAs, or at least various latin honors. But, big picture, there does not seem to be discrimination against, or affirmative action in favor of, international students.

Now, if the Record really wanted to write a story that everyone talked about, they would investigate the distribution of alumni children, URMs or varsity athletes among the PBKs. I wonder what they would find?

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#1 Comment By Ananda Burra ’07 On September 19, 2005 @ 9:54 am

both the valedectorian and the Phi Beta Kappa speaker were internationals

#2 Comment By ananda burra 07 On September 19, 2005 @ 10:12 am

my bad

not the phi beta kappa speaker

#3 Comment By Aidan On September 19, 2005 @ 10:47 am

I believe the PBK speaker might have been a Russian, at some point. He’s what we call an “immigrant.”

#4 Comment By current eph On September 19, 2005 @ 11:44 am

While admissions may have a goal for the number of intl students they admit (they have goals for the number of just about any type of students they admit), to the best of my knowledge it is flexible. In other words, if one year sees an extraordinarily strong Intl applicant class, Admissions has the power to admit aiming for more than 6% of the matriculating class.

It’s very difficult to compare most intl students with US students, given the differing school systems and high school priorities. While Bulgarian applicants may have a higher average SAT than, say, Californian applicants, possibly they pursue fewer extracurricular activities, or have a lower average GPA and/or class rank.

Also, I believe that the vast majority of Tips and legacy-admits are US citizens. If we were to take these groups out of the US applicant pool, and compare the remaining applicants against Intl applicants, the difference in acceptance rates (and any other comparative number you want to come up with) would be significantly smaller.

I’m not denying that it may be more difficult to get into Williams as an Pakistani than a Pennsylvanian–I just don’t think that’s something that we should take for granted simply based upon the Intl acceptance rate or several anecdotal accounts of admissions.

#5 Comment By Diana On September 19, 2005 @ 12:54 pm

The Phi Beta Kappa speaker was Colin Bruzewicz, who is from New Hampshire.

Do people in China really take the SAT in Chinese when they take their classes in English? I would think it would be the other way around — Chinese students having to take the same English SAT as everyone else while taking classes in Chinese — although both ways are difficult. If the SAT is in Chinese, then how do they make sure that the Verbal sections are similar in difficulty? Strange.

One reason why International Students might have higher GPAs is that they tend to major in science subjects, where it is easier to get very high (and very low) grades, as we discussed here. As (d)avid said:

it is no accident that the valedictorian comes from Div III. There are Div I and II professors who don’t think A+s are even possible. If you take courses where you can’t get an A+, you’re at a disadvantage.

From experience, it seems that international students tend to major in Div III.

#6 Comment By hwc On September 19, 2005 @ 5:02 pm

I think there are almost certainly “quotas” or “targets” for international students, just as there are for almost any other category of student.

For internationals, there are probably two key factors in establishing an upper limit:

a) Finanical aid. Colleges have “x” amount of money budgeted for financial aid. It’s a zero sum game; every dollar you spend on international financial aid is a dollar you don’t spend on domestic students with demonstrated need. It’s actually a little worse than that because federal Pell Grant, loan, and work study dollars are not available for non-US citizens. Thus, the goals of increased international enrollment and increased enrollment of non-wealty/white US students are in direct conflict.

Sometimes you even run across by-laws impacting these targets. For example, Swarthmore has a legally-binding by-law (dating back to some ancient endowment gift) that limits financial aid to internationals to 6% of the school’s total financial aid spending. When these sorts of regulations were instituted a hundred years ago, nobody ever suspected it would become an issue.

b) Colleges have to be cognizant of their alumni base. In the case of elite colleges, the older alumni base consists almost entirely of white, wealthy guys. These movers and shakers in the alumni base have already seen tremendous erosion in the perceived admissions opportunity for their offspring as 25% to 40% of the admissions slots now go to “non-white” students. The demographics of deep pocket alumni movers and shakers make them probably the most resistant group to appreciating the value of “diversity initiatives”.

Again, it’s a zero sum game. You’ve only got “x” number of admissions slots. Any time you give more slots to a new group, somebody else’s ox is going to be gored. And, at least to this point in time, that “somebody else” probably includes your biggest contributors.

And, all of that is before we even get to the philosophic question? To what extent should the United States be obligated to share one of our greatest resources (our system of higher education) with the rest of the world? Not only share it, but foot the bill for sharing it?

#7 Comment By frank uible On September 19, 2005 @ 7:37 pm

hwc: I have the answer to all these questions. If I were President, my education and other policies would be wonderful, but I received not one vote last time around (sadly my mother is long gone).

#8 Comment By Ananda Burra ’07 On September 19, 2005 @ 10:13 pm

I actually completely agree with you. It is a zero sum game. I agree with your points re. why international student admissions might be capped. The alumni point is an especially powerful one. On a point of information, international students can benefit from work study money. non-canadian, non-carribean international students also recieve pretty huge ‘gifts’ of money from the college to get through their time here. Williams is without doubt one of the best institutions in this country w/ regard to international fin aid.

The point about why the US should share its resources with non-US citizens is a less well made one. Its true, and I grant it, that the US is one of the best places in the world to come to as an international student (I’m here arent I). When I consider how India treats international students, I thank my lucky stars that I am where i am. But it isnt a one way street by any means. By being ‘obligated’ to share some of its resources, the US has historically managed to keep itself several steps ahead of its competitors in the academic disciplines. the fact is that, if you accept very very smart kids from around the world and let them stay in the US for a few years, a good number of them are going to want to stay on and work in YOUR economy and in YOUR universities and enhance those very resources you think they are depleting. In fact, they will pour so much money back into your economy that the question is not so much of the US footing peoples’ education bills, but that of the world fueling America’s economic and intellectual growth. I know thats certainly an issue in India with the now infamous ‘brain drain’.

#9 Comment By Semus On September 20, 2005 @ 1:23 am

In response to Dan Kane:

Last Saturday, Williams has elected 26 members of the class of 2006 to PBK. To be elected to PBK after junior year, one must have a GPA in the top 5% of the graduating class. Out of those 26, 6 were international students. Out those 6, 4 were Europeans, and 2 were Chinese. Now, it turns out that out in the class of 2006, there are 6 (mostly eastern) Europeans, and 4 people from China. Therefore, 67% of the members of the class of 2006 who are from Europe and 50% of the members of the class of 2006 who are from China graduated in the top 5% of the class. Now, you might say that 6 and 4 students is a really small sample size– an anecdote, really. But, just look at the previous years and the same picture emerges. As I said, in 2005 the valedictorian was from Bulgaria; in 2004, from China. What does that say about admission process for the people from those regions?

In response to Diana:

Of course that Chinese people don’t do their SATs in Chinese! I just used that as a metaphor to stress that they do verbal SATs in English, their second language.

And finally:

Williams has arguably one of the most generous financial aid packages for the international students in the US. I am not even arguing that it should enlarge that financial aid, or have a more lenient admissions policy towards internationals. I am just saying that there is not enough awareness as to how difficult is for students from some countries to gain acceptance to Williams.

#10 Comment By Semus On September 20, 2005 @ 1:30 am

Here’s a fun math problem:
If 6% of the Williams class is international, what is the probability that the valedictorian is an international student two years in the row under the Ho hypothesis that an international student is not more likely to be a valedictorian than an average student.
.06*.06=.0036= about third of a procent

So, do we reject the Ho hypothesis?

#11 Comment By frank uible On September 20, 2005 @ 2:02 am

Rejecting the Ho hypothesis is analagous to the sound of a tree falling in the forest.

#12 Comment By David On September 20, 2005 @ 7:51 am

Interesting stuff! Again, I have no particular dog in this fight — although if it were up to me, Williams would go from 6% to 30% international, but I’m just another of those old white alums, so don’t pay attention. Comments/questions:

1) How do you know that there are only 6 European and 4 Chinese students in the class of 2006? Is this information public? If the class is 6% international than there should be 30 or so international students. What countries are the rest of them from?

2) Where is the news release on PBK for the class of 2006? (Please forward us this info so that we can post it here.)

3) Focussing on just the Chinese students in the class of 2006 is a bit misleading. After all, no Chinese students were PBK in the class of 2005. (The Asian winners were from Thailand or Nepal. I don’t know if they were ethnic Chinese, but that is a can of worms that, presumably, none of us want to open today.) Now, if you want to predict that, going forward, half the Chinese students admitted to Williams will be PBK, that would something. But it makes no sense to, post facto, compare international PBKs to the number of students from their particular country at Williams. After all, I assume that last year the percentage of Thai students inducted was equally impressive.

4) Without putting words into Semus’s mouth, is there a sense that not all countries are equally competitive and/not all international students should be included in this calculation? Instead of using 6% as my null hypothesis, perhaps I should use X% because some of the international students (one thinks immediately of soccer players) are clearly selected as tips and not expected to be in PBK? I would have thought that this was a very small group of students, but am always eager to be educated.

hwc’s comments are worth a separate thread.

#13 Comment By hwc On September 20, 2005 @ 2:54 pm


I just wanted to emphasize that I posted the philosophical questions as questions and purposefully did not offer my opinion. Personally, I’m in favor of international enrollment at US colleges. Having said that, I do think that it is another area where the US doesn’t get enough “credit” in the world community for being good, welcoming, generous citizens. I also find it a little ironic when we see articles about how the US educational system is “falling behind” the rest of the world when the rest of the world is flooding the admissions offices of our colleges and universities. Presumably, people must see something they like.

On the issue of over-representation in Phi Beta Kappa, it would probably be instructive to consider the very few international feeder schools that are specfically geared to prepare students to US colleges. For example, look at the number of admissions at top US colleges from the Budhanilkantha School in Nepal or the Mother’s International School in New Delhi or Raffles in Singapore. We are seeing an extreme distillation of the international student pool (especially in Asia) far beyond what we could ever see from US applicants. These are truly the best of the best.

In many ways, international admissions harkens back to the old days of pre-WWII US admissions where there were clearly defined feeder tracks: Exter to Harvard, Andover to Yale, and forget about the public school valedictorian from Des Moines.

#14 Comment By Semus On September 20, 2005 @ 3:31 pm

In response to David:

1) The info is available on WSO facebook.
2) The list of ppl elected comes from the leaflet distributed in college last Saturday for the purpose of the fall commencement. I would assume that the public release will occur sometimes next week.
3) Yes, all three of the Thai ppl. at Williams were elected to PBK, and none of the Chinese (BTW, there were 1 or 2 student from China in class of ’05). But you get the picture…
4) Your guess is as good as mine.

In response to hwc’s comment that:

“In many ways, international admissions harkens back to the old days of pre-WWII US admissions where there were clearly defined feeder tracks: Exter to Harvard, Andover to Yale, and forget about the public school valedictorian from Des Moines.”

So you are claiming that the int’l students who get accepted at Williams are not more able than the US ones (on average, of course), and that they get in only because their high schools teach them how “to beat” the admissions system, or worse, because they are priviliged in some way? But, how would you then explain their phenomenal success DURING their time at Williams (namely, induction to PBK)?
In other words, you would assume that before WW2, ppl from Exter who go to Harvard would graduate near somewhere in the bottom of their class at Harvard, because they would have been “dummer” than students who were accepted on the basis of merit. But, this is clearly not the case w/ int’l students today. Therefore, they don’t get in only because they are priviliged (althought they might be); they get in because they are plain smart.

#15 Comment By Semus On September 20, 2005 @ 3:37 pm

…and finaly:

this is not a “philantropic question.” Colleges do not accept uber-quallified internationals because they would get a worm and fuzzy fealing that it was a right thing to do.
For example, Harvard might specifficaly seek out IMO (Int’l Math Olympiad) medalists because Harvard wants that the top matematicians in US will have graduated from Harvard. It is really an economic choice in some sense.

#16 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On September 20, 2005 @ 4:45 pm

Semus, I think you’re reading too much into hwc’s comment on feeder schools and/or reading it incorrectly.

In the early 1930s, 10% of high school graduates went on to college. Furthermore, those who did largely went based on whether they could pay the freight. There was not a lot of screening for ability.

This was even true after WWII. For example, I was talking to a member of the Class of ’51, and he told me that 320 entered with his class freshman year, and by the end of freshman year they were down to 230.

Colleges used feeder schools such as PA (to Yale), PEA (to Harvard) and Hotchkiss (to Yale) for a good part of the 20th century for two reasons: (1) if you went to prep school, you could afford college, and (2) you could do the work. It was only in the late 50s that Admissions Offices started to grow because they had to figure out who to say “No” to. Before, they had one person on staff (Williams had one Admissions Officer in the 1930s) who usually said, “Yes.”

#17 Comment By Loweeel On September 20, 2005 @ 6:40 pm


I also want to take issue with your math.
– Recall earlier that the relevant subsets for valedictorians are DivIII majors.
– I’d also wager that the percentage of European/Asian students is higher for DivIII than the squishy areas.
– Google “Small Sample Size Bias”. Flip Coins a bunch of times, you’re bound to get 4 heads/tails in a row at some point. It doesn’t mean that it’s indicative of a larger trend — it’s well within the realm of statistical noise given the above factors.

#18 Comment By hwc On September 20, 2005 @ 6:52 pm

No. I’m suggesting just the opposite in fact. There are so few international schools that feed students to US colleges that the students from these schools are incredibly hand-selected and prepared from a huge population base. What percentage of the teenagers in China or India get an admissions slot in one of the feeder schools? At what age did they start daily tutoring for the entrance exams to get into these feeder high schools?

It would be shocking if these students WEREN’T top students at their colleges. Imagine the applicants you would have if you put the top students from every US high school into a special prep school and doled out slots at the top US college to the top half of THAT class.