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More Socially Mobile

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:

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.

Regards,

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
international?

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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#1 Comment By JeffZ On May 8, 2009 @ 6:53 am

“Some black, some right.” Might, ummm, want to fix that typo there ….

#2 Comment By JeffZ On May 8, 2009 @ 6:56 am

Oh, and another admissions related note, looks like the hypothesis advanced by some (including myself) that Williams would have a higher yield thanks to a more self-selecting applicant pool (due to the essay requirement) proved accurate — in this week’s Record, it notes that Williams had a fairly substantial uptick in yield and now may not even go to the waiting list at all, as the school is currently overenrolled (although that is bound to change due to summer melt).

#3 Comment By frank uible On May 8, 2009 @ 8:08 am

David, your proposition would also have the virtue of reducing the budget of the Admission Office down solely to the salary and overhead of one person whose exclusive duties would be to look at submitted SAT scores and high school class ranks, to refer to a comparative high school rigor chart, to make class rank adjustments accordingly and to send out acceptance and rejection letters.

#4 Comment By rory On May 8, 2009 @ 8:42 am

no. income is not the only (or even, in many cases, the standard) measure of class status.

#5 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 9:05 am

Rory: Agreed!

But my claim is that if Williams released the data it has (or gathered more data), we would see that the actual “class status” of the Williams undergraduate population has not meaningfully changed, despite all the College’s moral preening.

For example, high school is a great measure of class status. If Williams students today are coming from the same collection of high schools as they were 10 (or 30) years ago, then I would argue that the class status (at least by that measure) has not changed much.

I am unaware of good data on this, but my sense is that there has been no change. There are still about as many students from fancy prep schools today as there were in the past. There are about as many students from rich public schools today as there were in the past. (And, of course, the College has that data.)

My sense is that the College, by focusing on SEC1 has, indeed, increased the number of students who check that box. But it has done so, overwhelmingly, by selecting students from the same high schools and living in families with the same income as it had before.

#6 Comment By JG On May 8, 2009 @ 9:10 am

I’m curious why you assume international students would be first generation? Is this pure hypothesis or do you have something to back it up? I know little about international admissions, and I know this is your hobby horse (i.e. this is a serious question).

Since I am a first generation college student, I’d like to point out that attending for a year and dropping out certainly still makes you first generation. In my family, my mom was putting herself through the local state school and couldn’t afford it and balance life at the same time. She applies for jobs without a BA on her resume and it absolutely has affected/does affect her employment options and certainly promotion potential (and therefore family income). My father has put in many more years than some of the younger folks at his job, but his lack of a BA means he’s been passed over for promotions (and explicitly told that was an issue). Likewise those with associates degrees in some cases face more limited options for jobs – not always, such as nursing, but most associates programs aren’t like nursing.

This is why the financial aid box makes sense. If an applicant is a first generation college student, but his/her parents have managed (sans degree) to do very well for themselves and not even qualify (or come close to qualifying) for aid at Williams, what soc-ec boost do s/he need from Williams? I think there will still be a different type of adjustment, and I think it matters, but the fin aid box makes a lot of sense to me.

#7 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 9:25 am

I’m curious why you assume international students would be first generation? Is this pure hypothesis or do you have something to back it up?

I have never seen data on this. Certainly, college graduates (as a percentage of the population) is much smaller most countries outside the US, especially outside the developed world. Didn’t the Chinese college system essentially shut down during the Cultural Revolution?

Also, I am suspicious that the College declined to just breakdown the SEC1 data by nationality. But, again, this is just my sense, and I could easily be wrong.

This is why the financial aid box makes sense.

Perhaps. I just find it interesting that this matters, and that the College doesn’t tell people that it does. Consider this thread on College Confidential:

I emailed the admissions committee, and they said that I would have the “first generation status” if I applied (even though I’m white, have a ~120,000 4-person family income, live in a very affluent community and go to an amazing public high school).

As best I can tell, Williams is getting more students like this and fewer students with same income, going to the same school, with slightly better grades and scores, but who have at least one parent with a BA (or who are silly enough to have saved enough money over the last 20 years that they don’t check the financial aid box).

If an applicant is a first generation college student, but his/her parents have managed (sans degree) to do very well for themselves and not even qualify (or come close to qualifying) for aid at Williams, what soc-ec boost do s/he need from Williams?

Exactly right. Do you think that a student who goes to a great high school and whose family income is $120,000 should get a boost just because mom and dad don’t have a BA? That makes no sense to me.

#8 Comment By rory On May 8, 2009 @ 11:12 am

i don’t think you have the right numbers to make your case, david–median income is too vague to make a plausible argument about what’s happening at the tails of the distribution–especially when we’re talking about only a change of 40 (160?) people out of 2000 (especially considering the size of the class has changed).

conceptually, first gen is first gen and regardless of income, there’s a social mobility in receiving a college degree, even if you quibble about associate vs. bachelor (and there’s a significant difference between the two in terms of class status and mobility).

i don’t deny that williams is likely putting the most optimistic spin on it that it can, but i’m not sure we’re transparent enough to decide if it is or is not a real change over these ten years.

also, a rise of 43 more SEC1 tags is much greater than the rise in asian american students (I could be wrong, but i think i’m right), so while they’re probably connected, I’m not convinced that this is piggybacking on that.

finally, going back to The Source of the River information, socioeconomic diversity is most often found within selective colleges in the non-white population in general. So the logical circumstantial evidence is that williams is killing two birds with one stone (while potentially creating a student body in which white is–generally–wealthy and non-white generally not so much) by recruiting more non-white students, it’s also recruiting more first generation students and vice versa.

#9 Comment By Sam On May 8, 2009 @ 11:20 am

I work closely with many first gen students here. There are many who are not in the category that David adduces; they are not coming from families with high incomes and access to the best suburban high schools. The reality here is much more diverse, much more complex. And I applaud the efforts the college has made in recent years (going back to Frank Oakley) to work hard to increase diversities of all sorts (economic, racial, ethnic, cultural, social, etc.). Those efforts have made a real difference over time in opening the college to student with a wide range of backgrounds. That is my direct experience of twenty years.
David will, of course, call for numbers. But we cannot trust him with numbers. He has demonstrated over the years his antipathy to precisely these efforts, and he has acted irresponsibly, on various occasions, with personal student information.

#10 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 11:26 am

Sam,

Feel free to attack the quality of my analysis or the conclusions that I draw. Feel free to point all of us toward better numbers and better analysis. That is what an open, honest academic debate is all about. But this:

[H]e has acted irresponsibly, on various occasions, with personal student information.

I have never done this. Can you be more specific?

#11 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 11:39 am

Rory writes:

also, a rise of 43 more SEC1 tags is much greater than the rise in asian american students (I could be wrong, but i think i’m right), so while they’re probably connected, I’m not convinced that this is piggybacking on that.

Yes, agreed. I just meant to point out that, from the class of 2008 to the class of 2012, there are 15 more Asian America students and 15 more International students. Are all 30 of these SEC1? No! But are Asian-American students and International students more likely to be SEC1 then white American students at Williams? I believe that the answer is Yes and that, therefore, a portion of the 43 increase in SEC1 is also an increase in International and Asian American.

Is one of these causing the other? That is much harder to say. I believe that the increase in International admissions is part of an explicit policy change by the administrator. In other words, those numbers were going to go up even if the College did not even measure SEC1. I think that the causation runs in the other direction for Asian Americans. The College was perfectly comfortable having 10% Asian Americans, but wanted more SEC1. When you look for more (highly qualified) SEC1, you get lots of Asian Americans.

#12 Comment By sophmom On May 8, 2009 @ 11:45 am

To add to what Sam says, I am sure that many of these worthwhile and qualified students would be completely missed if the criteria, as David suggests, was limited to SAT scores and class ranks. I think Frank, in his inimitable way, makes fun of the absurdity of that @3.

Not only are those measures gamed, they are inadequate for a variety of reasons that have already been iterated here and elsewhere, over and over, and over.

#13 Comment By frank uible On May 8, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

Personally I prefer them middle European, Mediteranean and Irish (likely first generation college attending) sounding surnames – on the football roster they make it look like we mean business. Last year we had Szawlowski(2), Morissey, Buck, Sobolewski, Birns, McLoughlin, Curzi, Kiley, Powers, Bain, Milano, Cronin and Batty in the starting lineup – outstanding – probably better than Notre Dame. Curzi is Colin Curzi whose name sounds as if he has a mother of Irish extraction and a paisan father. When asked, he confirmed that he did. He’ll be back for 3 more years. Kiley, a junior next year, also has a double whammy going for him – he is red head from the Old Sod. Best name on the roster – Nikola Mirkovic, a sophomore. With names like these we’re up ten points before kickoff on opponents with poopie-pants prep school sounding names.

#14 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

Sam writes:

I work closely with many first gen students here. There are many who are not in the category that David adduces; they are not coming from families with high incomes and access to the best suburban high schools. The reality here is much more diverse, much more complex.

All true! Again, I am not sure that we are on different “sides” here, Sam. I (like you?) just want to understand what the College has done over the last decade and longer. I am looking for the cross-tabs.

Morty tell us:

         2008  2012
SEC1       70   113

And we all say: “Hooray! Williams is much more socio-economically diverse than it used to be.” But what if the breakdown of the SEC1 students looks like this:

         2008  2012
SEC1       70   113
domestic   70    70
interntl    0    43

This is not what happened, obviously, since the number of international students has not increased so much and there were not zero SEC1 internationals in 2008. It is just a simple example of how an overall increase in SEC1 may not mean what we think it means. In that case, there has been zero increase in US SEC1. We might like that stasis. We might not like it. But it is key to understand the reality. Consider another crosstab:

         2008  2012
SEC1       70   113
>100k      35    78
<100k      35    35

In that case, we have the same 43 student increase in SEC1, but all of that increase has come from families with incomes greater than $100,000. Is this happening? Perhaps. That is why 20th percentile family incomes (not median, Rory) in the Williams distribution are so similar over the last 10 years. Williams is letting in a lot more SEC1 students than it used to. But there is no evidence that it is letting in many more poor students.

#15 Comment By David On May 8, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

Frank,

The football webpage does not list high schools, but, in terms of “poopie-pants prep school,” I’ll just note:

Morissey — Governor’s Academy
McLoughlin — Iona Prep
Powers — St. John’s Prep

and so on . . .

Not that there is anything wrong with prep schools, of course!

#16 Comment By rory On May 8, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

still, income is a wholly inadequate measure of class, and your crosstabs are completely hypothetical.

see: black wealth/white wealth by oliver and schapiro.

#17 Comment By JeffZ On May 8, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

I’ll also note, Frank, that without a doubt the most fearsome Eph ever — 6’6, 310 pound future NFL starter Ethan Brooks — had one of the least fearsome names (or, for that manner, one of the least fearsome demeanors …).

#18 Comment By frank uible On May 8, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

Except that they tend to be poopie-pants.

#19 Comment By Ronit On May 8, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

Personally I prefer them middle European, Mediteranean and Irish (likely first generation college attending) sounding surnames – on the football roster they make it look like we mean business. Last year we had Szawlowski(2), Morissey, Buck, Sobolewski, Birns, McLoughlin, Curzi, Kiley, Powers, Bain, Milano, Cronin and Batty in the starting lineup – outstanding – probably better than Notre Dame. Curzi is Colin Curzi whose name sounds as if he has a mother of Irish extraction and a paisan father. When asked, he confirmed that he did. He’ll be back for 3 more years. Kiley, a junior next year, also has a double whammy going for him – he is red head from the Old Sod. Best name on the roster – Nikola Mirkovic, a sophomore. With names like these we’re up ten points before kickoff on opponents with poopie-pants prep school sounding names.

I just want to say, this is one of my favorite comments on Ephblog, ever.

#20 Comment By sophmom On May 8, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

Yup…it’s right up there for me as well, Ronit. A great FU.

#21 Comment By JeffZ On May 8, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

Agreed, Ronit and Sophmom.

#22 Comment By Parent ’12 On May 8, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

Looks like we’re creating a fan club. I, too, was taken by Frank’s lively voice.. very colorful & creative.

Thinking of other points raised in this thread— perhaps, written with tongue firmly against cheek, admissions could “boost” the football roster with a tri-fecta– a first-generation from Samoa… now, would Samoa be international or Asian-American?

#23 Comment By kthomas On May 8, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

OP writes:

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.

OP makes what seems, on its face, a compelling argument. Admit “the best.”

Don’t we all admire– excellence– isn’t one purpose of education, to cultivate what the Greeks called “arete,”– superiority?

My first reaction to the OP was one I’ve had on similiar threads– “define best.”

For purposes of argument, I’m going to make the assumption that by “best,” OP means SAT scores (minus the writing section) and some kind of weighted GPA (however that is to be done).

I’m not sure to what to do with the mention of tips and URMs– except to consider it sort of a hidden propositional.

Perhaps it should be the lead– what is really being argued here, is not so much about what the University should be, as about what it should not be.

We could go back to the late 90s– when the movements to end “affirmative action” were a sort of disguised (for good and bad) means of eliminating the (deserved or undeserved) presence of blacks and other minorities.

The terms of that debate– G-d have we spent two decades, wandering around the issues, unable to find expressions which get to the core?

Or has it been more like two centuries?

But allow me to soften OP’s propositional: what we’ve been doing for the past few decades, around issues of race, class, status, acheivement and education– isn’t working. Wrong model; we need to look at the problem again and try to figure out what’s really going on.

Not that I want to hear another amateur, self-involved rehashing of recompensation vs. social inequality vs. “pure merit.” After the umpteen-thousandth time, it gets old.

As for OP’s suggestion– I reject it. Among other problems– it further extends a pseudo-scientific “numbers game” (which has always been a sort of duck, for-cover) over what’s really going on, and the choices to be made.

“The data made me do it!” Ha! Is that what just happened to our economy?

Putting data into nice charts is not science– it’s bookkeeping.

Regardless– to know something of where we might be going here– we need a series of different visions of what Williams might do, of options.

OP has provided one, at least.

#24 Comment By frank uible On May 8, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

You’re looking for a formulaic definition of excellence. There ain’t one.

#25 Comment By frank uible On May 8, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

Samoans are Oceanics – and incidentally fearless football players. The history of the NFL is full of them.

#26 Comment By kthomas On May 8, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

Indeed– how can one judge the products of the god Arete, ‘Excellence,’ without the scales of the goddess Dike, ‘Justice?’

We– we need– we need new Gods.

(Und– bitte– bitte, lieber Gott– lass uns nicht allein.)

#27 Comment By JG On May 9, 2009 @ 10:09 am

Frank – indeed. Back in high school my favorite athlete was the nose tackle for the Oregon Ducks – leader of the “Gang Green” defense in 1994 season when they made the Rose Bowl – Silila Malepeai. He and his brothers (soph O-Lineman Tasi who started most games that season; and fullback Pulou) were definitely fearless players – Samoan, but went to high school in Hawaii. Sadly, both Tasi and Silila went on to spend time in federal prison on drug charges, but I think Pulou is now a high school football coach.