Ninth installment in our two-week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

From The New York Times article we discussed yesterday:

Kids at the most selective colleges often struggle academically, but they are capable of doing the work. The real key is whether they feel comfortable going to professors to ask for help or teaming up with other students in study groups and to manage the workload.

“Capable of doing the work” covers a lot of sins. The question is not: How capable is a poor student with 1300 Math/Reading SATs? With those scores, she is in the 90th percentile nationally. Very smart! But, at Williams (pdf), she is in the 20th (or maybe the 10th?) percentile in her class. Not so smart, at least compared to her classmates.

And that is, potentially, OK. Someone has got to have the lowest SAT scores in the class. The key is whether or not Williams is honest with applicants about just what scores like that suggest about her likely future at Williams.

Consider a concrete example: How many math majors at Williams have a Math SAT score at 650 or below? I bet that, round numbers, it is close to zero. But that means that, if she wants to be a math teacher someday, our hypothetical applicant would be much better off going to her state university (where she would be as smart as most of the math majors) than she would be going to Williams (where her odds of successfully completing the math major are very low). At the very least, Williams owes its applicants the truth about the reality of academic life at elite colleges. Bromides and tripe about how “capable” every is? Spare us the sanctimony.

Want to believe that, at 1350, a student — especially one from a not-so-good high school — will be capable of doing the work at Williams, even on the math major or pre-med track? Fine. I don’t want to disabuse your sweet dreams. But those aren’t the worst cases. Consider:

SAT

Is Williams doing those students (approximately 30 in each class) with SAT scores below 600 any favors by admitting them?
I have my doubts. (And that fact that the College never tells us what happens to those students while they are at Williams speaks volumes about the hidden truth.)

Consider simple question: The Williams 6-year graduation rate is 95%. Pretty good! But that is for the class as a whole. What is the 6-year graduation rate for a student with at Math/Reading SAT below 1200. You can bet that it is much worse than 95%. Call it 70%. Is it really such a tragedy if such students decide to go to a school at which they will be academically well-matched with their peers?

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