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Economics Thesis Presentations

Economics senior thesis presentations are today and Tuesday. See here for the schedule and here for the posters. Good stuff!

1) I will be at today’s 9:00 AM presentation. The public is welcome, although you need to e-mail a request for the Zoom link.

2) I hope/trust that families and friends have been invited. Indeed, were I a member of the Department, that would be a requirement. CV-19 has mostly ill effects, but having an event like this on Zoom makes it much easier for others to participate.

3) Kudos to the Department for its commitment to transparency! I like both the requirement that students prepare posters and that those posters are public. But why do three students (just seem to?) not have posters?

4) Which presentation would you recommend to our readers?

5) Thanks to former faculty member Mike McPherson for being an excellent thesis adviser, just a few short decades ago . . .


The Old School View of Writing a Thesis

I enjoyed recent grad’s post yesterday. It led me to recall an article written back in the the day: “The experience of thesis writing is probably a lot like giving birth.”

I remember enjoying it as an undergrad. I was curious to see how it held up, especially given its basic premise. While it treads some dangerous ground (Civil War, abortion to name just two), I still found it amusing and did not identifying any problematic parts. Of course, as my 18 year old son regularly points out, I am not the most woke person out there. I am curious how others view the article.

Side notes: Thanks to DDF for his helping in tracking down the article. Also, flipping through editions of the Record from when you were at Williams is a great way to lose a few hours!


Live Your Thesis

Too few Ephs achieve the career dreams that Williams nurtured. Williamstown Town Manager (and EphBlog favorite) Jason Hoch ’95 is one of the lucky ones. Read his senior thesis, “Crisis on Main Street: understanding downtown decline and renewal through Exit, voice and loyalty.” Note the acknowledgement:

How many of us have followed so closely the dreams we first dreamt in Williamstown?


Thesis Idea: Sports Teams’ GPAs

Looking for an interesting statistics thesis topic? Check out the NESCAC Winter All-Academic Team (pdf). This shows every Williams winter athlete (and their team) with a GPA above 3.5. Is this enough information to determine whether or not the wrestling team has a higher GPA than the mens basketball team? No. But it is a start. You need to figure out all the team members who were eligible for this list but were not, in fact, named. Then you need to make a bunch of assumptions about the overall distribution of grades. But there is enough info here to make a stab at the topic. And you could cross check with list of Latin honors at graduation.


The Simpsons on SJWs

Apologies for the temporary absence – the semester does get busy this time of year! Before we return to our regular programming, check out this chunk of a Simpsons episode. It’s hilarious!

Granted, this Simpsons bit is about Yale, but it echoes eerily familiar sentiments here in the Purple Valley…

Funny (relevant) quote:

But we also need to hire more deans to decide which Halloween costumes are appropriate. Eight deans should do it.

Remember the Taco Six? My sides are aching! Then again, in Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom’s words, I wouldn’t want to “impinge on the fun of others“…


Bailey Thesis Students

One of the many ways you can know that Duane Bailey is everything a Williams professor should be is because he brags about his thesis students. Why don’t more Williams professors do the same? Because they care more about promoting their own work than they care about promoting the work of their students.

But what is worse is that Williams does not care (as much) as it should . . .


Student Theses

Kudos to the Williams library for putting so many senior theses on-line! There is a lot of great stuff here. Start with “Do H-1B Visas Affect Natives’ Wages?” by Michael Navarrete ’16. Highly relevant in the age of Trump.

I am embarrassed to note that some theses are not available. One example is “An analysis of the water quality and its effect on the Williams College Class of ʹ66 Environmental Center” by Stephen Mayfield ’16. Any Williams thesis which is not publicly available causes knowledgeable observers to think that its quality is low and/or that the advisers (Professors Dethier and Thoman) are foolish. Perhaps this is connected to the backward nature of chemistry as an academic field and the debate we had a decade ago but which I can not find a link to?

Should we spend a week browsing through the archive? Recall our previous discussions about excellent senior theses like Doleac ’03, Taylor ’05 and Nurnberg ’09.


Predicting Matriculation

Here (pdf) is the academic paper which came out of Peter Nurnberg’s ’09 thesis.

This paper provides an econometric analysis of the matriculation decisions made by students accepted to Williams College, one of the nation’s most highly selective colleges and universities. Using data for the Williams classes of 2008 through 2012 to estimate a yield model, we find that—conditional on the student applying to and being accepted by Williams—applicant quality as measured by standardized tests, high school GPA and the like, the net price a particular student faces (the sticker price minus institutional financial aid), the applicant’s race and geographic origin, plus the student’s artistic, athletic and academic interests, are strong predictors of whether or not the student will matriculate.

1) Kudos to Nurnberg for doing some excellent work. All thesis students should aspire to publish their work in an academic journal. Kudos also to Nurnberg’s advisors: Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman.

2) Brickbacks to Nurnberg (or should it really be to Schapiro and Zimmerman) for not making the full text of Nurnberg’s thesis available on line. (Prior discussion here.)

3) Want your economics and statistics thesis to be equally successful? Then write about Williams. Professor Steven Miller is eager to supervise thesis students (in math/stat) who want to analyze Williams data.

4) Should I spend a week or two going through the details of this paper? Reader requests are always welcome!


Study Viking

Here is an interesting presentation of the results/positioning of Viking, the wildly successful hedge fund run by Andreas Halvorsen ’86, Williams trustee and billionaire.


See the link for more details. Comments:

1) The Eph Business Association (EBA) ought to do a better job of forging connections between Williams students and prominent alumni like Halvorsen. (By the way, having talked to some of their leaders, I can confirm that the EBA is an impressive organization. Students with any interest in finance/business ought to join.) One way would be to have a small group that followed each major Eph firm and commented on their public material. EphBlog would be eager to host such a group here.

2) There is a great thesis to be written, in either economics or history, about the rise of Viking, an interesting story in-and-of-itself but also emblematic of the changing landscape of finance over the last 25 years.


Hitler Effigy Fight

Read the story (pdf) of the undergraduate fight over a Hitler effigy in 1938.

Adolf Hitler, in brown-shirted effigy, disappeared suddenly from the Williams College campus this evening as a group of pro-fascist conservatives made off with the image of Der Fuehrer which has been prepared for destruction at the stake.

There is a great senior thesis to be written about Williams in the 30’s. Who will write it?


Eusden, RIP

Professor John Eusden passed away last year.

Rev. Eusden, the Nathan Jackson professor of Christian theology emeritus at Williams, died in Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine, on April 27 of complications of an infection. He was 90 and had moved from Williamstown to Brunswick in 2010.

“John was a large presence at Williams in more ways than one,” Adam Falk, president of Williams College, wrote in a message to the campus. “While the tall, former Harvard swim captain and former Marine ­pilot loomed forcefully from the pulpit, he also helped lead the college into engagement with the civil rights movement, ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, international studies, and environmentalism.”

College announcement here. In Eusden’s generation, a majority of faculty had served in the US military. Is there a single veteran on the faculty today?

Minor note: You are not a “pilot” in the Marine Corps. You are a “naval aviator.” Bizarrely, I can’t find any link to justify this claim on the web. But it must be true! Perhaps it was not true in Eusden’s day? Help us out, ex-Marine readers!

Two years after hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Williams College campus, the Rev. John Eusden followed his friend to Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 during one of the most hostile times of the civil rights movement.

Far from his chaplaincy at Williams, Rev. Eusden was jailed in Birmingham, where he participated in demonstrations, facing attack dogs, hurled curses, and the fire hoses officials trained on protesters.

“I told him then that if he ­ever needed me, to just give me a call,” Rev. Eusden told the Globe in May 1963, speaking of a promise he made during King’s visit to Williams. “Well, the call came.”

Eusden’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement might not, by itself, merit a senior thesis. But, surely, the story of all the grads of Williams, the parts they played, the stands they took (and failed to take) would.

Rev. Eusden “made the membranes permeable between the religions of the West and the religions of the East by virtue of his intellectual appetite, his scholarly projects, and his practice,” said the Rev. Rick Spalding, the current chaplain at Williams. “He was a very serious meditator.”

He added that through ­social justice work and participation in the civil rights movement, often with the Rev. ­William Sloane Coffin, Rev. Eusden also “deserves credit for helping shape what I would call contemporary college chaplaincy.”

Hmmm. For good or for ill? At EphBlog, we love Rick Spalding, but the changes in the roll of college chaplain over the last 50 years are not good. The most important one is that the chaplain is no longer a member of the faculty. The more that important college offices are filled by faculty members, the better.

At Harvard College, from which he graduated as part of the class of 1944, he was captain of the swim team and managed what was reported then to be the unprecedented feat of lettering in swimming at three universities, when military training took him to Yale and Colgate.

Back in the day, this story was always told with regard to Eusden being the only person to letter at both Harvard and Yale. Colgate was generally left out . . .

During World War II, he was a Marine aviator and afterward spent two semesters at Harvard Law School before leaving for Yale Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1949. He earned a doctorate in religion at Yale in 1954 and began teaching. He was ordained in his ­father’s church in 1949 and the following year married Joanne Reiman, who had lived around the corner during his Newton childhood and became a psycho­therapist.

There is a fair amount of Williams history associated with Newton, Massachusetts. Who will write a thesis with that theme?

A skier who liked to spend at least 100 days on the slopes each year, he called his 70s his “late middle age” and was still competing in bicycle races into his 80s.

“The nice thing about an ‘elder age group’ is that the entries are few – sometimes only me,” he wrote in 1994, “and so to win the age group all I have to do is start!”

This is my hope for blogging awards as well.

Condolences to all.


Academic Rating Details

I need to do a post in which I bring together everything we know about Williams admissions. Alas, no time today! But I can share this pdf with some details about the College’s Academic Rating system. See here for previous discussion. Comments:

1) The key importance is that, if you are not an AR 1 or 2, Williams automatically rejects you unless you are in one of the special categories, and those special categories do not include “Wrote an amazing essay” or “Best editor of our high school paper in a decade.” There are plenty such applicants with AR 2, many of whom Williams will also reject. So, if you are AR 3 or below, you are toast.

2) The single biggest exception category is the 65 or so athletic tips. Note that this is not the same thing as great high school athlete. You could be a national champion in something like gymnastics or ski jumping and Williams wouldn’t (really) care because Williams does not compete in gymnastics. To be a “tip,” a Williams coach must tell Admissions that she wants you.

3) The second biggest category is racial affirmative action, mainly black/Hispanic. Actually, it could be that this category is even bigger than athletic tips, but I am feeling PC today. It is unclear if Williams, like other elite schools, discriminates against Asian American applicants.

4) The third category, much smaller (I think) than athletics/race, is wealth. Williams does some non-trivial affirmative action for poor students (and/or students whose parents did not attend college) and for extremely rich students (whose parents have given or might be expected to make million dollar donations to the College).

5) I need a good short hand description for these three categories: race/wealth/athletics. Suggestions? Beyond them, there are very few students who are admitted with AR 3 or below. (At least, that is my understanding. Contrary opinions welcome.)

6) Looking closely at the descriptions, it is obvious that some measures are more objective than others. Who can agree on the difference between an “exceptional” essay versus one that is merely “outstanding?” Given that, I would wager that the harder numbers — above 1450 math/verbal SAT, 33 or above ACT, 4’s and 5’s on AP exams — matter most.

7) Always keep in mind that high school quality is very important. Being in the 90th percentile of your class (that is, at the botton of the to 10%) at Andover or Milton or Stuyvesant is better than being the valedictorian at more than half the high schools in the US.

8) To be honest, I can’t recall the source for this pdf. Probably somehow related to Peter Nurnberg’s ’09 thesis. Sorry! Does anyone recognize it?


Phi Beta Kappa History

Loved this story:

Who’s the best public speaker at Williams College? It’s a contentious question, but regardless of whom you ask, Professor Steven Fix’s name is likely to be in the mix.

Among his colleagues, he is known for timing his lectures down to the second— literally. He once told a beginning English professor, “That was an excellent lecture, but you’re running twenty-three seconds too long.” Among his students, Fix is known for delivering such moving lectures as to reduce students to tears, even when those lectures concern authors as obscure as Samuel Johnson—one of his personal favorites.

Besides his speaking engagements in the English department, Fix is also the college’s Phi Beta Kappa Chapter Historian, and it falls to him to deliver the history of the Society at Williams each year, on the day before graduation. So, on June 7, 2014, Professor Fix delivered a rousing rendition of the history of Phi Beta Kappa, much to the delight of the audience who, having been awakened for the 8:30 a.m. event, needed some rousing.

“The history of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams is a history filled with jealousy, intrigue, suspicion, and, alternately, triumph!” Fix began, intoning dramatically. The audience laughed along with him, but as his speech continued, it became clear that the history of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams actually was filled with all of those things and more, focused centrally around an educational rivalry between the two oldest colleges in Massachusetts—Harvard and Williams.

According to Fix, Phi Beta Kappa was originally a fraternity. “Unfortunately, Williams College banned fraternities years ago, so as members of Phi Beta Kappa, you’re all expelled,” he said. “That’s it. Congratulations. This ought to significantly shorten tomorrow’s ceremony…”

In all seriousness, though, Phi Beta Kappa was originally formed as a secret society at Williams and Mary, and it had all the attractions of one—rites of initiation, secret signs known only to members, and lots of swearing of oaths. Today, Phi Beta Kappa retains all of these features. However, the initiation is a public one, the sign of membership is the well-known key, and there is but one oath of loyalty, not to a fraternity, but to philosophy—to the love learning and wisdom. Clearly, the mission of Phi Beta Kappa has changed drastically since its inception. “So I suppose you’re all safe,” Fix said.

“At any rate, William and Mary, as the original location of Phi Beta Kappa, was vested with the power to establish new chapters, and the college chose to bestow chapters upon Harvard and Yale, along with the power to approve or veto new charters for schools in their respective states,” Fix said. And that’s where the drama really took off and how it came to be that despite being the second-oldest college in Massachusetts, Williams was the 17th chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to be established.

“Now why would that be?” Fix asked. “Well, we would have had a chapter earlier, but for the jealousy of Harvard…” According to Fix, Harvard was worried about bequests—essentially, about who would get the money left to the state for education. In a successful bid to delay the founding of Williams College, Harvard’s board of overseers wrote to the colonial government, “It cannot be thought that the means of education at another college will be near as good as at our college…”

And so it was that Williams’ founding was delayed until 1792, when the trustees of Williams College struck back at the overseers of Harvard. The Williams trustees petitioned the colonial government for a charter on the grounds that Williamstown, being an “enclosed place,” would not expose students to the kind of “temptations and allurements peculiar to seaport towns [e.g. Boston].” Williamstown was cast as an institution that would civilize the frontier and turn out moral citizens—something that held great weight for a government that was terrified by the news of rebel uprisings, as in the French Revolution and Shay’s Rebellion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship between Williams and Harvard remained prickly after Williams obtained its school charter. Recall now that Harvard controlled which Massachusetts colleges could have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, so in order to found a chapter at Williams College, Williams had to send Harvard an application. Harvard responded predictably—issuing a pocket veto, refusing to vote one way or another, and thereby leaving Williams to wait indefinitely.

Eventually, though, in 1833, the stalemate was broken. Williams’ then-president, Ed Griffin told two students to go over the New York-Massachusetts border to Union College [in Albany, NY] to ask them for a charter instead. Union College replied that they didn’t have the authority to establish a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa outside of their own state, but they could issue other charters, so the Williams students came home with a charter to start a fraternity called “Kappa Alpha.” “The president saw ‘Kappa’ on a piece of paper and heartily congratulated the students on their success,” Fix reported.

But inevitably, the difference was realized, and in 1861, Williams tried again to found a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, reopening negotiations with Harvard. Finally, Harvard relented. “And as the Civil War raged, a society founded in the Revolutionary War had its inauguration at Williams College,” said Fix.

Today, only one remnant of this dramatic power struggle between Harvard and Williams over Phi Beta Kappa remains. It is on the founding document for Williams’ chapter, where the words, “Harvard University,” the chapter-granting authority, appear fourteen times larger than “Williams College.”

“So remember that Williams College struggled to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and honor that struggle by taking seriously your commitment to a lifelong love of philosophy,” Fix said, finishing at exactly twenty minutes, on the dot, to resounding applause.

Fleshing out that history would make for a great senior thesis. Who will write it?


We’re #1!

Good news:

Princeton, Williams College once again take top spots in U.S. News’ rankings for 2014-15

1) Every time that Williams appears in a headline like this with Princeton, the value of the Williams brand improves. It is very important that we maintain this #1 ranking, mainly for admissions, and especially for international students.

2) Kudos to Adam Falk (and everyone else at Williams) for making this happen. US News can be tricky about its methodology and the changes it makes from year-to-year. They would sell more magazines if there were more changes in the top, so maintaining a #1 ranking can be tricky.

3) As I mention each year, there is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.

4) Is anyone a subscriber to the detailed data. All I can see is:


We need to dive into the details. How far in the lead is Williams and what do we need to do to maintain the lead?

5) Recall my predictions from 5 years ago.

Although the competition is tough, our most serious competitor is Amherst and they will face real headwinds given their financial constraints. Their endowment is in more trouble than ours. Their increase in enrollment will hurt the student:faculty ratio. These ranks are based on data from before the financial crash, so the Williams advantage over Amherst will only continue. Don’t be surprised if/when Amherst falls behind Swarthmore in a year or two. I also suspect that Middlebury’s recent (and deserved) rise may be in danger.

Amherst hasn’t caught us, as predicted, and Middlebury has fallen from 4th to 7th. I still think that Amherst is in danger of falling behind Swarthmore, but we need more detailed data to evaluate that.

6) Below the break are the details of the methodology, which I am saving here for historical purposes.
Read more


What Pinker Gets Wrong About Harvard (and Williams) Admissions

Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic (hat tip Razib Kahn) provides a false description of admissions at places like Harvard and Williams.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. … The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

This is not true. Summary: More than 80% of admissions at Harvard (and other elite schools like Williams) is determined by academic merit, measured by past success in high school (high grades in the most rigorous classes with the best teacher recommendations and top standardized test scores), all of which best predicts academic success in college.*

First, leave aside athletics for the moment; the preferences there are real and large.

Second, consider the raw data in terms of 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores. (I have taken the latest available data and simply added the Math and Critical Reading scores together.)

Harvard:  1390 -- 1590
Williams: 1330 -- 1540
Cornell:  1320 -- 1520 

A difference of 50 or 60 points may seem small, but this is (back-of-the-envelope) 1/4 to 1/3 a standard deviation.** If we were talking about height, it would be as if the average student at Harvard were an inch or so taller than the average student at Williams or Cornell. There is no way, in a large population, to get this sort of difference unless the selection procedure has a major focus on SAT scores (or their correlates). In particular, there is no way that the top 25% (!) of the Harvard class has almost perfect SAT scores if only 10% (much less 5%!) is selected on the “basis of academic merit.” It is mathematically impossible.

Third, there are no meaningful preferences given for “the arts, charity, activism, travel” and other non-academic, non-sport reasons. Why?

  • Harvard is not that different from Williams and, as Professor of Music David Kechley explained 11 (!) years ago, there is no meaningful preference given for musical talent.
  • There is no need to give preference for things like music and art because academically strong students are often talented in music and art. Go meet some!
  • There is no reason to give preference for music/arts because schools don’t compete with each other on that basis. Imagine that the quality of the arts and music was twice as good at Williams as at Harvard. Would anyone notice? No! No one goes to enough events at both Williams and Harvard to make that judgment. (This is one aspect by which athletics is different.)
  • Even if you wanted to give preference to those students who would go on to be heavily involved in things like, say, student government and charitable work, there is no way for the admissions department to predict which students will do so, as Jen Doleac ’03 demonstrated in her thesis.
  • Harvard does not have the time or money to meaningfully evaluate the artistic ability of applicants. With 14,000 applicants, the logistics are impossible. As books like The Gatekeepers and A is for Admission make clear, admissions officers make some notes about non-academic talents, but these attributes play a de minimus role in the process.
  • “Travel?” Harvard prefers students who have done a grand tour of Europe? Give me a break! The biggest thing that teenage travel correlates with is family income, and Harvard gets plenty of rich kids already. Might Pinker be able to point to Harvard students who traveled a lot? Sure! But he could also find plenty of blond Harvard students. That fact doesn’t mean that the Admissions Office selects by hair color.

Now, every once in a while does something like music help? Sure! If the orchestra conductor calls up the admissions office and begs for some decent drummers, he may get helped out. But, overwhelming, even those drummers will have amazing academic credentials.

Fourth, even affirmative action does not change the basic story because black (and Hispanic) applicants are accepted under the same criteria as white/Asian students. The same process of looking at high school grades, course schedule, teacher comments and standardized test scores applies to everyone. Whatever it is that Harvard is looking for in white/Asian students, it is looking for the exact same thing in black/Hispanic students. Harvard just sets the bar lower for the latter. Being poor is probably an advantage. Being a non-US citizen is probably a disadvantage. But, whatever bucket you are competing in, the key criteria is academic success.

Fifth, legacy is a red herring. Do the math! There are 1,600 Harvard students in the class of 2018. There were around (I think) 1,600 Harvard students in each class in the 80’s. I can’t find good data on fecundity, but, judging from Williams, elite students from the 80’s go on to, at least, achieve replacement levels of fertility. So, there are 1,600 or so legacy students born in 1995/1996 who would love to come to Harvard (or at least be accepted by Harvard) for the class of 2018. But Harvard only enrolls about 200 of them!*** You think the other 1,400 go to Stanford? Ha! It is easy for Harvard, like Williams, to ensure that enrolled legacy students are academically equivalent to non-legacy students because the legacy pool is so strong. Turns out that Harvard parents tend to have academically talented children. Who knew?

Sixth, even in the case of athletics, academics matter because the admissions department insists. See here for some details. But, to the extent that Pinker has a point, he is correct that athletics plays an important part. And so does major wealth. But even if we combine the athletes and the donors, we are still talking about less than 20% of the class.

Big picture, Pinker’s description of Harvard admissions is fundamentally flawed because the vast majority of it (80%?) is, in fact, driven by “academic merit.” Unless you are a recruited varsity athlete or a billionaire’s child, you got in because your classes/grades/scores were better than the other applicants (at least within your race and/or socioeconomic class and/or nationality).

And this is easy to see if you follow the admissions process at your local high school, assuming it is the sort of school that sends lots of students to elite schools. On average, the high school students who get into Harvard have done better — higher grades in tougher classes with better teaching recommendations and standardized test scores — than the students who get into Williams, and then the same down the academic pecking order.

Steven Pinker is a voice of reason in many of the debates surrounding higher education. It is too bad that he is so misleading about Harvard admissions in this essay.

* Of course, it is not clear what scale Pinker is using for his 5% or what scale we should be using for our 80%. The main clarification that applies to the 80% is that, although the academic evaluation system is the same across categories of students, students are mostly competing against peers in their own racial, citizenship, and socio-economic bucket. If you are, say, rich and black, then Harvard admits use on the basis of academic merit in comparison with other rich/black applicants.

My preferred scale is to imagine that the Harvard admissions system is blinded to everything non-academic. All they see is your high school transcript and standardized test scores. Even in this scenario, more than 50% of the students in Harvard today would still have been accepted. Athletics and affirmative action do have a meaningful impact on admissions, but most of what is going on is still Pinker’s “academic merit.”

** Yes, I realize that this is a rough estimate. The standard deviation of individual SAT tests is around 100. I can’t find good estimates of the standard deviation of combined scores. If the scores from the two tests were uncorrelated, then the combined standard deviation would be around 141. But the positive correlation means that this is a lower bound. And, of course, we are talking about the far right tail of the distribution, where all sorts of weird stuff might happen. The larger point stands: it is impossible for Harvard’s combined SAT scores to be 50+ points higher than Williams/Cornell, year after year, without significant focus on SAT scores by the Admissions Department.

*** See our legacy admissions category for various calculations with regard to Williams. I doubt that things are much different at Harvard or any other elite school. Why would they be?


Follow Up to Williams Thesis Use Dispute

I was going to title this post “Why My Critics are Clueless, As Usual,” but I am aiming for higher standards in 2011. Recall our lengthy dispute about the Academic Rating system at Williams. Sam, Derek and Rory demonstrated, to varying degrees, a sad inability to understand both Williams’ own policies and the broader ethos of academia. Only go below if you want the details.

First, we disputed my use of Peter Nurnberg’s senior thesis. I claimed that my usage was appropriate. My critics claimed that it was against Williams policies. (Some of them were also confused on related topics.) As most readers with a clue would have known — concepts like fair use are not that complex — I was correct. See the update at the bottom of the post.

This post has been slightly edited after conversations with Sylvia Brown, Williams Archivist. As a result, the comment thread below will not make much sense. Sorry! In its current form, the post is consistent with Williams policies with regard to the use of senior theses.

Now, it would be one thing if my conversations will Sylvia had forced me to make changes in the original post, but not a single fact from Nurnberg’s thesis has been removed. Every detail — about the exact scores needed for the different academic ratings, about the precise (and formerly secret) procedures used by the admissions office — is still in the current version, officially approved by the relevant authority at Williams. (I did clean up some aspects of the post to remove some confusions, as evidenced in the comment thread, about some side issues.)

So, anyone who asserted that my use of Nurnberg’s thesis was against Williams policy is wrong. Just ask Sylvia Brown!

Second, was my usage consistent with the broader ethos/standards of academia? This is, of course, different from my adherence to Williams’ policies. Perhaps Williams is an outlier. The claim, by various critics, that my actions were outside the bounds of normal academic standards was even more annoying (to me) than disputes about Williams policies. After all, there was a (very small) chance that I was wrong about Williams, but I know approximately as much about current academic norms as most readers.

But you don’t need to believe just me! Let’s consult some other academics.

Professor Andrew Gelman:

I don’t know anything about Williams policy but I have little sympathy for someone trying to restrict the discussion of a thesis on a blog! A thesis is public material and it would seem best for all concerned for any research to be accessible and discussed. I mean, sure, it wouldn’t be right to scan and post entire chapters without permission, but it doesn’t sound like you’re planning on doing that. The bit about “you may not copy or distribute any content without the permission . . .”–that just sounds ridiculous.

Also, I’m not sure how relevant it is whether the blog is commercial or academic. There’s some sort of continuous range, right? On one extreme is this blog right here. It’s non-commercial (we’ve in fact turned down requests to advertise) and it’s academic–actually hosted on a Columbia University computer. But what if we were not academic (if, for example, I worked at a company and hosted it on a server at home) or commercial (as with the many blogs that run a few ads). Or what if it were commercial and non-academic? For example, what if Slate magazine or the New York Times wanted to report some content from this undergraduate thesis? They wouldn’t need permission, right? At least, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to go to the library, read the thesis, and report what they find. (I’m not speaking of legalities here, just what seems reasonable to me.)

Professor Radford Neal:

Perhaps undergraduate theses ought not to be quoted, since the author may not want their immature thoughts to be widely known. But in this case, such quotes are explicitly allowed in academic publications. Is it really less embarrassing for your silly undergrad thoughts to be quoted in Science or Nature rather than in a blog post?

Either a thesis is out there, forming a part of the intellectual atmosphere, or it isn’t. There is no half-way status.

Read the whole discussion for details. The point here is not that all academics agree with me. They don’t! The point is that some academics agree with me and some disagree with me.

The most subtle argument against my use was raised, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Will Slack ’11. He argues that I lack the “moral standing to re-publish” information from Peter’s thesis. Before I grapple with this position, perhaps Will (and others) can flesh it out a bit. For example, does everyone lack this moral standing, or just me? Consider a Williams student writing a Record article about admissions policy at Williams. Does she have the “moral standing” to read Peter’s thesis and use some of the facts in her article? Does it matter if her article is a news story or an op-ed? What if, instead of writing this article for the Record, she wrote it on WSO, or even on EphBlog?

Unless Will (or others) can come up with some plausible grounds for distinguishing among these cases, I would recommend a different rule: Unless library policies specifically prohibit it, anyone writing anywhere may (accurately!) report the contents of anything in the Williams library.

Do readers disagree?


Policies on Senior Thesis Availability

Let me abstract away from my dispute with Will about the ethics of reporting the contents of Peter Nurnberg’s senior thesis. Consider a more interesting topic: What should the policy of Williams College be with regard to the availability and use of senior theses?

1) Start with Will’s comment:

I do not assert that you have to remove the information that Peter chose not to put on the web, from the web, but until you have leave from him to do so, I assert that you should.

Reasonable Ephs can differ about moral imperatives, of course. But to the extent that others agree with Will, Williams ought to change its policies to make moral behavior more common, if not universal, in this context.

2) I do not know current Williams policy on the availability/use of senior thesis. Pointers welcome! But I think that (with no exceptions) any Williams senior who writes a thesis must make a copy of that thesis available in the Williams library. (I guess that there might be some exceptions but I have never heard of any.) If a Williams senior does not want to make her thesis available, then she is not allowed to write one.

3) The main control that Williams seniors have is whether or not they want to retain copyright or give it to Williams, and whether or not they want to allow the College to make an electronic copy available over the web. See the thesis release form (pdf) for details.

4) The release form highlights, I think, the current official policy of Williams College when it comes to the availability/use of senior theses.

Your unpublished thesis, submitted for a degree at Williams College and administered by the Williams College Libraries, will be made available for research use. You may, through this form, provide instructions regarding copyright, access, dissemination and reproduction of your thesis. The College has the right in all cases to maintain and preserve theses both in hardcopy and electronic format, and to make such copies as the Libraries require for their research and archival functions

Thanks to Professor Sam Crane for providing a link to this document.

If this is the policy, then, from Will’s point of view, there are some real problems. The College is asserting that student writers have no choice. If you want to write a thesis then you must allow Williams to make that thesis available to others for research. Students do not get to decide that researcher X can use their thesis but not researcher Y. They do not get to demand that researcher X use only part A of their thesis for purpose Q and not part B for purpose R. This seems like an excellent policy to me. Kudos to the Williams librarians, the Committee on Educational Policy, the College Administration and whomever else is responsible.

5) But policies can change. Williams is wonderful but could always be better. What specific policies would Will (or anyone else) propose? My prediction is that the Williams Library and the CEP would object to any policy that restricted researcher access or use of Williams thesis. Yet, until we have some specific alternatives on the table, it is hard to know for sure.

Comments welcome!


Academic Rating at Williams

This post summarizes what we know about the Academic Rating used by the Williams Admissions Office as the single most important input to their decision making process. (Previous posts that have touched on this topic here, here and here.)

“Students Choosing Colleges: Understanding the Matriculation Decision at a Highly Selective Private Institution” (pdf) by Peter Nurnberg ’09, Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman provides the inside scoop on the definition of academic rating.

While the academic reader ratings are somewhat subjective, they are strongly influenced by the following guidelines.

  • Academic 1: at top or close to top of HS class / A record / exceptional academic program / 1520 – 1600 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 2: top 5% of HS class / mostly A record / extremely demanding academic program / 1450 – 1520 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 3: top 10% of HS class / many A grades / very demanding academic program / 1390 – 1450 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 4: top 15% of HS class / A – B record / very demanding academic program / 1310 – 1400 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 5: top 20% of HS class / B record / demanding academic program / 1260 – 1320 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 6: top 20% of HS class / B record / average academic program / 1210 – 1280 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 7: top 25% of HS class / mostly B record / less than demanding program / 1140 – 1220 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 8: top 33% of HS class / mostly B record or below / concern about academic program / 1000 – 1180 composite SAT I score;
  • Academic 9: everyone else.

(See here and here for previous discussion of this article, which is largely based on Nurnberg’s senior thesis.)

Never before has Williams revealed the exact details of the Academic Rating, abbreviated as AR by the cognoscenti. Nurnberg’s thesis, which College policy prevents me from directly quoting, includes a copy of “Class of 2009 Folder Reading Guide, Academic Ratings,” a Williams College document. Here (pdf) are some details.


      verbal   math   composite SAT II   ACT    AP
AR 1: 770-800 750-800 1520-1600 750-800 35-36 mostly 5s
AR 2: 730-770 720-750 1450-1520 720-770 33-34 4s and 5s
AR 3: 700-730 690-720 1390-1450 690-730 32-33 4s


1) AR takes account of high school quality. It is common for a student in just the top 10% of an elite high school like Bronx Science or Andover to be an AR 1, assuming she has the test scores to match.

2) According to Nurnberg’s thesis, each file is rated by two admissions officers. If their ratings differ by no more than 1 point, the ratings are averaged. If they differ by 2 or more, there is an adjudication process. Any applicant with a score of 1.5 or 2.5, get a third reader whose score is then incorporated in the average.

3) Incorporating essay strength and teacher recommendations into the overall AR is hard. Reasonable admissions officers will often disagree about whether a given essay is “exceptional” or merely “outstanding.”

4) The vast majority of applicants come from high schools that send multiple applications to Williams, either this year or in past years. So, many judgments are made by comparing students within the same high school against each other. This allows the Admissions Office to compare students high school grades even at schools which do not officially rank their students.

How much does Academic Rating matter? Consider the Alumni Review’s own overview (pdf).

The full-time admission staffers, plus a handful of helpers like Phil Smith ’55 (Nesbitt’s predecessor as director), pore over the folders. Two readers examine each folder independently, without seeing each other’s comments, and assess them in three major ways. Each applicant gets an academic rating from 1 to 9 that focuses heavily on his or her high school grades, standardized test scores, the rigor of his or her academic program within the context of the school setting and the strength of teacher recommendations.

If the first and second readers’ academic ratings differ by more than a point, they put their heads together to try to reach a consensus rating. In general, all applicants with a combined academic rating of 3 or higher are rejected at this point, unless the first and second readers have identified one or more “attributes” that warrant additional consideration.

The reason that the admissions office assigns a third reader to applicants rated 2.5 is that there is a huge difference between a 2 and a 3. If you are a typical 3 (1400 SAT, 700 achievement tests, 4s on your AP exams), you will be rejected unless you have a specific attribute or hook.

And this is where Williams, and other elite schools, can become a bit dishonest. They sometimes like to pretend that it is common for such hooks to include things like “being a great kid” or “significant concern for the environment” or “wonderful musician.” This is not a lie in so much as, every once in a while, such a hook might make a difference. But 90% of the time or more, the students who are accepted to Williams without being an AR 1 or 2 fall into just a few special buckets: recruited athlete (Williams coach knows your name and wants you), under-represented minority (checked the black and/or Hispanic box on the Common Application), socio-economic (neither parent has a BA and you check the financial aid box) or legacy (parent or grand-parent went to Williams). Other attributes (development, employee child, local resident) can matter too, but athlete/URM/socio-ec/legacy are by far the four largest drivers of admissions for applicants with an academic rating below 2.

Contrary opinions and questions are welcome!

UPDATE: This post has been slightly edited after conversations with Sylvia Brown, Williams Archivist. As a result, the comment thread below will not make much sense. Sorry! In its current form, the post is consistent with Williams policies with regard to the use of senior theses. Later discussion here and here.


Beyond The Log: Institute of Finance

The 9th installment of our seminar series on “Beyond the Log: Williams Presidents in the Gentleman’s Era” (pdf).

Bob Stegeman: Do you have anything further to say about the Institute of Politics?

Fred Rudolph: I think the students resented it because it had nothing to do with them, except that it took the president away for a couple of months each year as he was lining up the program. It was a summer operation that started in 1921 and lasted until about 1932 or 1933. It attracted about 800 to 900 people, which was a great boon to the Williamstown economy. People paid to come. It was a chance for countries to explain themselves and argue for their policies. Mussolini sent people from Italy. Like Chautauqua, the institute was a good way to combine a vacation with intellectual stimulation. It was undoubtedly good PR for Williams and Williamstown. According to Garfield’s account, the idea came to him one restless night at the President’s House. So he talked with his old college roommate Bentley Warren (Class of 1885), chairman of the Board of Trustees. Warren liked the idea. Then Garfield talked with Bernard Baruch, who said, “Let’s do it. I’ll pay for it.”

1) There is a great senior thesis to be written about the Institute of Politics. If you are a political science major, you ought to write it.

2) In some sense, the Summer Institute in American Foreign Policy, led by our own Professor James McAllister, is a direct descendant of the IOP. Did any readers attend this year? How did it go?

3) The single most important thing that Adam Falk could do to ensure the future wealth (and, therefore, success) of Williams 200 years from now is to make Williams the best undergraduate college in the world for students interested in finance. We need a finance concentration, followed by a finance major and then a finance department. Along with that, we ought to establish an “Institute of Finance,” modeled directly on the history of the “Institute of Politics.”

Invite Ephs in finance for a week or two meeting each summer in Williamstown. Much time would be spent on golf and hiking (just as at Herb Allen’s ’62 annual Sun Valley meeting). There would be panels and discussions, featuring both alumni and faculty. Several dozen students would be invited to spend the summer in Williamstown, preparing for the meeting, working with professors on finance-related research and so on.

Over time (and with much hard work), this event could grow in significance and importance, even if most/all of the attendees were Ephs. It would make Williams famous for the quality of its finance education and more likely to appeal to applicants interested in finance, especially those that we currently lose to Harvard/Yale/Princeton. An Institute of Finance would bind the community of finance Ephs — students, faculty and alumni — together and more tightly to Williams as an institution.

Perhaps the only question is: Which (rich) finance Eph can play the role of Bernard Baruch? I nominate: Greg Avis ’80, Andreas Halvorsen ’86 or Chase Coleman ’97.


Beyond The Log: Deriched Itself

The 8th installment of our seminar series on “Beyond the Log: Williams Presidents in the Gentleman’s Era” (pdf).

Fred Rudolph: At any rate, Dennett’s three years have always seemed to me to have shaped everything that’s happened since. The presidents who have succeeded him have had the job of fixing the problem that Dennett identified. In other words, the period we’re talking about brought about all of the things that helped to define Williams as a rich man’s college. But Williams College is no longer a rich man’s college. The story of how Williams deriched itself isn’t hard to tell, but that’s not our subject today.

Has Williams really “deriched” itself? I have my doubts. See here and here for this extensive background. Summary: There is not a lot of hard evidence that Williams has meaningfully deriched itself over time periods ranging from 10 to 25, 50, even 100 years.

Vaguely related comments:

1) Williams accepts 1/2 its students from private schools of various sorts, the same as it did 50 years ago. (I don’t actually have data for that, but this is true for Amherst so I suspect it is true for Williams.) Now, Andover students have always come from families with various levels of wealth. Perhaps (!) there are more “poor” students at Andover than there were 50 years ago. But, by almost all reasonable standards of “richness” — wealth, income, family stability, cultural capital, educational opportunities — Andover students are about as well off today as they were in 1960, at least relative to the US population as a whole. So, if 50% of Williams students came from such places before, and 50% do now, then just how much derichifying has gone on? Not much.

2) Even if there is more diversity in terms of family income (which, again, I dispute), that diversity is a lot more hidden than it used to be. Does it really matter if you are poor if no one knows? My sense, contrary opinions welcome, is that current students have less knowledge about their classmates wealth than they have about their classmates intelligence, much less their looks. (Side note: And wouldn’t most Williams students gladly give up some family wealth if it meant more intelligence and/or better looks?)

A hundred years ago, students bid on their rooms!. Rich students got the best rooms. Poor students got the worst. Now wealth has (almost) no influence on housing at Williams. Fifty years ago “scholarship students” served food and bussed tables in the fraternity houses. The difference in the daily lives between poor and rich students is much less today than it has been in the passed.

3) The most interesting senior thesis on this topic would examine whether or not family income has any connection to student rooming groups. I bet that it does not. That is, a student on financial aid is no more likely to live in a given rooming group than a student not on financial aid. [This is, of course, totally different from the influence of race and athletics. Students from a given racial group (or sports team) are much more likely to room with students of the same race (or on the same team).]


Beyond The Log: The Jewish Question

“Beyond the Log: Williams Presidents in the Gentleman’s Era” (pdf) is a product of the Williams Oral History Project, led by Bob Stegeman ’60. It features a discussion with Professors Fred Rudolph ’42 and John Hyde ’52, along with former President John Chandler about Williams presidents from Paul Ansel Chadbourne (1872-81) to Tyler Dennett (1934-37). Each day this week, I will quote selected portions of the interview and provide comments. What do you want to know about Williams history? Ask your questions in the comments.

Fred Rudolph: Garfield had high academic standards and was a creative educator. He wanted students to devote their lives to public service and good citizenship. But he also had no trouble with the role of Williams as an instrument of the upper class. Dennett was upset about that. He had no problem with upper-class kids. He just wanted a better mix. And with the Latin admission requirement you could not get a mix. Still, it’s interesting that although Dennett wanted to do something about nice boys, he refused federal scholarship money—money intended for poor kids. In addition, he told his admission officer not to accept blacks and Jews. Why? Because they were not treated fairly here. There was no synagogue for the Jewish students, and black students were treated as second-class citizens. Ironically, it was sensitivity to the life of being Jewish or black in a fraternity-oriented college that led him to take a position that defeated his effort to increase student variety. Stopping the admission of Jewish and black applicants was a dramatic step. Since the late nineteenth century the small but steady stream of black and Jewish students who came to Williams supplied a disproportionate number of academic stars and distinguished alumni.

What Dennett was essentially saying was that there were too many nice white boys, and he wanted some white boys that weren’t so nice. Charlie Keller said that the “nice boys” speech was a great boon to the admission operation, because there were people who wanted to come to Williams because it was doing something about the “nice boys” problem but also people who wanted to come to Williams because it had lots of nice boys.

There are at least three great senior theses waiting to be written about these topics:

1) A history of Williams admissions. Karabel’s The Chosen is a magisterial description of admissions to Harvard, Yale and Princeton over the last 100 years. Write the same for Williams, and scores of people will read your thesis. (I used The Chosen in these posts: here and here. Highly recommended for new readers.)

2) A history of Jews at Williams.

3) A history of African-Americans at Williams. Start with Black Williams.

75 years ago, Williams restricted the number of Black and Jewish students. Today, we restrict the number of international students. Isn’t it obvious that, a few decades from now, history will judge President Falk in the same way that we (harshly) judge President Dennett?

The solution is simple: Williams should no more distinguish between applicants on the basis of their passports then it does on the basis of their religion. If applicant X (with Mexican citizenship) is stronger then applicant Y (with US citizenship), we ought to admit applicant X.

The best way for Falk to get from here to there is to steal a page from Morty’s playbook when he significantly decreased the importance of athletics on admissions: Form a committee! Put together a group of 6 faculty — and choose them wisely! — to gather data and evidence about international admissions, to compare Williams with its peers, to seek the opinions of current students and alumni. Because on most important issues (!), the Williams faculty agrees with me, I have no doubt that such a committee would recommend that Williams significantly decrease the penalty placed on international applicants, just as the Williams of President Phinney Baxter ’14 significant decreased the penalty placed on Jewish applicants.

In the short term, Williams should have the same percentage of international students as, say, Yale and Harvard: 10%. In the longer term, we should accept a class with the most academically talented and ambitious students from around the world. (Students must speak English fluently. Williams should pay enough attention to ability-to-pay to keep the college financially healthy.) The more international students that Williams accepts now, the more successful we will be 50 years in the future.


Beyond The Log: The Unwritten Book

“Beyond the Log: Williams Presidents in the Gentleman’s Era” (pdf) is a product of the Williams Oral History Project, led by Bob Stegeman ’60. It features a discussion with Professors Fred Rudolph ’42 and John Hyde ’52, along with former President John Chandler about Williams presidents from Paul Ansel Chadbourne (1872-81) to Tyler Dennett (1934-37). Each day for the next three weeks at noon, I will quote selected portions of the interview and provide comments. What do you want to know about Williams history? Ask your questions in the comments.

John Chandler: As all of us know, we are going to be dealing principally with presidents of Williams, starting with Paul Ansel Chadbourne, who succeeded Mark Hopkins, and moving forward through Tyler Dennett. Perhaps first we ought to explain the inspiration for our meeting and for the interview format with which we are going to explore those Williams presidents. Fred had at one time intended a sequel to his Mark Hopkins book and in fact had spent many years of research on the post-Hopkins years. He had especially explored student life, faculty development, and trustee influence. One of the results of that research was his bicentennial essay, “Williams College 1793-1993: Three Eras, Three Cultures,” which has been included as an appendix in the 1996 edition of Mark Hopkins and the Log. A particular stimulus for this morning’s gathering was provided by Steve Lewis ’60, a former Williams economics professor who became president of Carleton. Steve asked me whether there was some way to take advantage of Fred’s understanding of this era. Fred, would you like to add any words about the book you didn’t write?

Fred Rudolph: Let it be said that the Williams archives possess the evidence of how far that project went—boxes of notes, folders of Xeroxed documents, extensive bibliographical intentions.

There is an amazing senior thesis to be written about this era at Williams. Who will write it? If you are a history major with a desire to a) Spend a summer at Williams doing some preliminary research and b) Have 100+ people read your thesis, then this is the topic for you. The vast majority of Williams theses are never read by anyone other than the adviser. Write about the history of Wiliams, and your words will live for decades.


Nurnberg Thesis Commentary

Hello EphBlog community… I am a recently graduated Math/Economics major and wanted to offer my summary and perspective on Peter Nurnberg’s excellent thesis of which a good portion was just submitted as a working paper at the NBER, as I was relatively close to the process at the time of his writing.  I offer a summary of the key points of the NBER paper, and some (not-so) brief commentary.

In short, the main questions addressed in the authors’ research are:
1) What drives a student to apply at a certain college?
2) What drives a school to accept a given student?
3) Given a student has a choice between multiple colleges, what drives a student to choose between these colleges?

Note that these are all very different questions, and while the authors addressed all of them in his thesis paper, the NBER working paper focuses only on the third question. The third question is important to colleges because managing yield is extremely important– while downside error can be rectified by letting in a few more students from the waitlist, upside error is not easily corrected. If colleges are able to use this research to better plan their acceptee pools, the college application process becomes more efficient for all.

The data set studied are regular decision student acceptees from 2008-2012, with the dependent variable being the discrete choice of matriculation at Williams vs. matriculation at another institution. From analysis of this data, the authors are able to develop a yield model that can be applied to an acceptee pool with reasonable accuracy.

So what makes college selection interesting from an individual perspective?

For a student, attending college is both an investment (leading to stronger future job prospects, better networking) and a consumption product (having enjoyable classes, a wide range of extracurricular activities, strong sports teams). Each prospective matriculant seeks to optimize both of these, subject to a set of constraints (costs, desired distance from home, etc) as well as their own individual preferences, and applies this to their “choice set,” ie: the list of colleges that student has been accepted to, and determines which college best optimizes the individual’s preferences (see Figure 1 in the paper for a good graphical representation of this decision).

A difficultly with this research is the limited data available for each applicant. Although it may be plausible that a student with a passion for Applachian trail hiking may be more prone to attend Williams based on its proximity to the trail, these sorts of idiosyncratic preferences are not obvious from a student’s application. Instead, we are limited by the available variables– demographic data, financial aid status, location, whether the student visited campus, and academic and non-academic admissions ratings (a quick and dirty proxy used by the admissions office for how strong an applicant in academics and extracurriculars/other intangibles, respectively) and a few other available variables.

When the authors plugged all these variables into the model, some of the variables had strong statistical significance. I highlight a few interesting results below:

Unsurprisingly, candidates with worse academic and nonacademic ratings were more likely to matriculate than stronger candidates, plausibly explained by stronger students having access to better choice sets. Additionally, despite our numerous museums, students with a strong studio art background were less likely to choose Williams (perhaps they had thought Williams was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during their application process). Strong athletes, (NB: non controlled for whether they have been ‘tipped’) on the other hand, were more likely to attend Williams, perhaps due to its athlete-friendly reputation and competitive sports teams.

However, all non-international minorities studied– Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, were much less likely to choose Williams, and according to Peter, were “among the strongest predictors of [non-]matriculation.” While I don’t have a plausible explanation for why this choice, it seems that minority outreach efforts still have a long way to go in making Williams a more welcoming place for underrepresented minorities.

Finally, while students who marked an interest in research science were somewhat less likely to come to Williams (perhaps spurning us for a large state school or an MIT/CalTech), students who marked their academic interest as “no idea” were much more likely to come to Williams– perhaps the most encouraging result of them all!

The upshot of the research is that the authors (and potentially the admissions office as well) are now able run each candidate through the model and come up with a number that represents that percentage probability that the candidate will matriculate at Williams, with the potential for resulting in more efficient yield management and thus a more efficient application acceptance process.

While the model certainly isn’t perfect and much data are unavailable, this was nevertheless a fantastic work by Peter with credit to President Shapiro and Professor Zimmerman, as well as the admissions office for sharing the data.  I highly recommend reading the paper, and would be happy to answer any more detailed questions about the statistical modeling in the comments.


Peter Nurnberg ’09 turns his thesis into a working paper!

Originally posted by Will Slack ’11 on WSO.

Coauthors: Morton Schapiro, David Zimmerman


The college choice process can be reduced to three questions:

1) Where does a student apply?

2) Which schools accept the students?

3) Which offer of admission does the student accept?

This paper addresses question three. Specifically, we offer an econometric analysis of the matriculation decisions made by students accepted to Williams College, one of the nation’s most highly selective colleges and universities. We use data for the Williams classes of 2008 through 2012 to estimate a yield model. We find that—conditional on the student applying to and being accepted by Williams—applicant quality as measured by standardized tests, high school GPA and the like, the net price a particular student faces (the sticker price minus institutional financial aid), the applicant’s race and geographic origin, plus the student’s artistic, athletic and academic interests, are strong predictors of whether or not the student will matriculate.

Full paper here or here (for those without NBER access).


Williams Online

Let’s just say that this little post of Williams on Twitter ballooned a bit, shall we?

Ideas on how better can this post be organized?


Williams on Facebook:



Event Information/Calendars:



Socio-ec Tags

The October 22 Record featured a section on numbers associated with the class of 2012. (Alas, that section does not seem to be on-line.) Much of the material is what you might expect (number of applications, percent acceptances and so on). But some of the items are strange. Does 1/2 the class really come from New York? Are there really 100 students from “outside the US?” (How can that be if only 40 or so students are non-US citizens?)

But the strangest claim is that the number of “first-generation college students” in the Class of 2012 is 264. Does that even pass the smell test? A normal person would interpret the phrase first-generation college student to mean, at least, that your Dad and Mom did not, you know, actually go to college. But for how many students can this possibly be true? Think back to your own entry. Did half your peers really come from families with no college graduates? Hah! There is some chance that the Record made a mistake or that there is some miscommunication with Admissions. I certainly hope that no one is purposely misleading the Williams community. Details and an overview of socio-ec admissions below.
Read more


Economic Theses Posted

Kudos to the Economics Department for posting all their senior theses on-line. Good stuff. Are other departments this organized? They should be! Pointers welcome.

Unfortunately, none of the topics are of special interest to EphBlog readers, unlike Lindsey Taylor‘s ’05 or Jennifer Doleac‘s ’03.

I still think that the department ought to publish the comments made by the professor who act as thesis readers. At the very least, the readers should be listed somewhere.


Predicting Academic Performance

A question that often comes up at EphBlog, and which is related to our seminar, is: How accurately can Williams, or any other elite school, predict college academic performance? I had a back-and-forth e-mail exchange with Jen Doleac ’03 on the topic. See below for details. The punchline is that the academic rating (AR) used by places like Williams (details here) works moderately well in predicting academic performance. The difference between an AR 1 and AR 4 is 0.4 in GPA on average. Given the tight distribution of Williams grades, this is a large difference and probably underestimates the true effect since it does not account for easier courses/majors selected by weaker students.

My initial question to Jen.

The question arose on the blog as to whether or not things like SAT scores and high school grades really predict performance at Williams. I think that they do (at least as well as any measure) and that a graph which showed something like average GPA for each academic rank would make the point clearly.

Am I right? Is there some page in your thesis that addresses this? Could I quote you on the topic? This sort of stuff is covered in places like The Shape of the River, but I would love some Williams specific testimony.

Jen replied:

I don’t have a graph or table showing precisely what you’re looking for, but the regressions on page 23 are close. Each 100 point increase on the SAT correlates with an additional .18-.22 points on the freshman GPA, or .13-.19 points on the cumulative GPA for all 4 years (this is consistent with other studies, which show SATs best predict freshman academic performance, but become less relevant over time). An improvement of 1 point on the AR, similarly, correlates with an improvement of .16 points on the freshman GPA, and .14 points on the cumulative GPA.

However, the total predictive power of the Academic Rating is better than that of SAT scores, because it factors in such things as HS GPA, teacher recommendations, and essays, and — most importantly — judges all of those achievements in the context of opportunities available (i.e., socioeconomic status). Money buys good schools and SAT prep courses, and you have to take that into account when considering someone’s potential. Colleges have been refining this “context” part for many years, so the AR works pretty well these days (though my results do suggest it may still overweight test scores). It is hands-down the best predictor we have of future academic achievement; even so, it explains less than 40% of variation. (In my opinion, GPA isn’t a great measure of achievement, anyway, since students often self-select into courses they’ll do well in. Think the stereotypical “rocks for jocks” type of classes, in addition to simply being able to avoid all math or English courses if they’re not your cup of tea.)

As a sidenote, since I seem to recall this coming up on the site as well, the reason the NAR doesn’t work as well as the AR, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t consider SES/opportunities available when rating extracurricular accomplishments. In my analysis, the predictive power of the NAR frequently depends on the student’s income level. So it’s not that rating non-academic achievements (and predicting future ones) is a futile endeavor, we just haven’t refined our rating system yet. This is becoming more of an issue as extracurricular accomplishments are increasingly being used to break “ties” between the hundreds/thousands of academically-stellar applicants. Not considering the context in which these achievements were earned unfairly benefits high-income applicants.

Did that answer your question? Feel free to quote the above, if it’s helpful. I’m flattered people are interested!

Note that AR means academic rank/rating and NAR means something like everything-else-but-athletics rank. (I think that the initials stand for non-academic rating.) Jen’s thesis demonstrates that the NAR is largely useless. Although it would be nice to be able to predict which students will be campus leaders, serve in student government, be selected for JAs, lead campus organizations and so on, the Admissions Department can’t do it. Note that this isn’t a knock on Admissions! They are smart people doing the best job that they can, the best job that probably can be done. You just can’t predict those things.

I sought clarification on one issue.

Great stuff! I will quote this on the blog soon.

One question, though. I was pretty sure that Williams, like most places, assigned AR in a “straight” fashion, without adjustment for SES and the like but with adjustment for high school opportunities. So, for example, the Socio-ec tag is *not* checked when deciding if someone is an AR 1 or 2. But, after assigning an AR “fairly”, the admissions office will tend to favor one AR 2 over another AR 2 if one is, for example, first generation college.

There is, I think, an adjustment in AR for high school opportunities. So, to be an AR 1 from an high school that only offers two APs, you need to take those AP classes. But someone at Exeter who only takes two APs would never be an AR 1 because there are so many AP opportunities offered.

Or is my understanding off?

Jen confirmed my understanding.

You’re exactly right. I’m using SES and opportunities available interchangeably here, which is admittedly lazy but I think largely consistent with reality, since the two are very highly correlated. When I say SES, I’m not refering to the Socio-ec tag, which isn’t considered until after the AR is assigned.

I hope that this helps. I think that these are important facts to understand in the context of the debate about “access” to elite schools like Williams for poor students. As I have ranted on in the past in the context of Anthony Marx’s crusade at Amherst, every time you accept a “poor” AR 4 applicant in place of an “rich” AR 1 applicant, you are decreasing the average academic achievement at the College, not just the average SATs of the incoming class.

Whether or not that trade-off is worth making is one of our main topics this month. The reality that there is a trade-off is undeniable.


Sawyer ’03 Thesis on Fraternities

EphBlog’s long term goals include bringing the history of Williams and the fine work done by Williams students to a wider audience. An example of the former is our work on the Willipedia entry about the elimination of fraternities at Williams. An example of the latter is our publication of Jen Doleac’s ’03 thesis.

Today, we get to combine these two efforts by publishing Robinson Sawyer’s ’03 thesis: “The Elimination of Fraternities at Williams College” (pdf). Comments:

1) If you want to understand the history of Williams in this era, you have to read Sawyer’s thesis. It is wonderfully done. And, for those curious, Robinson is the grandson of Williams President Jack Sawyer ’39.

2) This pdf, like Doleac’s originally, is not currently part of the thesis collection maintained by the library. I hope that the library adds it. Although EphBlog is happy to host such work, it all belongs in a central location where people might easily find it.

3) Sawyer’s thesis (and the accompanying bits of history) might make for a fun CGCL this year. Anyone interested? I am also tempted to combine this year’s CGCL with a major effort to upgrade the Williams entry in Wikipedia. Comments welcome.


Taylor VI: Financial Aid

This last post on Lindsey Taylor’s ’05 senior thesis concerns the amazing table on page 46. (Previous posts here, here, here, here and here.) Taylor provides a summary of the number of applicants for financial aid and their average award among admitted students in the classes of 2005 and 2007. Fascinating stuff. Highlights:

1) Although two years isn’t much of a sample, it is quite possible that the College made significant policy changes in this time, due both to Morty’s arrival and the changing landscape of admissions at elite schools. Students today have many more/better choices than they did 20 years ago. If Williams wants to maintain the quality of its student body, it may need to pay up.

2) Note the dramatic increase in the number of applicants (and awards) in the highest income grouping. Among families with greater than $125,000 in income, the number applying/awarded went from 103/51 to 212/90 in just 2 years! What better indication could there be that the College is giving out merit aid in all but name?

This isn’t to say that a family making, say, $150,000, couldn’t use some help, even if they have been making this much for years and years, even if they fully expect to make this much for years to come, even if they have (wisely!) followed EphBlog’s advice and used their savings to pay off the mortgage rather than putting it in the child’s name. Money is always tight, no matter how much you have.

The point is that, as recently as two (much less twenty) years prior, Williams had claimed to be need blind, to take care of the demonstrated financial need of every student. The College was either lying about this policy before or it has expanded the definition of need since. I’ll bet on the latter. Moreover, I predict that we will be seeing much more of this in the future. Excellent students are an input to the production of an elite education. If Williams wants to keep attracting them, it will need to pay for them.

3) The number of applicants/awards in the lowest income category has dropped from 57/55 to 44/42. Part of the decline, perhaps, is due to the tougher economic times of 2001. But that doesn’t make too much sense since, I think, applicants would have been required to submit income tax forms for 2000 versus 2002, and 2000 was a good year for economic growth. Perhaps the decline is too small to matter, but I still find it surprising. Imagine the Record headline: “Admissions of Poor Students Drop by 20% in Two Years”.

I suspect that both years represent a significant overestimate of the number of applicants from low income families. Note the 2 students each year who were denied any aid. One can probably divide the sub-$25,000 families into two categories: Those who are truly low-income year after year and those that just happen to have had low (reported!) income in the year of application. I don’t know how big this second category is, but the two applicants who were denied any aid presumably come from it. Divorce is probably a major part of the second category, but wise/sleazy financial planning might also play a part. Self-employed individuals have a great deal of flexibility in moving income from year to year.

4) It is simply amazing how little in loans Ephs today are required to take out. Or am I clueless about how things worked back in the day? Current students are seemingly required to take out no more than $10,000 in total loans over four years. I think that, 20 years ago, students on financial aid took out at least this much in loans, in an era when total tuition was half as much (and a dollar was worth twice what it is today).

5) As further evidence on the rise of merit aid, note that the average annual loan requirement dropped from $2,800 to $2,000. (I take this as the difference between total total award and average grant. It is not clear to me how campus jobs factor into this.) I predict that this trend will continue, that soon Williams and other elite schools will compete by offering to meet all demonstrated financial need without any loan requirements. You read it here first.

In any event, kudos to Taylor for presenting so much interesting information in one thesis. Kudos also to Morty for advising her and to Williams for making the data available. The entire project reflects well on Williams as a community of scholars.


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