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Treat Them Equally

The decision to end need-blind admissions for international students merits further discussion. But, since there are so many components to the issue, I will break the conversation about into discrete parts, each taking place at noon over the next week or so. (If there are specific aspects you want to discuss, please list them in the comments.)

Let’s start with fundamentals. Why does Williams treat international students differently from domestic ones? From WSO:

You have no more control over the place of your birth than you do over your gender, race, class, or (arguably) your sexual orientation. You probably have more control over your gender than you do over your citizenry. Bearing this in mind, it is pathetic and shameful that the need-blind policy has been removed for international students. …

If the college decided to remove need-blind admission for women, everyone would be up in arms about it, and it would be an outrage, yet it’s fine when we do it to international students. This is the minority group on campus whose voice is probably heard least, and the College took advantage of that in removing this policy for them. …

Claiming Williams is supposed to be about a commitment to understand others and treat them equally, but the administration’s commitment is really not that strong. Rather, it is not strong enough to to be saved from budget cuts. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Amherst should be lauded for their true commitments.


1) I could understand if Williams decided to maintain need-blind admissions for everyone. This would be expensive, but cuts could be made elsewhere. I could understand if Williams decided to eliminate need-blind admissions for everyone. This might hurt applications and enrollment decisions, but there is a financial crisis. What I can’t understand is how/why Williams can treat international and domestic students differently when it comes to need-blind. Can someone explain it to me?

2) Now, whatever explanations one offers, could they not also apply to other groupings of students? Because the competition is so fierce for African-American students, the College could stay need-blind for them but not for white students. Because sports are so important at Williams, the College could stay need-blind for athletes but not for non-athletes. Because alumni have, as a group, contributed so much to Williams, the College should stay need-blind for legacies but not for non-legacies.

Once Williams discriminates on basis X, what is the reasoning that precludes it from discriminating on basis Y or Z? The (temporary?) preferences of the current Administration is a lousy reason.

3) In the past, I have argued against the quota for international students. Reasonable Ephs can and do disagree with that view. For example, it is plausible to believe that a Williams without the quota would become 50% international and that this would lead many desirable US students not to come to Williams. Yet the case of need-blind versus need-aware is fairly different. Either way, Williams will be 8% international. Why would one use a different need standard for US versus domestic students?

4) I don’t know the history as well as I should, but the most relevant historical comparison is with the discrimination against Jews by elite colleges 75 years ago. I would not be surprised (citations welcome!), if colleges then made financial aid awards on the basis fn the applicant’s religion. “After all,” the thinking would have gone, “Williams was founded by Christians as a school for Christians with an emphasis on teaching the Christian gospel. Shouldn’t our limited resources be focused on Christian students? Jews should be treated differently.”

How does Wagner’s decision differ from such thinking?

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#1 Comment By rory On February 18, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

this feels like bait, but fine. Citizenship is not a historical divider of inequality in American society (by nature: it’s a sign that one is not a full member of American society). As such, treating citizens and non-citizens differently is not analogous to treating people differently based on gender, sexuality, religion, or race. The athlete comparison is far more apt, and hey, need-blind Div 1 schools do treat financial aid for athletes differently from non-athletes. Are they morally repugnant for doing so? Williams, by being Div III, has decided to preclude that, but not for some grand moral gesture. We also do treat athletes and legacies differently in admissions (just not financial aid), so I’m not sure that the argument even works as you present it. Is financial aid a more morally important location of possible discrimination that admissions?

Nations and the institutions within them treat citizens and non-citizens differently because that is the fundamental means by which a nation-state creates its best government and citizenry. Demanding equal treatment under the law or as an issue of morality would logically lead to a demand for a world government (if williams shouldn’t treat non-citizens differently, how can you justify the US treating them differently?). Discrimination by religion or race or sexuality or gender is antithetical to the fundamental goals and mission of our social contract as Americans. That’s not true of international admissions.

Analogy 4 is a tired argument. At least this time you didn’t set up a fake quote to make it.

That said, I don’t like the change. I’m not versed well enough in the actual money involved, but it seems like a mistake, at least in terms of PR, and I’m not convinced that the cut was necessary or that this cut was the best one to make. However, those are because I believe increasing international admissions is a desirable goal, and that increasing it for students who aren’t wealthy in the international world an even more desirable goal (and beneficial to the williams experience of all students).

There’s a separate moral argument to be made that isn’t a negative moral argument (if we don’t do this, then we are bad): need-blind international admissions promotes the inclusion of a larger variety of backgrounds and a greater likelihood of educating those most capable of helping improve the world. As we know that most problems are more global than ever before, having williams educated people around the world helps not only those other countries, but ours as well (and vice versa). That is a morally good thing to strive for, and I’m not sure that the $1 mil or $2 mil or whatever millions of dollars hit to the endowment is enough to justify moving away from that goal.

So while I agree that international need-blind admissions is a good thing for williams, I reject your framing of why.

#2 Comment By jeffz On February 18, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

Basically ditto what Rory says: I don’t really subscribe to all of the analogies / analysis you employ, but I agree with your underlying conclusion that we should stay need blind for internationals. If there is concern that internationals are hiding assets, perhaps there are other ways to deal with that, but a genuinely economically disadvantaged international student should not face a tougher road to admission than an equally qualified rich international student — that runs counter to everything Williams should stand for. Sometime, principles are costly, and this is one principle that shouldn’t be abandoned because of a dollar amount, unless the school is absolutely in desperate straights, which is obviously not the case. Making students take out modest loans is one thing, but different admissions standards based on economic need (unless those standards are LOWER for someone from a disadvantaged background to account for their lack of SAT tutors and the like) just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

#3 Comment By David On February 18, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

Is it possible for all of EphBlog to iterate to agreement on this? Proposal:

Williams College should not factor financial need into admissions decisions based on an applicant’s citizenship.

That is, Williams can be need-blind for everyone or need-aware for everyone. It should not be need-blind for some (US citizens) and need-aware for others (non-US citizens).

If Rory, Jeff and I can all agree on this, then who will stand against us?

#4 Comment By jeffz On February 18, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

I agree with that statement.

#5 Comment By David On February 18, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

Citizenship is not a historical divider of inequality in American society . . .

Huh? Place the people currently living in the US into three groups: citizens, legal resident (green cards, visas and so on) and illegal residents. Those three categories of citizenship are hugely correlated with all sorts of measures on inequality (income, wealth, SES, et cetera).

What should Williams treat an illegal immigrant who goes to school in California differently from a US citizen who goes to the same school, gets the same grades, has parents doing the same sort of work and so on?

#6 Comment By rory On February 18, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

@David: This is again, a bad form of argument. The argument about the illegal immigrant in California is a unique case compared to random applicant from Korea. The illegal immigrant from California is a gray area, sure. But that’s not what we’re discussing here, is it? If so, I’m willing to say illegal immigrants deserve amnesty and williams should give them that. Fine.

Why are citizens and non-citizens unequal? Is it because of discrimination against them as non-citizens? Not really (except for illegal immigrants, but that’s not the central argument at all), it’s instead because of unequal starting capital and racial and ethnic discrimination. That’s why second generation immigrants show a remarkable divide in terms of success based on racial and ethnic background. Beyond which, why’d you leave out the parenthetical comment that directly explained that quote you used?

How about this: non-citizens can become citizens. Black people cannot become white people. Women, without surgery, cannot become men. Gay people cannot become straight. All of these have exceptions (surgeries, “passing,” being in the closet) but those generally prove the rule.

#7 Comment By David On February 18, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

If so, I’m willing to say illegal immigrants deserve amnesty and williams should give them that. Fine.

I want to understand your position. Williams plans on treating US citizens differently from non citizens. You disagree. You think that Williams should divide applicants into two groups. Group 1: US citizens living in the US, non-US citizens living in the US (the illegal immigrant example) and US citizens living abroad. Group 2: Non-US citizens living aboard.

If so, then you and I both agree that Williams is wrong, we just disagree about the reasons that it is wrong. Correct?

#8 Comment By Ed On February 18, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

I could be wrong, but I think many schools are need-aware because it is much more expensive to give a financial aid packet to a foreign student than to an American one. When an american student qualifies for aid, part of it is covered by the government, while there is no similar scenario for foreigners, leaving the school to cover the entire need. As I said, I could be wrong, though.

#9 Comment By David On February 18, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

Ed: You are mostly wrong.

1) The amount paid by the government is small relative to the total amount of aid. That is not the key distinction that the College relies on.

2) Although the average international applicant needs more aid than the average US applicant, the College has much better ways of discriminating on the basis of total-aid-needed should it want to do so. It could, for example, stop subscribing to Questbridge.

Honestly, I think this is a case where the College has not really thought things through very carefully. They just rolled back something they added a few years ago without considering closely the bigger picture.

I wonder if any students would be interested in forming a group, along with interested alumni, to fight this change . . . .

#10 Comment By Ronit On February 18, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

@rory: Gender reassignment surgery is easier, faster, and more painless than gaining US citizenship

#11 Comment By jeffz On February 18, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

Ronit, good one …

#12 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On February 18, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

That is, Williams can be need-blind for everyone or need-aware for everyone. It should not be need-blind for some (US citizens) and need-aware for others (non-US citizens).

What’s the economic impact of that statement? What are its consequences?

Citizenship means something. What?

#13 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On February 18, 2010 @ 6:42 pm


Isn’t that something like queuing in line for a boarding card, for a sinking ship?

#14 Comment By rory On February 19, 2010 @ 8:44 am

David: yes, that’s what I’ve been saying. Williams is wrong, but my reasoning is different from yours.

@Ronit: touche.

#15 Comment By David On February 19, 2010 @ 8:56 am

Rory: Excellent. So, would you agree with the statement that Jeff (and I) agree with:

Williams College should not factor financial need into admissions decisions based on an applicant’s citizenship.

We can all have different reasons for objecting to the policy, as long as we all agree it ought to change.

Also, if anyone has suggestions about how to make this sentence snappier, I would appreciate them.

Depending on interest, I am hoping to create a group of alumni/students who might join together to lobby the trustees.