Fellow current students have pointed out a concern recent international Williams graduates are having with Dean’s Office, specifically on the reclassification of the Economics major as STEM and its implications.  We’re spending three posts talking about it. The first post discusses troubling decision making by the assistant dean for international student services, Ninah Pretto. This is the second post. Consider the original Facebook post that started this (full FB discussion with comments can be found in the first post):

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The original poster, confirmed by the Dean’s Office, stated that the Economics major has been reclassified as STEM by the Williams administration. Consider the list of majors/academic fields considered STEM that the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement) maintains. A cursory search will show that general Economics is not considered a STEM subject, only “Quantitative Economics/Econometrics” and “Pharmaeconomics/Pharmaceutical Economics.” Since Williams has newly designated its Economics major as STEM, we can reasonably conclude that the Economics major must have significantly changed to be more quantitative in nature from previous years to warrant this.

Consider the course catalogs from SY 2015-16 and the current school year’s. For the sake of completeness, here is SY 2014-2015, SY 2013-s014, and SY 2012-2013. Checking is left as an exercise to the reader, but a brief summary of what you’ll find: no substantial changes in the Williams Economics major!

Let’s repeat that: there have been no material changes in the Economics major year on year since at least 2012. In other words, it is no more quantitative now than it was a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, and five years ago. Last I checked (March 29 2017), Williams has a major in Economics, not in Econometrics/Quantitative Economics/Pharmaeconomics/Pharmaceutical Economics. Princeton, which reclassified its Economics major to STEM, has a math-track Economics major. Williams does not.


  1. Is Williams violating the law by designating its Economics major as a STEM major when it clearly is not? It would seem that this decision is at best, deceptive, and at worst, illegal, especially since this decision has far reaching consequences in terms of visas and immigration for international students.
  2. Recall that Dean Ninah Pretto explicit stated that ultimate determination of this policy rests with Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom. Taking Dean Pretto on her word, we must ask: why did Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom reclassify Economics as a STEM major when it clearly is not? What went into this decision?
  3. In the official list of STEM majors, there are 10 (compared to Econ’s two!) fields of psychology – ranging from social psychology to neuroscience – that count as STEM. Does Williams classify psychology, whose concentrations and subject matter adhere to the official list, as a STEM major? Current psychology majors tell us that no, Williams does not consider psychology as a STEM subject! This begs the question: why not? Clearly, according to the federal bureau that regulates F-1 visas, psychology is a STEM field. 
  4. Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom is a psychology professor! In fact, she is the Hales Professor of Psychology of Williams. So why did Dean Sandstrom classify Economics as STEM and Psychology as not STEM? It seems far fetched to suggest that her expertise in psychology is lacking, so this begs the more troubling question: have either Dean Sandstrom or Dean Pretto read the official list of STEM majors, or do they just haphazardly make these types of decisions? Their actions thus far suggest the latter.
  5. On a related matter, members of the Psychology Student Advisory Board report that there have been efforts to change the division classification of psychology to Div 3, but, notably, they report that psychology professors have said that “there is no way this would happen for psychology if it did not happen for economics first.” The college course catalog still classifies Economics as Div 2, but curiously, changed its designation as STEM, although it is no more quantitative than it was a year (and more!) ago when it wasn’t STEM. However, psychology, which clearly falls under fields considered STEM by the ICE, does not enjoy STEM status. Why? 

I offer an intelligent guess that is not without precedent1: Economics is the most popular major in the college and among international students. If I were a prospective international student who wants to major in economics in the United States, as most who come here do, I would certainly want to go to a school (thus pay tuition) that would allow me to maximize my post-college employment opportunities in the United States. At least two reports on the distribution of GPAs and academic major difficulty suggest Math and Physics are much harder than Economics. So, instead of breaking my back in Real Analysis, I can just take Intermediate Macroeconomics and reap the benefits of a STEM major for my career – wonderful! Too bad for Psychology – even if it is a real STEM field, it just isn’t popular enough at Williams! 

Whatever the motivations of this policy change is, one thing is clear: whoever is making these decisions certainly leaves much to be desired by way of consistency and transparency!


1Recall from the first discussion that the Dean’s Office and Dean Ninah Pretto initially stonewalled and/or rejected requests from international student graduates, who no longer pay Williams tuition.

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