After reading Dick Nesbitt’s article and perusing the accompanying table showing enrollment by race, several things stand out to me. Follow the jump for all my thoughts…

The first is simply a question about the data itself: it appears that every single person who went to Williams evaluated their own race in the data. Just from personal experience I know that cannot be correct, because several of my friends in the class of 2000 were from mixed-race marriages, and several of my other friends simply chose not to fill in their race on their application forms. Considering that the data table shows 4 Native Americans in 2009, even having five or six people choose to not select their race on their application forms should skew the numbers.

Unless, that is, if the remainder of “others” were sorted into the “white non-hispanic” category by default. Which would make the data somewhat meaningless.

Throughout Nesbitt’s piece, the sheer paucity of minority students makes such terms as “doubled” or “tripled” meaningless to evaluate the actual numbers. If only 16 students were from overseas, “doubling” them to 32 sounds like a huge change. But doubling the number of Native Americans only would increase that number to 8.

That said, the picture Nesbitt paints is a fairly rosy one. He admits that Williams isn’t hitting the lower quintile of low-income students, but says that the steps they have taken are all going to remedy the situation.

Personally, I think that the emphasis on lower socio-economic (LSE) students is an excellent one. The more information admissions officers have to evaluate prospective ephs, the better they can do their job. Obviously, a minority student from a wealthy background who went to a prestigious private prep school will share more in common with his classmates than with a student of a similar race in less fortunate circumstances.

What Williams seems to be doing here is focusing on students who, through no fault of their own, have been held back from achieving greatness. While David Kane may take offense at Morty’s use of “intrinsic” in the opening salvo, I think that Nesbitt shows clearly that those of us in the top quintile manage to snag over 70% of the key slots. Clearly, unless America has become a pure meritocracy in the past decade, those at the top are able to get into Williams far easier than those at the bottom. And I’m sure the particular political views of a group of primarily white, upper-class students will tend to include a range that skews, if anything, to the conservative side.

So what does this mean for admissions? Well, a concerted focus on attracting LSE students should increase diversity of viewpoints around campus. I recall, in ’96 as a lowly frosh, instinctively dividing the people I met at Williams into two quick categories: those who went to private high school and those who went to public high school. Prep school kids were a small subgroup of the former, but it was easy to simply stroll around campus and identify who went into each group.

Would Williams be a better institution with more LSE kids from less prestigious high-schools? The thrust of Nesbitt’s piece never addresses this question head one, as it takes it for granted. But, in Dick’s defense, I take it for granted too. From my hometown of Winchester, to Williamstown, and finally to DC these days, I have moved to increasingly diverse locations. And I can say strongly that having people around with different viewpoints and from different socio-economic backgrounds is a huge benefit for Williams.

All of the steps Nesbitt describe for the future seem to aim to enhance the contact admissions officers have with prospective students. This can only be a good thing, because by increasing the diversity of the pool of applicants, the admissions office can set a standard for the rest of the college to follow.

Today, when I meet an eph on the streets of DC, or look at someone’s resume online, I assume that the individual is smart and hardworking. Twenty years ago I could make the assumption that the person was also probably white, and definitely well-off. Today I cannot make those assumptions, which is a good thing. I hope in the future my assumptions will remain just as grounded in an eph’s discipline and ability.

Finally, the only real concern I have with Nesbitt’s suggestions are the emphasis on self-reported income. Although it’s definitely a good data point to have in hand, merely knowing an applicant’s income level isn’t a good indicator of the socio-economic status. If a LSE has parents who make 40k a year versus one whose parents make 20k a year, other factors need to come into play rather than a simple “well, the 40k kid had it easier”.

So what do you guys think? Are Nesbitt’s suggestions enough to bring the LSE students in? Is that a worthy goal in the first place? And should “balance” be the ultimate goal?

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