There are many “chances” posts on College Confidential, requests from potential applicants for comments on their chances of getting into Williams and advice on how to do so. See here, here and here for recent examples. I am often tempted to reply: “Take a genetic genealogy test and, if it comes back black, join the appropriate clubs in your high school and check the right box on the Common Application.”

Good advice?

1) A recent New York Times article discussed the power and problems of these tests.

The authors said that limited information in the databases used to compare DNA results might lead people to draw the wrong conclusions or to misinterpret results. The tests trace only a few of a customer’s ancestors and cannot tell exactly where ancestors might have lived, or the specific ethnic group to which they might have belonged. And the databases of many companies are not only small — they’re also proprietary, making it hard to verify results.

“My concern is that the marketing is coming before the science,” said Troy Duster, a professor of sociology at New York University who was an adviser on the Human Genome Project and an author of the Science editorial.

“People are making life-changing decisions based on these tests and may not be aware of the limitations,” he added. “While I don’t think any of the companies are deliberately misleading customers, they may have a financial incentive to tell people what they want to hear.”

You think? If a particular company get a reputation for “finding” black ancestry in people who “look” non-black, I suspect that they might find an eager market for their services. (By the way, Troy Duster is an Eph, via honorary degree. Previous entries here.)

But even if the test companies don’t act on their financial interests, they still make mistakes. And, even when they don’t make mistakes, what happens when they start saying that you have “African” genes when it appears that some of your descendants came from north Africa? And, even when the companies a) Don’t act in their financial interest, b) Don’t make mistakes and c) Don’t count north African ancestry as “African”, there is still a big problem. A large percentage (can’t find a citation just now) of the “white” population in America has at least one ancestor from sub-Sahara Africa. Does Williams really want to provide them with affirmative action?

2) I covered much of this ground last year. Recall:

Note that the Common Application gives you almost complete latitude in what boxes you check. It states, “If you wish to be identified with a particular ethnic group, please check all that apply.” In other words, there is no requirement that you “look” African-American or that other people identify you as African-America or even that you identify yourself as African-American, you just have to “wish to be identified.”

Now, one hopes, that there isn’t too much truth-stretching going on currently. The Admissions Department only wants to give preferences to students who really are African-American, who add to the diversity of Williams because their experiences provide them with a very different outlook than their non-African-American peers. But those experiences can only come from some identification — by society toward you and/or by you to yourself — over the course of, at least, your high school years. How can you bring any meaningful diversity if you never thought of yourself as African-American (or were so thought of by others) until the fall of senior year?

The point here is not that the current admissions policy at Williams is bad or good. It is what it is. The point is that there are significant preferences given to those who check certain boxes and that cheap genetic testing will provide many people with a plausible excuse to check boxes that, a few years ago, they did not have. How much will the admissions process change as a result? Time will tell. It will be very interesting to look at the time series of application by ethnic group over this decade. I predict that the raw number (and total pool percentage) of African-American and Hispanic applicants will increase sharply.

3) Note that this is already happening. Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action tells the story (page 82) of white parents scamming their way into San Francisco’s elite Lowell High School “by scouring their family histories for the tiniest hint of black or Hispanic blood.” That sort of “scouring” gets easier and cheaper each year.

4) Besides studying the trends in the number of applicants from different groups, the Record could have a lot of fun just by looking at the pictures of Williams students. There are, allegedly, 49 or so African-Americans in the class of 2011. Want to bet? I have no doubt that the admissions office is being honest — 49 students did indeed check that box. But, could an outsider look at pictures of all the members of the class of 2011 and pick out those 49 individuals? I doubt it. The Record ought to give it a try. Background information here.

5) Don’t forget that there are some administrators at the College who would actually welcome this development. The College loves to be able to claim that 10% of Williams is African-American, whatever the underlying “truth” might be. In this dimension, the College certainly practices a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell philosophy. Even better would be having a 10% African-American class with average SAT scores above 1400. Not hard to do if a lot of applicants start checking that box.

So, what should those poor applicants at College Confidential do? Suggestions welcome.

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