The October 22 Record featured a section on numbers associated with the class of 2012. (Alas, that section does not seem to be on-line.) Much of the material is what you might expect (number of applications, percent acceptances and so on). But some of the items are strange. Does 1/2 the class really come from New York? Are there really 100 students from “outside the US?” (How can that be if only 40 or so students are non-US citizens?)

But the strangest claim is that the number of “first-generation college students” in the Class of 2012 is 264. Does that even pass the smell test? A normal person would interpret the phrase first-generation college student to mean, at least, that your Dad and Mom did not, you know, actually go to college. But for how many students can this possibly be true? Think back to your own entry. Did half your peers really come from families with no college graduates? Hah! There is some chance that the Record made a mistake or that there is some miscommunication with Admissions. I certainly hope that no one is purposely misleading the Williams community. Details and an overview of socio-ec admissions below.

First, note how the Admissions Office itself describes diversity at Williams.

Williams today is comprised of roughly half male and half female students, about seven percent non-U.S. citizens, and over 33 percent domestic students from underrepresented ethnic, social, and socioeconomic groups. Nearly 60 percent of our students come from public high schools and the majority of our student body receives financial aid from Williams and other sources.

How can only 33 percent of students come from underrepresented “socioeconomic groups” if 50 percent are first-generation college?

Second, recall the recipe article (pdf) on admissions.

The admission office has paid extra attention in the last few years to its “socio-ec” tags, which identify students who hail from an “obvious modest/low-income background” or whose parents did not attend college. This is the only way that a student’s financial situation is discussed by the admission office, as Williams is one of only a few dozen colleges in the country that ensures applicants will be admitted without regard to whether they can afford to pay for college. Williams, in turn, commits to meeting all students’ full demonstrated financial need.

I have been trying for years to get more details on this process. Links, anyone? My guess would be that the Admissions Office does not keep a separate listing of students whose parents did not attend college. Instead, parental education is used as an input in the socio-ec tagging process but, once the tags are assigned, no one keeps track of the data that went into the tags.

Third, the best background information comes from Lindsey Taylor’s ’05 thesis. (Previous discussion here.)

The flag for socioeconomic status is of particular importance for this study. There is a concerted effort by Williams College in conjunction with the Office of Admission to admit greater numbers of low-income students. As admissions are need-blind, the admissions committee identifies such students by assigning two flags for socioeconomic status, Socio-ec 1 and Socio-ec 2. These flags are based on parental education and occupation as well as a student’s intention to apply for financial aid, and this information is obtained from the candidate’s application. One section of the application asks for parental background information, and there is a checkbox at the end of the application asking students if they plan to submit a financial aid application. Checking this box is a prerequisite for being assigned a socioeconomic flag. Socio-ec 1 is assigned to a student neither of whose parents received a 4-year degree, or who received a 4-year degree very recently. Socio-ec 2 is assigned to a student who has at least one parent with a college degree but obviously comes from a modest background. The Socio-ec 2 designation was first used in 1998 for the graduating class of 2002; all previous years’ low-income students come under the Socio-ec I label since at the time there was only one category for Socio-ec. The Director of Admissions, Richard Nesbitt, stated that the definitions are not always a perfect fit, and in those cases the admissions committee votes on whether or not to apply the attribute.

Students who are given a Socio-ec 1 or Socio-ec 2 flag in the admissions process are given special consideration. As detailed in Chapter 3, these flags are assigned based on a student’s parents’ education and current employment. In the context of this study, it is important to remember that the socioeconomic tag was not divided into Socio-ec 1 and Socio-ec 2 until 1998, when it was applied to the admitted Class of 2002. For the purposes of this study, students with Socio-ec 1 or Socio-ec 2 tags will be grouped into the broad category of students tagged for Socioeconomic Status (SES). Socio-ec 2 is the new definition of SES, and this study will treat it as such.

From the Classes of 2000, 2001, and 2002, there were 266 students that were assigned SES tags. The classes had 552, 544, and 537 students, respectively, of which 82, 88, and 96 students were given a SES tag. This translates to 16.3 percent of these enrolled classes having been labeled as being of low-socioeconomic status.

Interestingly, in 2002, when the split of the single socioeconomic tag into Socio-ec I and Socio-ec 2 occurred, the students assigned the Socio-ec 2 tag were overwhelmingly female, comprising 12 out of the 17 students.


1) Unless the Williams student body is radically different from just a few years ago, there is no way that 264 students in the class of 2012 are “first-generation college students.” The Record ought to print a correction.

2) Note the potential here for defining poverty upward. Indeed, this is one of those areas in which, consciously or not, the College can demonstrate “progress” by just assigning some accepted students a socio-ec tag when, a few years ago, those same students would not have merited that designation. This is the sort of inflation that we have seen in financial aid. The College claims credit for increasing socio-economic diversity by pointing to increasing numbers of students on financial aid when, in fact, nothing of substance has changed. Williams is just giving aid to families making $150,000 per year, families that just a few years ago received no aid.

Is the same think happening with socio-ec tags? Tough to know. The old socio-ec tag was perfectly reasonable, but then the College felt the need to create a second, less stringent one. Why? Just what does Williams define as coming from a “modest background?” Your Dad went to Harvard and teaches public school. Your Mom is a homemaker. Do you get a socio-ec 2 tag? I don’t know. (And I don’t know if the policy today is the same as the one that Taylor describes.) But given how misleading Williams has been in its use of financial aid data, I am suspicious.

3) How many students in the class of 2012 are really “first-generation college students?” Excellent question! 264 is absurd. You might guess 89 as the average of 2000 — 2002, but those numbers included socio-ec 2 tags as well. My guess would be that there are only around 75 socio-ec 1 tagged students. And at least some of those have a parent/parents who have a college degree, albeit one received “recently.” Furthermore, note the usage of “4-year degree.” Getting a two year associate degree does not count? Attending college for a few years and then dropping out is the same as never having had the chance to go to college at all? Finally, it is sad but true that not everyone tells the truth on the Common Application, especially on an item like parental education that Williams has no way to verify. If you knew that “forgetting” your Mom’s degree was the difference between acceptance and rejection from Williams, would you feel compelled to answer truthfully?

I would bet that there are no more than 50 students in the class of 2012 who are, literally, “first-generation college students,” whose parents did not attend college. But, since it makes everyone feel better and more inclusive, let’s report 264. Exaggeration in the cause of diversity is no vice.

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