Elite schools like Williams discriminated against Jewish applicants extensively 75 years ago. Today, Williams does the same against international students, especially applicants from places like Korea, China and India. EphBlog was the first to document that, at least three years ago, Williams had a quota of 6% for international students. This quota has been loosened in recent years: 47 out of 540 students in the class of 2011 are international (pdf). That 8.7% figure might not seem like a large increase from the 6% quota, but it is a 50% increase in the raw number of students (47 now versus 31 in the class of 2008).

Long time readers will recall that Williams is just doing what I recommended two years ago in a Record op-ed.

What is the solution? No sensible person recommends radical change. Start with small steps. First, select the best candidates from the waitlist to fill out the Class of 2010. Odds are that the vast majority of these will be international students. Second, increase the quota to 10 percent for the Class of 2011. If Harvard is 9 percent international, why is Williams 6 percent? Third, President Schapiro should appoint a committee of students, faculty and alumni to study the issue and report to the community. The 2002 ad hoc faculty committee on athletics provides a useful model. With more data and analysis, we will all have a better sense of what the policy should be.

8.7% is not quite 10% but I’ll give partial credit for the effort! Where is this debate going and where should it go? Recall that the College is currently engaged in the 2020 Project, an effort by the trustees and senior administrators to think hard about what Williams should look like in 2020 and what it needs to do to get there.

The single most important issue facing the College’s leadership is how “global” to make the Williams student body. Plausible cases can be made for keeping Williams where it is, at 10% international, or for going to 50% international. (You can’t have the best college in the world without the best students and at least half of the best students were not born in the United States.) Any percentage in between is reasonable as well.

Regular readers will be surprised to know that I (gasp!) do not know what the right answer is. Although international students have amazing credentials (hence the need for an admissions quota), there is some doubt as to how much they enjoy their time at Williams, how well they benefit from the experience and how connected they stay to Williams after graduation. My bias is that these concerns, while real, are little more than the same sorts of fears that caused elite colleges to restrict Jewish enrollment 75 years ago. I think that Williams ought to move quickly to 20% international and then, after a few years of evaluation and reflection, go to 50%.

But the issue is not what I (or you) think. I could be wrong! The issue is the process by which the College confronts this problem, the data that it collects, the people that it consults, the discussion which it encourages. Deciding on the best percentage for international enrollment is the most important decision to confront the leadership of Williams since President Jack Sawyer ’39 wrestled with the fraternity question almost 50 years ago. The President and Trustees should study how Sawyer handled that issue and use his approach as a template for action.

Further discussion, and a relevant news hook, below.

Consider this story from the New York Times.

It is 10:30 p.m. and students at the elite Daewon prep school here are cramming in a study hall that ends a 15-hour school day. A window is propped open so the evening chill can keep them awake. One teenager studies standing upright at his desk to keep from dozing.

A student and teacher at an elite South Korean school, the Minjok Leadership Academy, where sights are set on the Ivy League.

Kim Hyun-kyung, who has accumulated nearly perfect scores on her SATs, is multitasking to prepare for physics, chemistry and history exams.

“I can’t let myself waste even a second,” said Ms. Kim, who dreams of attending Harvard, Yale or another brand-name American college. And she has a good shot. This spring, as in previous years, all but a few of the 133 graduates from Daewon Foreign Language High School who applied to selective American universities won admission.

It is very important that Williams maintain its #1 ranking with U.S. News as the best liberal arts college in the country (and therefore the world). International students, for all their many virtues, are not very informed consumers. They know little about the US and less about the particularities of American higher education. Rankings matter to them. How to keep Williams at the top is a topic for another day, but getting rid of lectures can only help matters.

Note the Eph connection.

Both schools reserve admission for highly motivated students; the application process resembles that at many American colleges, where students are judged on their grade-point averages, as well as their performance on special tests and in interviews.

“Even my worst students are great,” said Joseph Foster, a Williams College graduate who teaches writing at Daewon. “They’re professionals; if I teach them, they’ll learn it. I get e-mails at 2 a.m. I’ll respond and go to bed. When I get up, I’ll find a follow-up question mailed at 5 a.m.”

South Korea is not the only country sending more students to the United States, but it seems to be a special case. Some 103,000 Korean students study at American schools of all levels, more than from any other country, according to American government statistics. In higher education, only India and China, with populations more than 20 times that of South Korea’s, send more students.

“Preparing to get to the best American universities has become something of a national obsession in Korea,” said Alexander Vershbow, the American ambassador to South Korea.

How can Williams harness that obsession? We should be reaching out more to these elite international prep schools. Surely there is a Williams alum in Korea who would be willing to visit the school. Perhaps it makes sense to establish close relationships with a handful of these feeder schools, just like the relationships that Williams had/has with New England prep schools, and take several students from them all each year. What sorts of students would we get?

Kim Hyun-kyung, 17, scored perfect 800s on the SAT verbal and math tests, and 790 in writing. She is scheduled to take nine Advanced Placement tests next month, in calculus, physics, chemistry, European history and five other subjects. One challenge: she has taken none of these courses. Instead, she is teaching herself in between classes at Daewon, buying and devouring textbooks.

So she is busy. She rises at 6 a.m. and heads for her school bus at 6:50. Arriving at Daewon, she grabs a broom to help classmates clean her classroom. Between 8 and noon, she hears Korean instructors teach supply and demand in economics, Korean soils in geography and classical poets in Korean literature.

At lunch she joins other raucous students, all, like her, wearing blue blazers, in a chow line serving beans and rice, fried dumpling and pickled turnip, which she eats with girlfriends. Boys, who sit elsewhere, wolf their food and race to a dirt lot for a 10-minute pickup soccer game before afternoon classes.

Kim Hyun-kyung joins other girls at a hallway sink to brush her teeth before reporting to French literature, French culture and English grammar classes, taught by Korean instructors. At 3:20, her English language classes begin. This day, they include English literature, taught by Mani Tadayon, a polyglot graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who was born in Iran, and government and politics, taught by Hugh Quigley, a former Wall Street lawyer.

Evening study hall begins at 7:45. She piles up textbooks on an adjoining desk, where they glare at her like a to-do list. Classmates sling backpacks over seats, prop a window open and start cramming. Three hours later, the floor is littered with empty juice cartons and water bottles. One girl has nodded out, head on desk. At 10:50 a tone sounds, and Ms. Kim heads for a bus that will wend its way through Seoul’s towering high-rise canyons to her home, south of the Han River.

“I feel proud that I’ve endured another day,” she said.

Indeed. There is a school of thought which argues that these are not the sorts of students Williams should accept. Better the more well-rounded and less high scoring US citizen. Maybe.

But now is the time to have that conversation. Conveniently enough, the Boston Alumni Society is meeting tonight and will feature a presentation by several trustees. (Any EphBlog readers should say Hi to the fellow in the orange sweater.) I will try to find out their thoughts and report back.

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