In “A Report from Williams 2008“, President Schapiro praises a variety of changes at the College, noting that:

Williams students are now. . . [m]ore socially mobile, as more Williams students are the first in their families to attend college.

I e-mailed Morty with some questions, and he kindly replied that the the percentage of first generation students at Williams in the class of 2012 was 21%, a fairly dramatic increase over the 13% in the class of 2008. An 8% change represents about 43 students. So, the College replaced 43 students whose parents went to college with 43 students whose parents did not.

This is either the biggest change in Williams admissions in the past decade or a lot of hype. Unsurprisingly, I think it is a bit of both.

1) If this isn’t the biggest change what is? One option would be the dramatic tightening of admissions standards for athletes. (Overview here. That post and the resulting discussion caused a trustee to, literally, yell at me. The cross that I bear for you loyal readers!) There are about 50 students in each class at Williams today (almost all athletic tips) who would not be here if the old policy were still in place. Instead of having football players who average 1400 on the SATs, we would have different (slightly better) football players who average 1300.

Another option for the biggest change is the increase in international students, rising about 50% in this time period. But the raw number of students is only about 15 more per class.

Given the analysis below, I think that both these changes are more substantively important that the increase in first generation students.

2) Thanks to Morty for providing that data, via the always wonderful Chris Winters ’95, Director of Institutional Research. See the bottom of this post for my e-mail to Morty. I constructed my request (with help from Chris) to be trivial for Williams to answer, should it choose to. Morty’s preference was to provide the two data points above — he feels an affirmative obligation to back up his public claims — but not to answer my more detailed requests. And that’s OK! I would always like the College to be more transparent, but Morty’s chosen level of transparency is a reasonable one.

3) Regular readers will recall that I am suspicious of these sorts of claims, doubtful that the socio-economic status of Williams students today is that much different than that of a decade or more ago. Recall my previous discussion of the data released by Williams to the Senate.

In 1998, the 426th poorest US student at Williams had a family income of around $64,000. In 2008, the 495th poorest US student had a family income of $72,000, which equals $55,000 in 1998 dollars because of inflation. And this ignores the fact that US family income has been rising, so $64,000 in constant dollars is lower relative to the US median family income in 2008 then it was in 1998. I still need to do a full analysis, but there is no evidence that Williams was, to any large extent, less the rich family’s school in 2008 then it was in 1998. “First generation college” is not the same thing as “poor.”

The fact that Morty declines to make the data available to refute that conclusion — data that could be made public at no cost — is, I think, significant.

4) Morty makes no claims about family income in the Report. He uses the number of first generation college students as the metric. Key here is the precise definition of “first generation.” For Williams, this variable is measured using the “Socio-Ec 1” tag that admissions officers apply to applications. See here for extensive discussion. Chris Winters confirms that a) This tag, called “SEC1” by the cognoscenti, is a) Assigned by the Admissions Office, b) requires that neither parent have a BA (although they may have attended college and/or have an associate degree), and c) requires that the student check the box for requesting financial aid.

All those are key points. Consider the confusion in this thread on College Confidential. No one seems to know that you won’t be considered first generation at Williams unless you check the financial aid box.

Note how the College is defining mobility downward. Back in the day, the phrase “first in their families to attend college” meant, you know, being the first person in your family to attend college. If your Dad went to Harvard for a year and dropped out, you were not first generation. Now, you are. Also, why the hate against associate degrees? If someone graduates from high school, goes to college for two years, and completes an Associates degree, isn’t she a college graduate? Of course, she is. Moreover, the concept of first generation college used to imply poor. Now, it does not. Even if your family makes $100,000 or more, Williams will still label you as SEC1, as long as you check the financial aid box.

All of this makes Williams sound much more diverse in terms of student background then it actually is. Williams can label 21% of the students in the class of 2012 as “first in their families to attend college,” but the reality of their backgrounds does not match with the picture that the phrase generates in the heads of Morty’s intended audience. Consider a student whose mom is a nurse and whose dad is a loan officer in the local bank. Both have associate degrees. The family income is $150,000. They live in a nice suburb. Is that the sort of family that you think of when Morty says, “first in their families to attend college?”

5) it is tough to get a sense of the other changes that may have influenced this increase. The Common Data Set reveals that there were 46 international students in the class of 2012, compared to 31 in the class of 2008. (Needless to say, I am a huge fan of this increase. Kudos to Morty!) Many/most (all?) of these international students will be classified of SEC1. So, the 43 student increase in SEC1 is at least partly driven by the increase in international students. Morty declined to break the SEC1 data down by nationality.

Also, it is hard to be sure that the definition of SEC1 has stayed constant, either in description or in application. Recall this discussion from Lindsay Taylor’s ’05 thesis.

The Director of Admissions, Richard Nesbitt, stated that the definitions [for SEC1 and SEC2] are not always a perfect fit, and in those cases the admissions committee votes on whether or not to apply the attribute.

Hmmm. I am not implying malfeasance on the part of anyone in Admissions. Yet we all feel compelled to give the boss what he wants. Morty wants more SEC1 kids. Let’s give it to him! An individual admissions officer (especially one who is likes applicant X for other attributes) will certainly have every incentive to classify him as SEC1. And the committee as a whole will hardly lack for reasons for classifying those students who are not a “perfect fit” as SEC1. What’s the downside? The more SEC1s that Morty sees, the happier he is. Maybe we won’t have to make so many trips to lousy high schools next year?

Consider the numbers from 2002, the last year that Taylor uses. There were 537 students in the class, there were 79 SEC1 and 17 SEC2. (SEC2 allows one or more parent to have a BA degree but insists that parents are in low-wage occupations.) Either way, that is not so different from the 2008 data that Morty cites. In fact, it is better (15% versus 13%) then the results for 2008. Did Morty spend his first few years at Williams driving down the percentage of SEC1s? That seems unlikely.

6) See this discussion for my thoughts on whether or not increasing the number of SEC1 students should be a high priority.

7) A 43 student increase may not seem like that much, but keep in mind the other categories for admissions. Williams probably did not achieve this increase by getting many more SEC1 tips, SEC1 under-represented minorities or (obviously) SEC1 legacies. So, the denominator to use in measuring the increase is not the 540 students in the class. It is the 300 or so students that are not tips, urms or legacies. That is a 14% increase.

8) I bet that the increase in SEC1 is connected to the increase in Asian American students (49 to 64) over the same time period. The standard result in the literature is that any movement toward class-based affirmative action overwhelmingly benefits Asian-Americans because there are a lot of high quality (scores and grades) applicants from non-rich families, especially immigrants.

My position: Admit that smartest, most academically ambitious, English-fluent students in the world. Some will be poor, some rich. Some black, some white. Some born in India, some in Indiana. Some can play basketball, some can’t. Some will have parents who went to Williams, some will have parents who did not graduate college. None of that matters. Ignore it for admissions purposes. Look at grades, look at scores. Summarize it in the academic rating. Admit and attract the best. Williams should have more internationals, more high ARs (many of them Asian Americans), fewer tips and fewer URMs then it has today. I suspect that the ideal class of a typical Williams faculty member is much closer to my ideal class than it is to the actual student body at Williams. So, I wish that the faculty were much more involved in admissions.

My e-mail to Morty:


Hope all is well. I enjoyed reading your article in “A Report from
Williams 2008.” You mentioned that Williams is: “More socially mobile,
as more Williams students are the first in their families to attend
college.” I have two requests:

1) Would you allow me to see some of the data underlying that claim?

2) Would you allow me to share that data with the wider community? (I
realize that you have better things to do than read EphBlog, but it
turns out that there hundreds of students, alumni and parents who are
interested in these sorts of issues.

I discussed this with Chris Winters (cc’d above) and he indicated that
a) He needed your permission to release the info and b) Gave me advice
on how to structure my request so that it would require the minimum of
his time. (Last thing I want to do is waste Chris’s time.)

I have put the precise request below the break. My hope is that you
will just hit “Reply All” and say “Of course!” And, with any luck, the
resulting conversation will remind you of the discussions we had in
ECON 401 more than 20 years ago.


Dave Kane ’88

Data Request:

1) For the last 6 years, how many “Socio-Ec 1” tagged students (SEC1)
have enrolled at Williams, broken down into domestic versus

2) For the last 6 years, what is the family income 400th (or choose
another level if you like) poorest US student over the last decade?
(This is just a different way of looking at the percentile data that
the College provided in the letter to the Senate. It avoids the
problem of the increasing N of students in financial aid.) In other
words, rank (in increasing order) the family income of all US students
seeking financial aid in a given year and provide the family income of
#400 on that list.

I realize that the College does not give precise track of how many
students are “first generation,” and that even this terminology is not
very well defined, but I think that these two data point will get to
the heart of the issue of social mobility.

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