Provost Will Dudley’s discussion (pdf) of financial aid at Williams is equal parts useful and misleading. Let’s spend five days discussing it. Today is Day 2.

Thirty years ago, about 85 percent of students at Williams were white Americans; 15 percent were either students of color or international students. Today, just over 50 percent of the first-year class is white and American, and the number of students of color and international students is close to 50 percent.

1) “white and American” means something very different today than it did 30 years ago. Back then, no one (?) thought that checking Hispanic or Native American mattered much, or was a plausible strategy. Now, Williams is filled with “students of color” like this:

During one meeting of many, he [the college counselor] began, “There is something I want to suggest to you, but am afraid to.” “Why?” “I am afraid you won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do.” Of course, I asked him to tell me what it was. He then suggested that, on the Common Applications, I identify myself as Puerto Rican.

Depending on how you reckon, to say I am Puerto Rican is a half-truth or completely untrue. My mother was born there and raised in NYC since age six or so, and my father couldn’t be called anything but Caucasian. On other surveys, I’d sometimes checked the Puerto Rican and White boxes, sometimes just White.

I was bothered by Mr. Pallo’s suggestion, but I’d learned to trust him, and my parents supported his suggestion. A year ago, in fact, they had asked if I would use my mother’s maiden name, Reyes, hyphenated with my last name, Landsman, in my applications. I had flatly refused that. Needless to say, when I discussed my counselor’s suggestion with them, they supported him.

I asked Mr. Pallo if I could check both boxes. He responded with something along the lines of: “My fear is that that would be passed over, that someone would see ‘White’ and ‘Puerto Rican’ would be ignored.” After little more deliberation, I decided to trust him, and count it a small cost. So in that one question, I was Puerto Rican, though nothing else in my applications referred to that status.

Sure enough, I was admitted to Williams. Early freshman year, I received a letter from the Admissions Office. It stated that I had declared myself a minority on my application, specifically Puerto Rican. It asked if I still wanted to be considered so, and if not, to contact them and say otherwise. I thought about this a while. I did not particularly feel Puerto Rican, never have, and still don’t. Mom only spoke Spanish at home when she was being cute, or angry at us. I am not close with my PR family. But I saw no reason to take what I saw as a small risk of some kind of retribution, and I left Admissions with its original impressions.

So I was one of the however many “Latinos” in my year, though I doubt anyone at Williams outside of Bascom knew it.

People like Will Dudley love to signal the oh-so-high virtue of Williams by bragging about its diversity numbers. How accurate are those numbers? Is Williams really only 50% “white and American?” I will take the over on that!

In the last 15 years, we’ve put an increasingly explicit emphasis on socioeconomic diversification. So in the Class of 2019, slightly more than 20 percent of the students are eligible for the federal government’s PELL scholarship program for lower-income Americans. Fifteen years ago, that number was closer to 10 percent.

Doubtful. 15 years ago was 2001. Morty Schapiro, Will’s buddy, was President. Did he hate poor kids? Did he not care about socio-economic diversity? Utter bollocks! Williams has been bragging about its socio-economic diversity for decades.

The real story here (and why won’t the Record report it?!) involves the changing definition of socio-economic diversity. You get what you measure. PELL grants are a useful measure but they are hardly perfect. They only depend on income. The kid of a retired millionaire is just as eligible as an actual poor person.

And this was one reason why, just a few years ago, Williams measured socio-economic diversity solely by counting students from families in which neither parent had a four year college degree. (More background here and here.) That metric also had problems, but using it consistently allowed Morty and others to brag when it went up. But, now they no longer report that metric so we are barely aware that it is going down. Williams uses a new metric and gets to brag as it goes up. Moral signalling never goes out of style!

My position on these issues is the same as always:

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.

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