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A Jew Quota for the 21st Century?

Is the treatment of international applicants by Williams today equivalent to the discrimination by Ivy League schools against Jewish applicants 50 years ago? Inquiring minds want to know.

First, we have the empirical question of whether or not Williams discriminates against international applicants today. I am beginning to think that it does. For starters, international students have made up a seemingly fixed 6% of the each class for several years now. Where did that magic 6% come from, if not an implicit/explicit quota?

It could be that international students just so happen to be a strong enough group that there are about 60 of them worthy of admission each year (which, with a 50% yield, would generate 30 international Ephs in each class), but I would have predicted a secular growth in the quality and quantity of international applicants in the last decade. The world is getting smaller. Still, as I have argued on other occasions, the law of large numbers applies to admissions as elsewhere, so a steady state value of 6% is not, in and of itself, evidence of a quota.

The more damning evidence of discrimination comes in the performance of international students at Williams. Consider the first crop of Phi Beta Kappa students for the class of 2006. Now, if the population of international students is similar to the population of US students in the class of 2006, we would expect that 6% of the 26 PBKs would be international. In other words, the default hypothesis of no-discrimination would predict 1 or 2 international PBKs.

Before reading further, ask yourself how many PBKs would have to be international for you to be distrustful of the Admissions Department . . .

The actual number is 6 — although the hometown data presented here may not be perfect. Almost 25% of the top students at Williams in the class of 2006 are from outside the US even though such students make up only 6% of the class.

This is a large enough number to make me suspicious. Admittedly, my prior analysis suggested that there weren’t really aren’t that many more international students in the right tail of the Williams GPA distribution, but more evidence leads me to update my posterior inference. I think that Williams does discriminate against international students. Or, if their outstanding performance caught tha admissions office by surprise — perhaps because it is hard to evaluate the meaning in high school transcripts from places like China — then there is no excuse for not acting on that information going forward.

Second, assuming that this discrimination exists, is it justified? No. Would any EphBlog reader disagree? Williams should admit the most academically outstanding (and, secondarily, well-rounded) English-speaking 18 year-olds from around the world. If 50% of them happen to be from outside the US, then so be it.

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#1 Comment By Ronit On November 21, 2005 @ 11:26 am

No duh there’s an explicit quota on international students. Thanks for pointing that out, Captain Obvious.

To the best of my knowledge, int’l students are considered in a separate pool from other applicants, and the standards for that pool are much more rigid. To put it simply, many of my American friends with decent high school records would not have had any chance of getting into Williams if they were from a different country.

#2 Comment By Ananda Burra ’07 On November 21, 2005 @ 11:34 am

We are so smart it scares me!

#3 Comment By current eph On November 21, 2005 @ 11:47 am

One other explanation is that international applicants are held to the same standards as US applicants, but don’t compare similarly application-wise.

Let me explain:

The international educational system is, for the most part, fairly different from the US educational system. In most non-US countries extracurricular activities are not emphasized to nearly the degree that they are in the states. Consequently, when an intl applicant is being held to us applicant standards, many fall short due to sub-par (or non-diverse) EC activities. As Williams in particular looks closely at students EC pursuits, this could lead to a lower admit rate for intl students and a relatively greater intl %age of solely academic admits. Even aside from this, I’d be surprised if tips, Legacies, or other sorts of “special interest” admits make up nearly as much of the total intl student body as they do US student body.

If we were to compare those intl students admitted for primarily academic reasons (ie: with their academic strength being their ‘hook’) with US students admitted for primarily academic reasons, I would be quite surprised if we would find any difference in performance at Williams.

#4 Comment By AnonEph On November 21, 2005 @ 11:49 am

“Second, assuming that this discrimination exists, is it justified? No. Would any EphBlog reader disagree? Williams should admit the most academically outstanding (and, secondarily, well-rounded) English-speaking 18 year-olds from around the world. If 50% of them happen to be from outside the US, then so be it.”

I would disagree. It’s not hard to make the case that Williams is designed to educate Americans, and that international students are admitted to afford American students a bit of foreign perspective.

By the way, why should “academically outstanding”, etc. be the criteria for admission? What about character, creativity, maturity, intelligence, talent, etc. Academics are not an end in themselves; the classes at Williams hold value not because they teach students the academic subject matter*, but because they teach discipline, how to learn, etc. Choosing only academically outstanding students in fact frustrates the goal of a Williams education, which is to foster the other traits, not to spin academic wheels.

*(I would note, that, outside Div. 1 fields like language, Art Studio and Div. 3 classes, most classes (economics, political science, english, history, philosophy, psychology, art history, etc.) don’t teach “true facts”)

#5 Comment By Anonymous On November 21, 2005 @ 12:12 pm


In a slot-based admissions system, such as practiced by all upper tier colleges and universities, there is a “target” (or “quota” if you will), for every type of student.

One of the first things that goes into determining the “target” numbers is the pricing strategy of the college. Bluntly stated, how many of each category can the college afford?

At colleges with lower selectivity, international students can be a source of revenue. However, this not true at very elite liberal arts colleges. International students are very expensive.

82% of Williams’ international students in 2004/05 received financial aid, compared to only 42% for the student body as a whole.

The average financial aid package for the international aided students that year was $37,414 compared to an average aid package for all aided students of $27,840.

International students that year were 5.6% of the full-time undergrad enrollment, yet they received 18.8% of the school’s entire financial aid budget. Thus, in a very real sense, the number of international students probably reduces the comparatively small number of need-aid domestic students the college feels it can (or chooses to) afford. It is, ultimately, a zero-sum game.

Is there a “quota” for internationals? Yes, but it is not unlike the quota you or I might have on the number of new Mercedes we can buy each year.

The fact that internationals tend to perform well academically should come as no suprise. For the most part, internationals at top US college come from a handful of feeder schools that concentrate top academic talent in their regions of the world in a way that is unimaginable in the United States. Combine that with the fact that these are students with the gumption to pack up and move halfway around the globe for college. Further combine it with the fact that the internationals tend to be very focused on their academics while in college.

#6 Comment By frank uible On November 21, 2005 @ 12:29 pm

Why don’t you clowns give up and acknowledge that admissions is an arbitrary art practiced by necromancers, contained in an inpenetrable black box, bearing no relationship to logic and passing all understanding? Then you can devote all your time to pursuing your true destinies in life – namely, drinking beer (white wine for you old farts) and attempting to seduce the opposite gender!

#7 Comment By Ronit On November 21, 2005 @ 12:39 pm

AnonEph: Nice. You dismiss the academic worth of all international students, as well as half of the liberal arts, in one swift stroke. Dick.

#8 Comment By Anonymous On November 21, 2005 @ 12:48 pm

Many international students somehow get financial aid, even if they spend their years here driving around in a new car, carrying lots of expensive gadgets, and taking vacations.

#9 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On November 21, 2005 @ 2:46 pm

anoneph: Your suggestion that academics are not the sole reason-for-existence of colleges and universities flies in the fact of the past forty years of institutional thinking. I happen to agree, however; Deep Springs College is the only institution I know that has rejected this notion in favor of pursuing an explicit Mission, and whose faculty do not perpetually cry for “a reassertion of academics as the [primary | sole | only] reason for” [x | y | z].

However, I would take issue with the implicit premise that Williams should be an institution to ‘teach Americans’– at least in its current mold. In an era when most of the “international” students we are speaking about will have equally international options and careers, Williams (and many of the States’ elite institutions) still maintains a remarkably parochial perspective– preparing people to work in a borders-closed United States that hardly existed a decade ago. It hardly bears my harping that this has negative political and security consequences; it does bear harping that a plot map of the current geographical distribution of ephs from the last 10 classes, versus other institutions, might also suggest deficiencies in Williams’ education.

To use more anecdotal measures, China recently outpaced the United States in the production of research scientists, and our famous “brain drain” turned backwards– the US is now a net exporter of intellectual capital. These are phenomena which require enormous realignments of institutional priorities; anyone caught sitting on their arses in this market is going to suffer heavy losses.

If Williams’ Vision (and Mission) in this coming world is to be a place for suburban soccer moms to send their sons so they will be comfortable and have an easy time– well, notwithstanding the incredible and growing gender gap in academic acheivement, I would bet that such a vision cannot survive the world marketplace of the coming two decades.

As with our nascent discussions of recruiting West Coast students and other regions: Williams could certainly change the “cost” of international students by explicitly recruiting the financial and political elites of nations outside the US, building the kind of institutional support that such students need, and proclaiming Williams ready to educate for a new century. And if it does not, of course, it will loose out to those who do, in the sense that the next centuries’ cultural financial elites will come from these classes.

Notwithstanding all my Rhetoric above, 6% internatinal is nearly twice the US average of just above 3%– while it is worthwhile to note that that percentage is highly variable by institution, with places like Carnegie Mellon enrolling 25% international. As well, “foreign born” or index thereof might be a better indicator, as USC and UCB etc likely enroll much higher percentages of recent immigrants that Carnegie Mellon.

Also of note, the extreme racial and national divisions of the UC and other schools– with less than 3% international enrollment at UCB, it is notable that the annual “student groups” fair is in fact a “national groups” fair– which begs the question of how the vast majority socialize and identigy themselves, and if they have any civic engagements.

At many lower tier universities, this becomes even more polarizes– a small group of international students, itself highly fractionalized but elite, alongside a large American contingent with little to no understanding (or perception) of their existence– or of the existence of an international economy. Those are the students with 60% graduation over 8 years, and the real losers in the game. Williams is certainly doing very well in comparison.

#10 Comment By hwc On November 21, 2005 @ 3:58 pm


To add to your point, it is not always easy to get a full picture of international enrollment.

I can’t put my finger on Williams data, but Swarthmore’s data illustrates the point.

In 2004, the percentage of “international” students (meaning not US-citizens or permanent aliens) was 6.0%.

However, if you add the students with dual-citizenship including US plus at least one other country, the number jumped to 10.5%.

If you look at students reporting their primary address as being outside the United States (without regard to citizenship), you get still a third number: 7.4%

BTW, I’m not sure where you got the figure for Carnegie Mellon. They reported 12% international (non-US citizenship) for undergrad enrollment in the Fall 2004. That percentage would jump significantly for most schools (and especially for tech schools) if you include graduate students.

The highest I’ve seen for a liberal arts college is Macalaster at 14%. Otherwise, 6% is a pretty high number. Harvard is the highest I’ve seen for “all-purpose” private universities at 9%, but that’s only from looking school by school in the USNEWS database, so it is by no means comprehensive.

#11 Comment By frank uible On November 21, 2005 @ 5:41 pm


#12 Comment By Ken Thomas 93 On November 21, 2005 @ 6:44 pm

Carnegie Mellon boasts over 2,400 international students (not counting the Qatar campus), of 5,200 undergrads and 3,200 grads… equals 28.6%. In the media, they are reported as 20-25% “international.”

CMU reported 12.3% as non-resident aliens in ’03-’04.

As “non-resident alien” is not the same as “international,” I cannot find a separate undergrad “international” statistic. MBA and science grad programs seem to report about 33% “international,” however. And who knows what methods they use to report :)

#13 Comment By hwc On November 21, 2005 @ 8:35 pm


I found their common data set filing. A “non-resident alien” is the name for “internationals” in the reporting. It means any student who is not a US citizen and who does not have permanent US status. Once you get your permanent resident status in the US, you are no longer an “international”, but a US student, even though you may not have US-citizenship yet.

In any case, C-M had 660 undergrad internationals. So 1800 of their grad students are internationals.

Here’s the link, scroll down to B2 for undergrad enrollment: