Ronit’s comments on this admissions thread merit further discussion. Read the original post for context.

[Amherst President Tony] Marx could easily achieve his goal of greater equality by admitting fewer athletic tips from privileged prep schools, and fewer legacies, and giving a few of these slots to exceptional kids from the inner city.

First, many/most tips are not from “privileged prep schools.” In fact, football players tend to come from families with below average income (for Williams/Amherst as a whole). Second, it is true that if Amherst got rid of its 66 tips, it could replace them with 66 “poor” students with better academic rankings than the tips they replaced. Amherst teams would then lose most (60%? 80%?) of their games. Now, I suspect that Ronit and I are in agreement that, from the current status quo, Williams/Amherst should place less emphasis on athletics, but that is not the debate we are having today. Marx has never proposed cutting the number of tips.

Third, as I have demonstrated ad nauseum, legacies are a red herring in this debate. Even if you put zero weight on legacy status, the vast majority of legacy students who are at Williams today would still have been admitted. Fourth, if this debate were really about “exceptional kids from the inner city,” then you might have a point. But most of the “poor” students that Marx is admitting do not come from the “inner city” and almost none of them attend lousy inner city high schools. And just how “exceptional” are they?

Consider Ashley Armato.

But financial aid alone isn’t enough to boost low-income enrollments, many colleges have found. Amherst has hired more admissions staff to do outreach, and it pays for several hundred low-income students a year to visit campus. It also works with nonprofit groups such as QuestBridge, which identifies talented applicants from low-income backgrounds.

Current Amherst students from low-income backgrounds can earn their work-study money by mentoring high school counterparts through the college-application and financial-aid process, whether or not they want to apply to Amherst.

Ashley Armato worked as a mentor as a student at Amherst, where she recently graduated and started a one-year job in the admissions office.

I would not use Armato as an example if she were a pre-frosh, but since she is a college graduate (albeit Amherst) , I hope that few will be offended by using her to make the issue more concrete. (And I have no idea what her academic credentials were.) Ronit thinks that this is an argument about “exceptional kids from the inner city.” If that were true, if Amherst were accepting low-income students with 1350 SATs from (lousy) inner city high schools in place of students with 1500 SATs from Choate, that would be one thing. For Ronit’s case to be plausible, someone like Armato should come from a family with low income (bottom 10%? certainly bottom 25%) and go to a bad high school. But, even before I looked, I doubted that this described Armato. And, sure enough, it doesn’t.

As the daughter of a firefighter and a maid, neither of whom went to college, she understood the challenges facing those she mentored. Students often started off assuming they could afford only community colleges, but she was able to explain financial aid and help them expand their options. She also reassured a lot of parents, sometimes speaking with them in Spanish.

Does the daughter of a firefighter and a maid count as poor? Does someone who attended Mount Sinai High School suffer from a below-average high school education? No! After five years, NYC firefighters make $86,518. Mount Sinai is a fine public high school, with a full complement of AP courses.

Again, for all I know Armato was an AR 1. If so, she would have gotten in (probably) even if her father were an investment banker and she went to Exeter. Yet the whole point of Marx’s proposal is to give an extra advantage to applicants like Armato. The key is that Ronit describes this as letting in “exceptional kids from the inner city.” That’s not what the program actually does. Don’t believe me? Believe Amherst.

Bringing in more low-income kids would require added compromise. To meet Marx’s 25% goal, Amherst would have to take more threes [on a 1-7 scale], says Parker, meaning those who may have straight As but SATs as low as 1360. Even though Amherst already does so for minorities, legacies, and athletes, faculty members are worried. “This could be a radical departure that fundamentally changes the character of our institution,” warns physics professor David Hall, who heads the Faculty Committee on Admissions & Financial Aid.

Again, if we are talking about a kid in a lousy high school and from a family making in the bottom 25% of the income distribution, then there is certainly an argument for admitting her and rejecting the investment banker’s daughter from Milton with 1500 (and better grades). Yet Amherst (and Williams) already does that. But that advantage does not produce enough, in Marx’s opinion, poor families. So, he wants to give similar advantages to students from families with above average incomes who attend top quartile high schools.

Had enough? I haven’t even gotten started!

Back to Ronit:

There are plenty of “mediocre and wealthy” kids currently admitted to both Amherst and Williams.

Well, it all depends on what you mean by “mediocre.” Do 66 tips with low ARs get in? Yes. Are some of them wealthy? Sure. Are a similar number of under-represented minorities enrolled? Yes. Are some of them wealthy? Of course. Keep in mind, though, the plan. Amherst is not decreasing the number of tips or URMs. It is decreasing the number of Choaties. How many non-tips, non-URMs at Williams from fancy schools could fairly be described as “mediocre?” Not many, I suspect.

So you set up a false dichotomy. The choice is not between more vs. less intelligence, because you can easily change the socioeconomic background of the student body but have an equal (or even superior) level of intelligence. Or do you believe that kids born to wealthier families are actually born more intelligent?

Intelligence (or IQ) is highly correlated within families. Smart parents have smart children. Part of this is genetics, despite what Morty would have you believe. Part is environment. (Parents who read a lot of books are more likely to be smart and to read to their children.) (I am not arguing that, if we switched 100 babies from poor families with 100 babies from rich families, the rich babies would end up with more impressive high school credentials. The environment matters a great deal.) But those sorts of thought experiments are not the issue.

By the time you get to age 18, what is done is done. Some 18 year-olds are academically prepared to thrive at Williams/Amherst and some are not. It is an empirical fact that you are more likely to find such students in rich families. This could be just because their rich parents paid fancy tutors. Yet, from Amherst’s point of view, the reason for the disparity does not matter. All that matters is who will do well and who won’t. (And feel free to add on whatever special summer tutoring programs you like during the summer before freshmen year.)

Two side notes: First, the easiest way to maintain the IQ of the student body while increasing the number of poor students is to increase international enrollment. Such students are very smart and very poor. Ronit and I probably agree that Williams should do this. Second, the Amherst plan is actually to expand the student body and use most of the extra spots for poor applicants. This does not matter much for our discussion of trade-offs.

There are plenty of students who get in not because of their superior intelligence, but because of their access to superior prep, connections, resources, etc. Transferring some of these slots to equally-intelligent but poorer students, students who might not have had the resources to notch up as many things on their resume, does not mean a reduction in the average intelligence of Amherst students.

First, “things on their resume” do not play a meaningful role in elite admissions. You think that Williams cares if you were in the French Club or the French Club and the International Club? No. The vast majority of admissions decisions are driven by academic rating and specific “tags,” tip, URM and so on. Second, what sorts of “connections” are you talking about? Williams, like other schools, gives a preference to the children of faculty/employees, but there isn’t some secret club of rich guys who can pick up the phone, call Dick Nesbitt and get their golf buddy’s kid into Williams. Third, the admissions office adjusts for “resources,” at least to some extent because your academic rating is school specific. If you take 2 APs at a high school that only offers 2 APs, you can be an AR 1. Do the same at Belmont Hill and you can’t.

Again, it is interesting to play the thought experiment: Imagine that we had taken Joe out of his average (or even lousy) school system and away from his ignorant parents at age 12 and then sent him to Andover instead. With all these extra “resources,” (perhaps) Joe would be much smarter at age 18 then he in fact is. In fact, he would have become much smarter than Sam. So, shouldn’t we take Joe over Sam?

No! Joe did not, in fact, go to St. Paul and so he is not, in fact, as intelligent as Sam. Life is unfair. The mission of Williams is not to reduce that unfairness.

Side note: We will all agree that we should admit Joe if a year or two at Williams will allow Joe to “catch up” with other students, to become as smart as he would have been if he had gone to St. Paul at age 12.

SAT scores can be gamed, and are not a great indicator of intelligence or capability. Who would you rather have – the New England preppie jock douchebag who managed a 1450 after having his parents pay thousands of dollars for private lessons at Kaplan (a type common on both campuses now), or the poorer student who has struggled to get by, overcome serious challenges, but has nevertheless taken solid APs, excelled in his classes, worked part-time after school, and scored a 1340 on the SAT? Do you honestly believe that the 1450 is always ‘more intelligent’ than the 1340? Seriously?

No. First, if the magnitude were just 90 points, few would care. Second, the SAT used to be a much better test of IQ, but has been dumbed down over the years (dropping analogies, adding writing). Third, the real action in admissions is within a given high school. Assume that Armato was at the 90th percentile in her high school class (in terms of both SAT scores and grades). I want to admit the students at the 99th percentile even if their families are much richer than Armato’s.

The idea that admitting more poor students means admitting less intelligent students is ludicrous, unless you happen to believe that somehow, magically, possessing the trappings of wealth also makes you more intelligent.

I want to admit the smartest, most academically ambitious, English-speaking students. I don’t care what color they are, what country they come from or how much their Daddy makes. I am ready to change the admissions system to make that easier. Suggestions welcome!

But if you think that any reasonable system would lead to a Williams class in which half the (US) students came from families with incomes below the US median, you have not confronted the empirical distributions of IQ/intelligence and income/wealth in this country.

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