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Williams Uses Racial Goals in Admissions

Williams, as the College would be quick to tell you, does not use racial “quotas” in admissions. It does not require that there be, exactly, 50 African-American students in each class. But Williams does have ethnic/racial goals. It wants a class that looks like America.

From the Record in 1998:

There are no specific quotas to be filled in the admissions process at Williams, Director of Admissions Thomas Parker explained. Rather, the admissions Office tries to admit a class that reflects national populations.

From the Record in 2012:

[Former Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed ’75] explained that the College tries to model its student body on an “approximate mirroring” of the country, which requires recruiting students of color who otherwise would not apply.

A faculty friend reports, after talking with newish Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton ’01, that the same policy is true today. Creighton believes that ethnic/racial breakdown of US students at Williams should match, as close as possible, the ethnic/racial breakdown of the college-age US population, at least when it comes to African-Americans and Hispanics.

This is true, not just at Williams, but across elite higher education in the US. Occasionally, uninformed people don’t realize this or naive people deny it. Purpose of this post is to document that they are wrong.


Black/White SAT Scores at Amherst

From page 22 of Race and Class Matters at an Elite College by Amherst professor Elizabeth Aries.


There was more than a 200 point difference (1284 versus 1488) in combined SAT scores between blacks and whites at Amherst. Although this data is a decade old and for Amherst, I believe that the same is true today and at places like Williams. Has anyone heard differently? And, as you would expect, students with lower SAT scores do much worse in Amherst classes:


Interesting stuff! Should we spend a week on other highlights from this book?


African-American Yield Comparison

Williams yields African-American accepted students at a lower rates than (some of) its peers.


Thanks to a commentator (who should join us as a blogger!) for pointing this out. He also shared (created?) this analysis:

QtPa0Ak - Imgur

1) Thanks for doing this! We need more peer comparisons at EphBlog. This topic would also make for a good Record article and/or senior thesis.

2) Although we compare poorly with Pomona, we do fine relative to many other colleges. So, maybe the glass is half full? I know that the Admissions Office has devoted a lot of time/money/personnel to African-American enrollment.

3) The unknown factor here is standards. The easiest way to get a very high yield among African-American students is to have much lower standards than your peer colleges. If Pomoma lets in a lot of low quality African-American applicants — high school students that Williams/Amherst/Brown/Dartmouth all reject — then Pomona is going to do very well in yielding those students.

4) The most outlier strategy among elite LACs when it comes to African-American applicants is Middlebury’s: admit/enroll fewer. In the class of 2020 (pdf), only 4% of the students are African-American. Thoughts on this?


Asian Versus Black SAT Scores

This Brookings Report highlights the continuing gaps in performance on the SAT and similar IQ tests among racial groups. Former Economics Professor Mike McPherson also gets a mention. Key chart:


Several Ephs tweeted out a link to the related New York Times story:

“Race gaps on the SATs are especially pronounced at the tails of the distribution,” the two authors note. In math, for example,

among top scorers — those scoring between a 750 and 800 — 60 percent are Asian and 33 percent are white, compared to 5 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Meanwhile, among those scoring between 300 and 350, 37 percent are Latino, 35 percent are black, 21 percent are white, and 6 percent are Asian.

Translating those percentages into concrete numbers, Reeves and Halikias estimate that

in the entire country last year at most 2,200 black and 4,900 Latino test-takers scored above a 700. In comparison, roughly 48,000 whites and 52,800 Asians scored that high. The same absolute disparity persists among the highest scorers: 16,000 whites and 29,570 Asians scored above a 750, compared to only at most 1,000 blacks and 2,400 Latinos.

There should be a way to combine this data with what we know about college admissions and applicant preferences to get a more up-to-date estimate of racial distribution of SAT scores at Williams. Start with the latest available Common Data Set (pdf):


Full analysis left as an exercise for the reader! Comments:

1) About 2/3s of Williams students score above a 1400 combined. Speaking very roughly (and using hand-waving as my statistical estimation method of choice), whites and Asian Americans have about the same raw numbers in this pool. (There are, of course, many more white than Asian 17 year-olds in the US, but the whites do much worse on the SATs (and most other IQ tests)). So, why is the ratio of whites to Asians among Williams students almost 4:1? This suggests that Williams might discriminate against Asian-Americans in admissions. Now, there are many other plausible explanations other than discrimination which might explain this, mainly involving student/family preferences. But there is an interesting Record article (or senior thesis!) to write about this topic.

2) The ratio of Asian-Americans (74) to African-Americans (43) in the class of 2020 is not quite 2:1. But the ratio of students with Williams caliber SAT scores between these two groups is at least 20:1. The only thing that could possibly explain this discrepancy is massive preferences for African-Americans (relative to Asian-Americans) in Williams admissions. Taking another hand-waving guess, I would estimate that at least 70 of the Asian-Americans scored higher on the SAT/ACT than at least 40 of the African-Americans. In other words, the two distributions probably have almost no overlap, looking something like:


That couldn’t cause any problems on campus, could it? Below is an example of the sorts of “conversations” that students with radically different SAT scores have at Williams.

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Incredibly Diverse I

The last paragraph of the College’s news release about the class of 2020 is so filled with fascinating facts that we need four days to go through it. Today is Day 1.

The class is also incredibly diverse. Thirty-seven percent of students in the incoming class are U.S. students of color, and another 7 percent are international students

Has the percentage of US students of color leveled off? Or even dropped? From Adam Falk, the class of 2016 has 38%. According to the current version of Fast Facts, it was 40% for the class of 2019. According to the 2011-2012 Common Data Set (pdf and only available on EphBlog!), it was 37% ((64 + 44 + 57 + 37)/546) for the class of 2015. Comments:

1) Definitions matter. Are we talking about the percentage of the entire class that is US students of color (I think this is correct) or percentage of US students that are students of color. Does the College (does everyone) use the same definition? For reference, here (pdf) are the definitions used in the Common Data Set for the class of 2019.


Note how this lines up, almost, with the 40% claim in Fast Facts: (67 + 51 + 1 + 76 + 27)/546 = 41% — with rounding. So, perhaps the big story here is that “US Students of color at Williams drop by almost 10% (222 to 204(?)) in class of 2020!”

2) Behavior matters. How honest are applicants in checking these boxes? How have their choices — honest or not — changed over time? Intelligent applicants know that there is a bias against Asian-American applicants, if not at Williams than at places like Harvard and Stanford. So, they have every incentive to check the “white” box if they can. In particular, mixed race (white/Asian) applicants are foolish if they don’t check the “white” box. There is also evidence that more applicants who used to check the “white” box are now making other choices. Background reading here. Note my prediction from a decade (!) ago:

The point is that there are significant preferences given to those who check certain boxes and that cheap genetic testing will provide many people with a plausible excuse to check boxes that, a few years ago, they did not have. How much will the admissions process change as a result? Time will tell. It will be very interesting to look at the time series of application by ethnic group over this decade. I predict that the raw number (and total pool percentage) of African-American and Hispanic applicants will increase sharply.

Has that happened?

The most depressing news about the class of 2020 is the decline in international students back down to the usual quota level of 7%. Sad! I was wrong about Adam Falk. He continues to discriminate against international students in exactly the same way that his predecessors at Harvard discriminated against Jewish students a 100 years ago.


NYT: Multiracial students face quandary on college apps

David has often written posts about the boxes that college seniors check in the “race” category on their application to Williams College. The New York Times has a recent article on the subject:

“I just realized that my race is something I have to think about,” she wrote, describing herself as having an Asian mother and a black father. “It pains me to say this, but putting down black might help my admissions chances and putting down Asian might hurt it. My mother urges me to put down black to […] get in to the colleges I’m applying to,” added Ms. Scott … “I sort of want to do this but I’m wondering if this is morally right.”

Within minutes, a commenter had responded, “You’re black. You should own it.” Someone else agreed, “Put black!!!!!!!! Listen to your mom.” No one advised marking Asian alone. But one commenter weighed in with advice that could just as well have come from any college across the country: “You can put both. You can put one. You’re not dishonest either way. Just put how you feel.”

The article examines many parts of this complex issue. Here is an observation that hadn’t occurred to me:

Some scholars worry that the growth in multiracial applicants could further erode the original intent of affirmative action, which is to help disadvantaged minorities. For example, families with one black parent and one white parent are on average more affluent than families with two black parents. When choosing between two such applicants, some universities might lean toward the multiracial student because he will need less financial aid while still counting toward affirmative-action goals.

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Five Years Out 1: “Choosing” Williams

Promoting another post to the “Reunion Top.” –93kwt

This weekend is my five year reunion. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write here a post highlighting a few of the most shining moments I remember from my days there. In one post, I could have done this: restricting myself to “moments” that can be described to people not of my inner circle and and which are purely positive would have generated a short enough list.

But as I sketched it out, I found there was more I wanted to write about. I wish I could have kept it simple, but I’m probably incapable of this. I want to give you an idea of what was important to me, and how I connected to the campus community. And I want it to include some of the good and the bad, as well as the hard and the incidental. I want to tell a story, but remind myself that I did not live four years as a story, or see a “point” or even a unified flow in my life as I was going through it: though I suspected that I would look back someday and see it that way.

Five years out, this series of posts is much of how I see what I lost and gained at Williams. This is ephblog, so the segments are far from uncut or uncensored, but they are long enough to be true. They capture what is important to me looking back, and the past I want to give homage to as I think about reuniting with my class this weekend.

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Identify With Us

Inside Higher Ed reports:

The election of Barack Obama — African American because of his African father, distinguishing him from how the phrase is commonly used — has brought unprecedented attention to the diversity of backgrounds of those covered by the term. Within higher education, one of the more sensitive issues in discussion of admissions and affirmative action in recent years has been the relative success of immigrant black Americans compared to black people who have been in the United States for generations.

A new study has found that among high school graduates, “immigrant blacks” — defined as those who immigrated to the United States or their children — are significantly more likely than other black Americans to attend selective colleges. In fact, immigrant black Americans are more likely than white students to attend such colleges.

In 2003, at a reunion of black alumni of Harvard University, Lani Guinier, a law professor, was quoted by The Boston Globe as raising the question of whether black students who are “voluntary immigrants” should be the beneficiaries of affirmative action.

“If you look around Harvard College today, how many young people will you find who grew up in urban environments and went to public high schools and public junior high schools?” she said. “I don’t think, in the name of affirmative action, we should be admitting people because they look like us, but then they don’t identify with us.”

Indeed. We discussed the Guinier argument a two years ago. Investigating the numbers at Williams would make for an interesting Record article. A similar argument applies to some Williams faculty. Back in the day, my friends in the BSU would not have been happy to see the College categorize someone as “African-American” if he were an immigrant with no familial connection to American slavery. Perhaps times have changed since then . . .


True and Well-Intentioned

[I posted this yesterday but, as Rory and Sophmom pointed out, the topic was hardly in keeping with the spirit of such an historic inauguration. So, I removed the post. Let’s have the discussion today instead.]

A student writes:

I think the following two facts account for a good portion of the reasons Ephblog never manages to have constructive dialog on diversity issues:

Well, I think that many of our discussions are productive, but they could always be better. I appreciate this student taking the time to contribute such a thoughtful comment and wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention. Would this student like to join us as an (anonymous or not) author? The best way of creating a constructive dialog is to bring together open-minded Ephs with differing views. Please join us! We would love to feature your thoughts on the front page, which gets many more readers than our comment threads. [I also encourage other authors to pull good writing out of the threads and give it prominent placement on the main page, either with or without additional commenting.]

1. Every so often, DK says something really stupid, or at least very poorly expressed so as to seem stupid, and then spends a lot of words on disingenuously defending himself rather than admitting his mistake.

Guilty as charged! I hope that I did this less often in 2008 then in 2004. I thank Sophmom, JG, Rory and others for (trying to) help me to express my opinions in a more productive fashion. My motto for 2009? No more disingenuous defenses!

2. As a result of (1), people tend to interpret all of DK’s statements in the worst of all possible lights, even though the vast majority of said statements are both true and well-intentioned.

Indeed! I am often sad when Professor Sam Crane does this, especially since there is so much we agree on with respect to other topics. Indeed, given how much I defended/supported his point of view during our debates over athletic admissions several years ago, I would have expected at least a charitable reading from him.

But I also suspect that this student underestimates the antipathy of many members of the Williams community (Not Sam!) toward truth-tellers on this topic. Imagine that someone without my history made the same sorts of statements about the relative academic qualifications of different groups of Williams students in, say, the Record. She would meet with as much vitriol there as I do here.

For example, I honestly see nothing remotely offensive about stating that in order to maintain reasonable diversity, Williams is currently forced by the nature of its applicant pool to accept black students that it would not accept if they were Chinese-American (i.e., Williams has lower standards for admitting black students than students of other races). It’s a simple truth.

Correct. And when was the last time that this truth was expressed in the Record? Or by a member of the faculty? There are some simple truths which are not spoken at Williams.

The dilemma that I face (and it would be nice to get some advice) is how to express this simple truth without sounding “insulting.” Recall Sophmom’s comment from the same thread.

If you don’t get how this is insulting to the african american students that are accepted at Williams, and more importantly, how DK’s exact same point could have been made without a comment like this, then far be it from me to explain.

I honestly don’t know how I could make the points that I want to make (or how this student would have made the point he makes above) and not be perceived as “insulting,” at least by some members of the Williams community. I think that this is a real problem. I don’t deny that some Ephs (not necessarily speaking of Sophmom or anyone else in particular) find these words insulting, I just don’t know how to express the same thoughts without being so perceived.

I believe that Professor Crane (and many others on the Williams faculty) think that the answer is that no one should ever write or say (or think?) these thoughts, at least in public. Even though the truth is that Williams admissions standards for African-American applicants are significantly different then for Chinese-American applicants, we are not allowed to discuss/debate this fact. Sophmore makes a similar point when she writes:

I don’t want to hear any facts and data about test scores and dissatisfied students. I read the reports, and I absolutely will not argue about it. Please. That stuff should be used to make things better for future students, not insult past or present ones.

This is a perfectly reasonable point of view and one consistent with Sophmom’s position on athletic tips: we should not discuss the actual facts in public. It is pointless and, often, needlessly painful and insulting.

And, yet, though I respect this viewpoint, I must disagree. Who is accepted and who is rejected by the Admissions Office is one of the most important policy questions that Williams College confronts. Even if we refuse to discuss it, refuse to reveal to outsiders the actual standards, those decisions are made, that policy is implemented. Someone becomes an Eph and someone else — someone we will never get the chance to know, someone who might have contributed much to the Williams community — is rejected. In the context of what Williams is and what Williams will become, there are few more important topics. As long as there is an EphBlog, I will do my best to a) Accurately describe the College’s policies and b) Offer my opinion on them.

How different are the admissions standards for Chinese-American and African-American students? Well, needless to say, the College refuses to answer that question. Race and Class Matters at an Elite College reports that the average SAT scores (math plus verbal) in the Amherst class of 2009 are 1469 for whites and 1272 for blacks. (Page 197, footnote 23.) That roughly 200 point difference is about what you would find at Williams as well. [Recall this discussion from last year.]

Now, Williams is not Amherst and white students have different average SAT scores than Chinese-American students. But this is the order of magnitude of admissions preferences that we are talking about. Similar differences exist in terms of high school grades, other standardized tests and so on. Moreover, these differences are still very large even when we adjust for things like school quality, parental education, socio-economic class and anything else that you would like to name.

Consider two high school students who are identical in most every way except for race. Both go to Milton (or a lousy public high school). Both have fathers and mothers who are doctors (or are raised by unemployed single moms). Both excel in student government (or work part-time). The Chinese-American applicant needs to score around 200 points higher on her Math + Verbal SAT score to be competitive with the African-American applicant, and have similarly higher grades and other achievement test scores.

As always, reasonable Ephs will disagree over whether or not this is a good policy. I, personally, think that these differences are too large and lead to all sorts of unfortunate effects on campus. That’s one of the reasons why I propose using Tyng Fellowships to convince more 1500-scoring African-American students to choose Williams over Harvard.

But, obviously, we can’t even begin to have a conversation about what the Williams admissions policy should be until we can honestly discuss what the current admissions policy actually is. Does today mark the beginning of that conversation?

See below for the rest of the student’s excellent comment. Read the whole thing.
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Tyngs for African-Americans

One of the great problems that Williams faces in admissions is attracting enough/any African-American applicants will Williams-caliber credentials. Partly, this is because Williams, because of its location and size, is less attractive (on average) to African-American applicants than it is to other applicants. (The same is probably true for international students). But, much more important is the intense competition for elite African-American students from schools like Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford. Almost any African-American applicant with the high school grades and standardized test scores which would place her in the normal range for academic admission (AR 1 and 2) will be accepted at one or more of HYPS. (This is not true of, say, Chinese-American applicants.) Since 90% of applicants (and probably a higher percentage of African-American applicants) admitted to the College and one of these 4 choose HYPS over Williams, this means that Williams has little choice but to accept many African-American applicants who we would not accept were they Chinese-American.

The only practical solution to convince such students to choose Williams is to make it worth their while. And the Tyng (money for graduate school and extra money while at Williams) is the best method available. Therefore, the College should award almost all Tyng Scholarships to African-American applicants, thereby luring 4-8 African-American applicants away from HYPS and to Williams each year. (With luck, HYPS won’t feel compelled to match our offers.) For legal reasons, Williams might need to make an occasional offer to someone who was not African-American, but I doubt that the Department of Justice would be making trouble against these sorts of efforts anytime soon.


How To Get Into Williams

There are many “chances” posts on College Confidential, requests from potential applicants for comments on their chances of getting into Williams and advice on how to do so. See here, here and here for recent examples. I am often tempted to reply: “Take a genetic genealogy test and, if it comes back black, join the appropriate clubs in your high school and check the right box on the Common Application.”

Good advice?

1) A recent New York Times article discussed the power and problems of these tests.

The authors said that limited information in the databases used to compare DNA results might lead people to draw the wrong conclusions or to misinterpret results. The tests trace only a few of a customer’s ancestors and cannot tell exactly where ancestors might have lived, or the specific ethnic group to which they might have belonged. And the databases of many companies are not only small — they’re also proprietary, making it hard to verify results.

“My concern is that the marketing is coming before the science,” said Troy Duster, a professor of sociology at New York University who was an adviser on the Human Genome Project and an author of the Science editorial.

“People are making life-changing decisions based on these tests and may not be aware of the limitations,” he added. “While I don’t think any of the companies are deliberately misleading customers, they may have a financial incentive to tell people what they want to hear.”

You think? If a particular company get a reputation for “finding” black ancestry in people who “look” non-black, I suspect that they might find an eager market for their services. (By the way, Troy Duster is an Eph, via honorary degree. Previous entries here.)

But even if the test companies don’t act on their financial interests, they still make mistakes. And, even when they don’t make mistakes, what happens when they start saying that you have “African” genes when it appears that some of your descendants came from north Africa? And, even when the companies a) Don’t act in their financial interest, b) Don’t make mistakes and c) Don’t count north African ancestry as “African”, there is still a big problem. A large percentage (can’t find a citation just now) of the “white” population in America has at least one ancestor from sub-Sahara Africa. Does Williams really want to provide them with affirmative action?

2) I covered much of this ground last year. Recall:

Note that the Common Application gives you almost complete latitude in what boxes you check. It states, “If you wish to be identified with a particular ethnic group, please check all that apply.” In other words, there is no requirement that you “look” African-American or that other people identify you as African-America or even that you identify yourself as African-American, you just have to “wish to be identified.”

Now, one hopes, that there isn’t too much truth-stretching going on currently. The Admissions Department only wants to give preferences to students who really are African-American, who add to the diversity of Williams because their experiences provide them with a very different outlook than their non-African-American peers. But those experiences can only come from some identification — by society toward you and/or by you to yourself — over the course of, at least, your high school years. How can you bring any meaningful diversity if you never thought of yourself as African-American (or were so thought of by others) until the fall of senior year?

The point here is not that the current admissions policy at Williams is bad or good. It is what it is. The point is that there are significant preferences given to those who check certain boxes and that cheap genetic testing will provide many people with a plausible excuse to check boxes that, a few years ago, they did not have. How much will the admissions process change as a result? Time will tell. It will be very interesting to look at the time series of application by ethnic group over this decade. I predict that the raw number (and total pool percentage) of African-American and Hispanic applicants will increase sharply.

3) Note that this is already happening. Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action tells the story (page 82) of white parents scamming their way into San Francisco’s elite Lowell High School “by scouring their family histories for the tiniest hint of black or Hispanic blood.” That sort of “scouring” gets easier and cheaper each year.

4) Besides studying the trends in the number of applicants from different groups, the Record could have a lot of fun just by looking at the pictures of Williams students. There are, allegedly, 49 or so African-Americans in the class of 2011. Want to bet? I have no doubt that the admissions office is being honest — 49 students did indeed check that box. But, could an outsider look at pictures of all the members of the class of 2011 and pick out those 49 individuals? I doubt it. The Record ought to give it a try. Background information here.

5) Don’t forget that there are some administrators at the College who would actually welcome this development. The College loves to be able to claim that 10% of Williams is African-American, whatever the underlying “truth” might be. In this dimension, the College certainly practices a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell philosophy. Even better would be having a 10% African-American class with average SAT scores above 1400. Not hard to do if a lot of applicants start checking that box.

So, what should those poor applicants at College Confidential do? Suggestions welcome.


Identify with Us

Are 1/3 of the African American students at Williams first or second generation immigrants? Probably.

At a reunion of black alumni of Harvard University in 2003, Lani Guinier set off a discussion on a sensitive subject: whether black immigrants are the beneficiaries, perhaps undeserving, of affirmative action.

Guinier, a Harvard law professor, was quoted in The Boston Globe at the time as saying that most minority students at elite colleges were “voluntary immigrants,” not descended from slaves. “If you look around Harvard College today, how many young people will you find who grew up in urban environments and went to public high schools and public junior high schools?” she said. “I don’t think, in the name of affirmative action, we should be admitting people because they look like us, but then they don’t identify with us.”

Of all black people aged 18 or 19 in the United States, about 13 percent are first- or second-generation immigrants, but they made up 27 percent of black students at the selective colleges studied. The proportions of immigrants were higher at the private colleges in the survey than at publics, and were highest among the most competitive colleges in the group, hitting 41 percent of the black students in the Ivy League.

The chart presented in the article suggests that 1/3 would be a good estimate for Williams. Sounds like an interesting Record article! Note also this comment from the discussion thread.

I went to Brown, and I’d say a majority of the African-American students went to prep schools and were very well off. Ivy League schools do not generally take chances on African-American students from inner-city public schools. In fact, there was an African-American student from inner-city DC, and there were numerous articles written about him, proving that fact. Therefore, I don’t see why this is so shocking to anyone in academia.

True at Williams? Also, all of this leaves aside the issue of mixed parentage. Lani Guinier (like Senator Barak Obama) has a white mother. (Not that there is anything wrong with that!)

Back in the day, it was taken for granted that the benefits of affirmative action went to students who a) Did not grow up rich and b) Did not attend prep schools and c) Had 4 US-born grandparents who had suffered under the legacy of discrimination. It appears that this would now only be true for a (small?) minority of the beneficiaries of affirmative action at Williams today.

Those with better information should comment below. My point here is not to praise or blame the current policy. I just want to know about the actual composition of the Williams student body.


Diverse Twins

Brother Smartness of Postgraduate Musings on mixed-race twins.

I thought, I’d flip the script and post this picture of these odd defying fraternal twins who were born in May of 2006. The chances of having twins that are so drastically different in their racial makeup is about 100-1. I can’t help but to be fascinated by this phenomena. I wonder how one would go about addressing race in a family such as this.

Interesting stuff. How should such applicants check the boxes on the Common Application? How should Williams classify them in its annual nose-couting exercises? More here from the very non-pc folks at Gene Expression.

Perhaps we can all agree that, for a start, Williams should release the underlying data, should let us know just what boxes are checked in what combination on the Common Application. Is transparency too much to ask for?


Counting Noses: The Details

The process of racial classification at Williams is endlessly fascinating (see here, here and here). In a previous thread, I was struck by this comment from fellow EphBlog author Reed Wiedower ’00.

As I pointed out during Winter Study, I’m still curious as to why the college keeps lying about the racial question.

Many people my year refused to answer the question, especially those of mixed heritage. Many so called “whites” were equally dismissive of it.

I think that removing oneself from racial aggregate data is statistically a good move. Why? Because it forces the administration to take a look behind the numbers at what is going on.

I should have challenged Reed at the time on his use of word “lying.” First, there is the issue of the anthropomorphizing the “college” — a sin of which I am regularly guilty. The college doesn’t lie (or talk or tell the truth). Individuals at the College do. Second, the honest and hard-working Ephs at the College who are actually responsible for these statistics are doing the best that they can given the constraints that they face.

In fact, Chris Winters ’95, Director of Institutional Research (and the man whose name appears on these documents), was kind enough to explain the mechanics of what happens. Endless details below the break.

Winters writes:

Like all colleges and universities Williams is required to submit reports to the government via the IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) system. Below is probably more than you ever wanted to know on the subject, pasted from the IPEDS website .

Method of collection – The manner of collecting racial/ethnic information is left to the discretion of the institution provided that the system which is established results in reasonably accurate data, which may be replicated by others when the same documented system is utilized. One acceptable method is a properly controlled system of post-enrollment self-identification by students. If a self-identification method is utilized, a verification procedure to ascertain the completeness and accuracy of student submissions should be employed.

Assignment to categories – For the purpose of this report, a student may be included in the group to which he or she appears to belong, identifies with, or is regarded in the community as belonging. However, no person may be counted in more than one racial/ethnic group. Racial/ethnic designations are requested only for United States citizens, resident aliens, and other eligible non-citizens. (See definitions below.)

Racial/ethnic descriptions – Racial/ethnic designations as used in this survey do not denote scientific definitions of anthropological origins. The categories are:

  • a. Black, non-Hispanic – A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa (except those of Hispanic origin).
  • b. American Indian/Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North America and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.
  • c. Asian/Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, or Pacific Islands. This includes people from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, American Samoa, India, and Vietnam.
  • d. Hispanic – A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central, or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
  • e. White, non-Hispanic – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East (except those of Hispanic origin).

Other descriptive categories

  • a. Nonresident alien – A person who is not a citizen or national of the United States and who is in this country on a visa or temporary basis and does not have the right to remain indefinitely. NOTE – Nonresident aliens are to be reported separately in the places provided, rather than in any of the five racial/ethnic categories described above.
  • b. Race/ethnicity unknown – This category is used ONLY if the student did not select a racial/ethnic designation, AND the postsecondary institution finds it impossible to place the student in one of the aforementioned racial/ethnic categories during established enrollment procedures or in any post-enrollment identification or verification process.

    As you can see from the last paragraph the government is clear that use of the “unknown” category is to be considered a last resort and not used as a convenient punt.

    At Williams the racial classification begins with the box that is checked by the student on their common application for admission. Most students will self-designate at this point. A small number do not and some will choose multiple boxes. Once students matriculate, the Registrar’s office makes every effort to assign that matriculant to one of the race classifications as defined above. Students are given the final say however, in that the Registrar’s office then contacts every student informing them of the racial assignment they have on file, and explaining the IPEDS requirement for racial assignment, and the official definitions of those race classifications (as above). The student is asked to inform the Registrar if they wish to change the classification to which they have been assigned. In practice, very few students request changes.

    This is the process used at Williams. This process has been designed to achieve the best results given the sometime competing objectives of:

    • maximizing compliance with IPEDS
    • maximizing data accuracy
    • minimizing student discontent
    • minimizing administrative burden

    Thanks to Chris for taking the time to clarify these issues. Comments:

    1) It is a pleasure to interact with someone like Chris who takes the time and trouble to explain things to interested alumni. Although many/most college officials (Dick Nesbitt, Jim Kolesar, Jo Proctor, to name just a few) are similarly helpful, not all are.

    2) It seems to clear to me from the above that the College is not “lying” about anything. People like Chris are doing the best they can given the constraints that they face.

    3) It would be interesting to learn more details about how the office of the registrar “makes every effort to assign that matriculant to one of the race classifications as defined above.” We have at least one description of this process from Jonathan Landsman ’05.

    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.

    Sounds like the Admissions Office does its best to classify people and then passes the baton to the registrar. But how, exactly, does the registrar have a classification “on file” if the student did not check any boxes on the Common Application or if she checked more than one? On the one hand, the “best” description — or at least the most sociologically accurate one — for any student who checks white and some other box is probably white. So, perhaps the Registrar/Admissions Office puts all such multi-box checkers in the white category. On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure on the College do be as diverse as possible, so why not minimize the use of the white box by following a policy of classifying students in the most diversity-increasing manner possible?

    4) I have no opinion on what is the “right” answer here. I just want to better understand how the process works. If a students checks both the Asian and white boxes (as my daughters might) on the Common Application, what happens at Williams?

    5) It would be great fun if a member of the class of 2010 were to make trouble about all of this, either for ideological or entertainment reasons. Surely, there are a couple of Young Republicans out there! Simply insist to the Registrar that you want to be categorized as “Race/ethnicity unknown.” Demand that the College supply evidence for any other classification that it might want to make. Inform the Registrar (in writing!) that you will be checking the College’s common data set to ensure that your classification is correct.

    6) There is an interesting Record article to be written about this topic. Who will write it?


    Box Checking

    This New York Times article is receiving a fair amount of attention (here, here and here) in the blogosphere.

    Alan Moldawer’s adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual’s genetic ancestry.

    The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid.

    And for getting into Williams?

    “Naturally when you’re applying to college you’re looking at how your genetic status might help you,” said Mr. Moldawer, who knows that the twins’ birth parents are white, but has little information about their extended family. “I have three kids going now, and you can bet that any advantage we can take we will.”

    Genetic tests, once obscure tools for scientists, have begun to influence everyday lives in many ways. The tests are reshaping people’s sense of themselves — where they came from, why they behave as they do, what disease might be coming their way.

    It may be only natural then that ethnic ancestry tests, one of the first commercial products to emerge from the genetic revolution, are spurring a thorough exploration of the question, What is in it for me?

    Quite a bit, at least in terms of admissions to elite colleges. The average combined SAT differential between African-American and Asian-American students at places like Williams is around 150 points. Imagine that you are an ambitious high school senior with mid 600 SATs. Without a “hook,” you are highly unlikely to be admitted to Williams. Check the box marked African-American on the Common Application, and you improve your chances dramatically. How much do you really want to go to Williams?

    Given the tests’ speculative nature, it seems unlikely that colleges, governments and other institutions will embrace them. But that has not stopped many test-takers from adopting new DNA-based ethnicities — and a sense of entitlement to the privileges typically reserved for them.

    Prospective employees with white skin are using the tests to apply as minority candidates, while some with black skin are citing their European ancestry in claiming inheritance rights.

    Note that the Common Application gives you almost complete latitude in what boxes you check. It states, “If you wish to be identified with a particular ethnic group, please check all that apply.” In other words, there is no requirement that you “look” African-American or that other people identify you as African-America or even that you identify yourself as African-American, you just have to “wish to be identified.”

    Now, one hopes, that there isn’t too much truth-stretching going on currently. The Admissions Department only wants to give preferences to students who really are African-American, who add to the diversity of Williams because their experiences provide them with a very different outlook than their non-African-American peers. But those experiences can only come from some identification — by society toward you and/or by you to yourself — over the course of, at least, your high school years. How can you bring any meaningful diversity if you never thought of yourself as African-American (or were so thought of by others) until the fall of senior year?

    “This is not just somebody’s desire to go find out whether their grandfather is Polish,” said Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University who has studied the social impact of the tests. “It’s about access to money and power.”

    So true. Note that Duster gave a talk at Williams a few months ago. Too bad that no one on campus blogged about it. I’d bet that it was interesting.

    Driving the pursuit of genetic bounty are start-up testing companies with names like DNA Tribes and Ethnoancestry. For $99 to $250, they promise to satisfy the human hunger to learn about one’s origins — and sometimes much more. On its Web site, a leader in this cottage industry, DNA Print Genomics, once urged people to use it “whether your goal is to validate your eligibility for race-based college admissions or government entitlements.”

    If you care about the traditional notion of diversity at Williams — that it is critical for the College to have enough African-American students, students who identify themselves this way and are so treated by society — than this phrasing must make your blood run cold. What happens when hundreds (thousands?) of students with 600 level SATs take these tests and “discover” that they are African-American?

    Some social critics fear that the tests could undermine programs meant to compensate those legitimately disadvantaged because of their race. Others say they highlight an underlying problem with labeling people by race in an increasingly multiracial society.

    “If someone appears to be white and then finds out they are not, they haven’t experienced the kinds of things that affirmative action is supposed to remedy,” said Lester Monts, senior vice provost for student affairs at the University of Michigan, which won the right to use race as a factor in admissions in a 2003 Supreme Court decision.

    Still, Michigan, like most other universities, relies on how students choose to describe themselves on admissions applications when assigning racial preferences.

    Up until now, we have all assumed (hoped) that applicants are mostly honest. The College does not check that you are “really” African-American or Hispanic. They take you at your word — although they certainly like to see club membership, essay/recommendation references and other signs consistent with that check-mark.

    Yet what happens when every student at elite high schools gets tested? This will happen. Indeed, how can any social studies teacher resist such a test when it would serve as a great starting point for all sorts of amazing class discussions?

    Then, once every junior at Exeter has taken the test, it will be time for some fun discussions in the college councilor’s office.

    Uptight Parent: We would really like Johnny to go to Williams.

    College Counselor: Well, Johnny is a great kid who will do well at Colby. But, with his grades and test scores, Williams would be quite a reach.

    UP: If Johnny were African-American, he would get into Williams.

    CC: Well, that might or might not be true, but it hardly seems relevant to this discussion since Johnny is white.

    UP: But the project that Johnny did for social studies showed that he was 2% sub-Saharan African.

    CC: So . . .

    UP: That means that he can check the African-American box on the Common Application.

    CC: Well, the traditional usage of that box is for students that have always identified themselves, and been identified by others, as African-American.

    UP: But it doesn’t say that on the form, does it?

    CC: No.

    UP: So, Johnny can check it, right? There is no school policy against it?

    CC: Correct.

    UP: In fact, since the test demonstrates that, scientifically, Johnny is African-America, I can count on the school to verify that designation in all its application paperwork.

    CC: Yes. [Sigh] And I hear that the fall foliage is lovely in the Berkshires . . .

    Think that this is just more stupid EphBlog fantasy?

    Ashley Klett’s younger sister marked the “Asian” box on her college applications this year, after the elder Ms. Klett, 20, took a DNA test that said she was 2 percent East Asian and 98 percent European.

    Whether it mattered they do not know, but she did get into the college of her choice.

    “And they gave her a scholarship,” Ashley said.

    Of course, being “Asian” does not help you when applying Williams.

    Note also that these tests often make mistakes, so many of the box-checkers will actually be mistaken.

    The point here is not that the current admissions policy at Williams is bad or good. It is what it is. The point is that there are significant preferences given to those who check certain boxes and that cheap genetic testing will provide many people with a plausible excuse to check boxes that, a few years ago, they did not have. How much will the admissions process change as a result? Time will tell. It will be very interesting to look at the time series of application by ethnic group over this decade. I predict that the raw number (and total pool percentage) of African-American and Hispanic applicants will increase sharply. Time will tell.

    See here and here for bloggers who cover the science behind these tests.


    National Populations

    This Record article, by our very own Alix Davis, provides some insights into how the Admissions Department thinks (or thought in 1998) about affirmative action. I don’t think that much has changed in the last 8 years.

    Affirmative action in the Williams admissions process had a different focus when it first began than it does today, explained [then Director of Admissions Thomas] Parker. “At that time [when affirmative action first began] there was more of a sense of using affirmative action as redress for past grievance.”

    “The shift has been much more to the idea that a diverse student body is absolutely essential for one’s education,” Parker said. Since affirmative action was first put into practice at Williams, its scope has broadened to include other minorities such as Latino and students who are the first in their families to go to college.

    All well and good. Williams is certainly on safer legal ground to rely on the diversity-as-education rational than diversity-as-redress. This also relates to my point about the difficulty in increasing the number of students from low income families. If there is a question on the Common Application, as there is for race and parental education, then Williams can favor certain answers over others. If not, as in the case of family income, affirmative action is much harder.

    On a personal note, I remember filling out the Williams application more than 20 years ago and thinking that having a mother with a law degree was cool and prestigious. I thought that this would help me in the process, not hurt me. I was quite naive.

    Going forward, once applicants discover that “forgetting” that your parents have college degrees is worth 100 or so SAT points, how accurate will the responses to these questions be?

    According to Parker, the first push for affirmative action at Williams was in 1967 after a faculty vote. “We were among the first of the small liberal arts colleges to get into the business of diversifying the student body in terms of racial backgrounds,” Parker said. He explained the interest in affirmative action came in response to the national civil rights movement and to general questions of social justice. While the College’s affirmative action policy originated in the faculty, it was strongly supported by students.

    There is a great senior thesis to be written about the start of Affirmative Action at Williams. Who will write it? Many of the key decision-makers are still alive. For a sense of how interesting this period was, check out Chapter 13 of The Chosen.

    While Parker said he agrees there is definite need to remedy past discrimination of minorities, he also believes affirmative action is important for Williams as an educational institution. “I think we’d be failing you [the students] miserably if we didn’t have a diverse student body,” he said. “The survival of the society depends upon a level of racial tolerance and appreciation.” That tolerance and appreciation for diversity, Parker said, should be an educational goal of an institution such as Williams.

    Yeah, yeah. This is all reasonable enough, but the point that I tried to make 20 years ago in these debates still applies. All admissions decisions happen on the margin. Imagine a Williams with no Asian American students. This would, obviously, be a problem. The students at Williams would still be quite diverse and all wonderful, but it is certainly reasonable to argue that, on the margin, bringing in some Asian American students would be good even though there would be a cost in the students that you would now need to reject. The first 10 (or whatever) students of type X have a high marginal benefit.

    The next 10, less so. The ten after that even less. Right now, each Williams class has about 50 Asian American students. Would Williams be well-served by admitting another 10? In a sense, the answer is: Yes, of course! Those (unknown to us now) 10 students would no doubt add all sorts of rich, chewy, diversity goodness to the educations of their peers. But, the marginal benefit would be lower than that received from the prior 50. Against this benefit, we need to weigh the cost of rejecting 10 students with (by assumption) stronger applications.

    Fine. The economics approach, as Morty taught me in ECON 401, is correct, albeit dismal. Williams should optimize its admissions process so that, on the margin, each (just) admitted student adds a little more value to the overall class than each (barely) rejected student.

    Let’s say we tried to implement this approach and we let someone we trust, like Dick Nesbitt, do it. What would the resulting racial breakdown of the class be? I don’t know, but I see no reason why resulting numbers would just so happen to approximate the US population of SAT takers.

    And, of course, Williams Admissions does not think about the problem in this way. But I have never seen a Williams official admit the real guiding principal until now.

    There are no specific quotas to be filled in the admissions process at Williams, Director of Admissions Thomas Parker explained. Rather, the admissions Office tries to admit a class that reflects national populations. In general, they aim for at least 25 percent of the students to be students of color. Parker said, “We use that number as a reasonable index of desirable diversity. It may change over time.” Over the last few years, the percentage of students of color varied between 22 to 29 percent.

    At least 25%, but not a nasty quota. No, sireee. We don’t do quotas at Williams . . . Yeah, right.

    My point, and I do have one, is that the reason Williams does everything it can to get the number of African American and Latino students as close to 10% as possible is not because of some sober analysis over the marginal benefits and costs of each student. They aim (and, nowadays, hit!) 10% because this approximates the “national population.”

    I do not think that this is a useful way to think about the importance of diversity at Williams. But I credit Parker for giving us the honest scoop about what was (is?) going on behind the curtain.


    Double Counting

    How is a Canadian who is part black and part Chinese classified by the nose counters at Williams? I don’t know.

    I would assume that “Pookrum” filled out the Common Application and checked several boxes. Does Williams keep track of non-American racial classifications for enrolled students? If so, why isn’t this data reported? Certainly, the state of diversity at Williams depends, at least partially, on the race/ethnicity of the 6% of students who are international . . .


    Ducking the Hard Questions

    With regard to this thread, a reader writes:

    My comments have to do with the whole nose counting issue. First, let me state the obvious: I usually disagree with Dave and often find him annoying, difficult and insensitive. Also, I do believe that affirmative action has a place in today’s world. However, Rory et. al. are driving me nuts! Why won’t they address the problem of counting a URM for your numbers but that URM not bringing any significantly different experience than a comparable non-URM? It seems a fair and justifiable question worth a response.

    My hope is that the admission office looks at the applicants background in detail and sees what kind of “URM experience” they bring to the table. I think all kinds of URM’s experience are valuable: from the prep-school URM to the inner-city URM. But clearly it is in the college’s interest to have a diversity of diversity.

    I hate it when people I agree with duck the hard questions and do not have the courage to take on a well thought out critique.

    I hate it too.


    First Days

    If it is a rainy day at the end of August, it must be First Days at Williams. Throughout the 80’s the day of then freshmen now first year arrival seemed to always be a day like today, overcast with a bit of rain but not enough to make moving in too hard. At least, that was the weather 21 years ago.

    But, from EphBlog’s point of view, there are two key questions: First, is anyone blogging the First Days experience? We are most interested in the presentations that the College makes. I heard some negative comments about last year’s speakers and wonder if things will be better this time around. Second, is anyone taking pictures?

    Previous posts on First Days here and here. And, of course, I wonder if the class of 2009 will be learning The Mountains?

    The central goal of First Days should be to ensure that every first year makes at least a friendly acquaintanceship with 50 or so other members of the class. A week is not enough time for friendship, of course, but it would be nice if everyone knew enough people well enough that there was always a table for them to join in Baxter (or wherever it is that first years are eating now). Also, it is best if these meetings are as randomized as possible. Ephs of specific interests and backgrounds will have no doubt congregate in the years to come. First Days is the time to meet those who you might not ordinarily meet.

    The College already starts this process in the right direction by ensuring that entries are a microcosm of Williams as a whole. There is nothing wrong with well done social engineering. It is also wise to provide a week for the first years to do things as a class, without the pressure/distractions of other obligations. (Am I right in thinking that first year athletes don’t start practicing with their teams until after First Days are over?) I hope that the JA’s also mix up people (perhaps via entry-pairings?) in the discussions after the various speakers. And, certainly, every discussion should begin with the sort of learn-everyone’s-name game that is a staple of summer camps and retreats.

    It would be also good to see more of this forced mixing. I hope that WOOLF groups are, for example, not organized by entry but instead mix up the entries as much as possible. It would be even better if the College put WOW later in the semester so that URMs are not (self-)segregated from the very start of their Williams experience.

    We are all purple first.


    Counting Noses

    In retrospect, I should have brought up the interesting issue of what counts as “Hispanic” at Williams as a general topic and not tied it directly to one particular student. So, let me bring it up here. The Record reports that:

    [Director of Admissions Richard] Nesbitt said he was “ecstatic” with the yield of minority students. “We’re doing very well by any standards,” he said. Included in the class are 53 Asian Americans, 42 African Americans (down from 53 last year at this time), 55 Latinos (a record high) and three Native Americans. Thirty-two international students have also accepted offers. Nesbitt expected the number of African Americans to rise to 9 percent of the class as decision extensions expire this month.

    Question: Is it true that there are 55 “Latinos” in the class of 2009?

    Read more


    Prep-School URMs

    In a previous thread, HWC claimed that

    The bidding for middle and upper class Af-Am and Latino kids this year has taken my breath away. Colleges, including several of our favorites, have no shame in courting these kids. It’s really quite embarrassing as the top schools fall all over themselves chasing the same 1000 students. College admissions is sweet for prep school URMs these days.

    Of the top 3 LACs, Amherst appears to be the most..ahem…”creative” when it comes to ciphering a “need-based” aid package (aka hidden merit aid), but even that pales to the offers being thrown around by places like U Chicago to URM applicants.

    I don’t have enough facts to comment much, but I suspect the Questbridge folk have a sweet little deal going for themselves, charging a pretty penny in exchange for turn-key diversity stats. I know that Harvard was one of the first schools to sign on after Questbridge was started at Stanford. But, Harvard dumped ‘em a couple of years later.

    Having looked at their federal filings, I don’t see any red flags at Questbridge, but it is always hard for an outsider to tell these things.

    But I would like to hear more details, from HWC or anyone else, about the competition for talented URMs among Williams and its peer institutions. I believe that the Tyng plays a part in this, but don’t have good data on what percentage of Tyngs go to URMs. Anyone with details is invited to comment.


    Ephs and Indians

    AB ’07 has some questions:

    Does affirmative action include Native Americans too?

    Yes. Like affirmative action for African-Americans, there are generally two motivations. First (and illegal, at least in the context of Williams admissions) is to make up for past discrimination, both by society at large and by Williams in particular. (Note that Ephraim Williams probably killed his fair share of Native Americans, and Frenchmen too.) Second (and legal) is to improve the diversity of the student body at Williams and, thereby, the education provided to all students.

    Of course, just because affirmative action, in general, does include Native Americans does not mean that the Williams admissions office shows favoritism. I would wager that it does.

    If it does — why does it look like next year Williams will have only its first Native American student in 4 years? (please correct me if I am wrong) and if it doesn’t include Native Americans, why not?

    I think that AB is wrong. The Provost office reports that there were 4 students on campus during 2003-2004 that were “American Indian or Alaskan Native”. This compares to 6 the prior year and 8 in 1998-1999.

    There are a lot of things to keep in mind here. First, this does not prove that there were 4 Native Americans on campus. All we know is that there were 4 students that checked this box. Depending on one’s point of view, these Ephs might not be “real” Native Americans — or there might be many more who would qualify. The precise definition of “Native American” is, as one might expect, a matter of some dispute.

    The trickiest issue concerns cultural, generally tribal, influences. There are millions of Americans (including my niece and nephew) with Native American “blood” — meaning the presence of Native Americans in their family tree. Most definitions of Native American require more than this. That is, you must be able to specify a specific tribe if you want any of the associated benefits, like an improvement in your chances at admission to Williams.

    Note that this is related to the issue of who counts as black at places like Williams and Harvard.

    The rapid progress of bioinformatics means that this whole topic will become much more interesting, and controversial, in the next few years. Although I am no expert, it seems clear that we will soon be able to determine the exact family tree for any individual. That is, the Williams Admissions Office won’t have to rely on someone truthfully checking boxes. Instead, a simple blood test will determine if an applicant has, say, at least 16 of 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents with the desired genetic characteristics.

    Whether or not this will count as progress will depend on your point of view.

    Over to you, Oren Cass!


    Which Ones

    Fascinating article in the New York Times today about race in college admissions. Amherst, but not Williams, gets a mention.

    At the most recent reunion of Harvard University’s black alumni, there was lots of pleased talk about the increase in the number of black students at Harvard.

    But the celebratory mood was broken in one forum, when some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students were.

    While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard’s undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them — perhaps as many as two-thirds — were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

    They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves. Many argue that it was students like these, disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions.

    I would imagine that things are unlikely to be different at Williams, but that they are different from the 80’s; there was no SoCa 20 years ago, I think. Finding out the exact facts about Williams — and how/why they have changed over time — would make for a great senior thesis. Indeed, Williams, relative to other elite schools, has a pretty proud heritage in this regard.

    The president of Amherst College, Anthony W. Marx, says that colleges should care about the ethnicity of black students because in overlooking those with predominantly American roots, colleges are missing an “opportunity to correct a past injustice” and depriving their campuses “of voices that are particular to being African-American, with all the historical disadvantages that that entails.”

    “Overlooking”? Isn’t that a tad misleading? Is Marx really claiming that there are hundreds of high achieving (meaning high SAT scores and high school GPAs with difficult courses) black 18 year olds in America who aren’t actively courted by Amherst (and Harvard and Williams)? That certainly isn’t true.

    I suspect that his desire to “correct a past injustice” is probably illegal in the context of Amherst’s admissions policies. It is OK for Amherst to discriminate against, say, Greek-American students as long as the purpose of doing so is to increase diversity in the student body and, therefore, improve the education for all. It is not OK to discriminate in order to make historical redress to 18 year olds that Amherst has not wronged in the past.

    But I am not a lawyer.


    George Tolley claims that he

    George Tolley claims that he “should know better than to debate with someone who controls the medium (and therefore the message?),” but he was still kind enough to send in these follow ups on our running discussion about admissions at Williams. George writes (with my comments interspersed):

    Dave, you give me some credit, and yet I think that you don’t give me enough credit (when it suits your rhetorical position?).

    First, perhaps we have a fundamental disagreement over the purpose of racial diversity on campus. In my opinion, so long as the mere fact of race in this country is a reason for people to be separated and treated differently, then it is a reason for people to be thrown together on campus. I recognize this as the-chicken-and-the-egg: who stops basing decisions on race first — schools or society at large? That’s a tough one, and I don’t have the knowledge, background, experience or time to debate it effectively.

    Race does matter in this country, but I suspect that we disagree about how much it matters. In any event, recall that our precise diagreement is about whether or not my mixed race daughters should get preference over your non-mixed race sons. For all practicle purposes, my daughters are not “treated differently” than your sons in the America of 2003. Indeed, many people who see them don’t even realize that they are mixed race! (Actually, one daughter could probably “pass” and one couldn’t.)

    If I had fallen in love with and married a Williams woman of African, as opposed to Chinese, ancestry then this would not be as true. Indeed, to the extent that any ethnic box checking is reasonable in the Williams admissions process of today, a preference for black applicants would be the least objectionable. I still think that people over-estimate how differently 17 year olds — at least the 17 year olds who are educationally and economically on the path to a Williams application — are treated based on the color of their skin.

    But, at least when it comes to my daughters, it is simply untrue to say that they have been “separated and treated differently” from the sort of students who populate the Williams campus today. Indeed, by the time that they apply to Williams, the proportion of young women of mixed race ancestry from educated, affluent families will be much greater than their proportion in the larger society. Providing them with affirmative action (with regard to your sons) would be the functional equivalent of providing a Jewish applicant with this advantage. It is neither needed nor warranted.

    You also ask, why use race as a proxy for a particular life experience, when the admissions office could simply use that life experience itself? In some instances, such as your (unfair) example comparing your daughters to a Chinese immigrant, it should be a simple matter for the admissions office to recognize the difference in the richness in cultural heritage, simply by comparing elementary school transcripts. I reiterate: “I trust the admissions people at Williams to assign a degree of preference to that element of their application that adequately balances the multitude of competing interests that come into play.”

    Why is my example unfair? Indeed, an even better one would involve a Chinese immigrant from a place like Vietnam or Indonesia or any of the many countries in which the Chinese diaspora are discriminated against, both formally and informally.

    I stand second to none in my admiration of the skill and dedication of the people in the Williams admissions office, and I certainly hope that they will recall these kind words in 10 years. I also suspect that, even though George thinks that my daughters deserve an advantage over his sons, the Williams admissions office won’t agree. My daughters won’t get an advantage because Williams will, based on merit, have as plenty of mixed raced students. Their race won’t affect their prospects.

    I still object, as a matter of principle, to the college’s bean counting. Consider a reprentative quote: “And the community of students is becoming increasingly diverse. In the Class of 2006 alone, 27 percent of students identified themselves as black, Latino or of Asian descent, and 6.5 percent are from countries outside the United States. No entering class in Williams history has been as diverse.”

    This is the sort of thinking that I find offensive. What if the class of 2007 looks just like the like the class of 2006, except that they removed 10 students who looked like George’s sons and replaced them with 10 that looked like my daughters? Would this new class, with 29% “minority” be more “diverse”? I don’t think so. It follows that the College’s claims to increasing diversity should be taken with a grain of salt. One of the problems with ethnic bean counting is that it makes it too easy for the College to claim increasing diversity without actually having achieved it in any sort of substantive manner. Non-white does not equal diverse.

    But in other instances, can you see that it might be much more difficult to parse out important life experiences (e.g., achieving success despite having been the victim of discrimination in housing or employment). As a practical matter, how does an admissions office identify students with such valuable but intangible assets? There are only so many experiences that one can cram into even a well-written essay.

    And what about the diversity of opinions? Some opinions are not politically correct, and others might be considered radical or dangerous, and as a result these opinions are never expressed on a college admissions application. Sometimes, I suspect that teenagers have such opinions, but they don’t know that they have them, or how to express them effectively. Should the diversity of such opinions simply be ignored as irrelevant to the college admissions process?

    Of course not. I never argued this. Indeed, I think that Williams could be a lot more diverse on this metric.

    And isn’t race just as legitimate a proxy for those opinions as anything else?

    No. No. No. A thousand times no. Race is a horrible proxy for diversity of opinion and experience. Fortunately, the College has access to a wealth of information that matters as much if not more than race, starting with the applicant’s high school. In terms of real diversity, I would be much more interested in how many students come from families with incomes below the 10th percentile or attended high schools from which fewer than 25% of the students went on to college. I can imagine a case for giving applicants like this a preference over George’s sons. I can not see a case for so favoring my daughters.

    I would also put a lot more credence in the College’s claims of increasing diversity if they were to provide statistics on these sorts of measures.

    And what about the issue of future life experience? Does the college have an interest in training leaders, and if so, then isn’t it just possible that your daughters (even them!) could be role models in this country in ways that my sons never could be, simply by virtue of (the accident of) their gender and racial makeup? And in that case, shouldn’t the College pursue your daughters, and others like them, to fill some proportion of the admitted population?

    No. While it would be great if the College could train future presidents, cure cancer and implement world peace, I would be happy if it were to just focus on (and succeed at) one goal: To provide the best liberal arts undergraduate education on Earth.


    Given his previous comments on

    Given his previous comments on ethnic box checking, I asked George Tolley if he felt that my daughters should be given preference over his sons by the Williams admissions office. For those who don’t know, George and I, while not the two brightest stars in Carter House firmament, were smart enough to marry wonderful women from the class of 1989. Although both Kay and Kirsten are as American as apple pie, Kay (my wife) is of Chinese descent while Kirsten is of German ancestry — my guess, on the basis of Kirsten’s maiden name along with her blond hair and blue eyes. George replied as follows. I (unfairly!) interspersed my comments below. Of course, if I were really smart/geeky, I would be able to set up this blog with a proper comments section, but that will have to await the summer.

    Let me be clear (and equally provocative): Yes, I do.

    Further, I trust the admissions people at Williams to assign a degree of preference to that element of their application that adequately balances the multitude of competing interests that come into play. Thus, your daughters may get a large boost, because of a perceived need in that class year to check that particular box; or they may receive only an infinitessimal boost, because of the relative surplus of mixed-race marriages in our generation. In either instance, the admissions office can and should have the discretion to make those judgments — both to improve the class and to improve the four-year educational journey of the students offered admission.

    George may be my buddy and ex-roommate, but I find this delusional. In what meaningful way will the race of my daughters — the shape of their eyes, the pigment of their skins — effect the education of their classmates at Williams? How will it change what they write in their papers or say in their classes or through out for discussion during the late night bull sessions? The answer, of course, is that it won’t. Pigmentation, in and of itself, does not matter.

    George will respond that, of course, he (and the admissions office) is not interested in pigmentation for its own sake. He (and they) care about the experiences that are correlated with that pigmentation. And, certainly, my daughters have something of an exposure to Chinese culture. They eat Dim Sum. They get “lucky money” in red envelopes on Chinese New Year. But these attributes are about as important to who they are as my father’s preference for green ties on St Patrick’s Day is to who he is.

    And that is the difference between ethnic box checking (EBC?) and meaningful diversity. An 18 year old who immigrated from China when she was 10 and speaks Chinese at home to her parents might (might!) deserve some sort of preference over George’s sons in applying to Williams. Such a woman would add more diversity of opinion and world view to a Williams classroom than my own daughters would, charming as they might otherwise be. To argue that my daughters deserve a preference over George’s sons — My but their eyes are so unsually shaped! And look at the color of their skin! — is to care more about appearence than substance.

    In either instance, I approach the issue without believing that “getting into Williams” is the be-all and end-all that getting into the University of Michigan seems to have been for the plaintiffs in their case. Living with crushing disappointment is a valuable lesson — one that some of those Groton kids probably needed more than actually getting into an Ivy school. After all, I didn’t get into most of the Ivy schools where I applied, but I landed on my feet and turned out okay.

    Mainly because you were smart enough to marry Kirsten! ;-)

    Correspondingly, I fully expect that my boys will be better writers, clearer thinkers, happier people, and more comfortable with diversity or whatever after their college experience (as I certainly was), whether they attend Williams or Swarthmore or the University of Maryland (in this, perhaps I display a bias — I do expect my sons to attend college somewhere).

    On top of that, I join those who believe that diversity of opinion and experience is a good thing in higher education. And in a country where the precise thing that would disadvantage my sons in college admissions grants them an advantage in virtually every other aspect of their lives, I add ethnic diversity to the list.

    Perhaps George and I agree more than we disagree. Diversity of opinion and experience is good. But the experiences of my daughters is, for most practical purposes, no different from the experiences of George’s sons. Williams parents. Surburban living. Good schools. Soccer teams. Trips to Disney World. Given that, why should Willams favor my daughters?


    Affirmative Action and College Admissions

    There will be a debate tomorrow about affirmative action and college admissions at Williams. I sometimes think that it would be fun to live in Williamstown so that I might take in events like this. Then I realize, Duh!, I have two small children. I don’t do evening events.

    My own preferred solution to the issue is not so much to practice affirmative action at places like Williams or to make it illegal to do so (my betting on how the Supreme Court will decide). My preference (thinking as either a college administrator or as a federal regulator) would be to make it illegal and/or unseemly to count by race or ethnicity. The federal goverment certainly has no business asking my daughters what “race” they are. And Williams, as a private institution, should be able to let in whoever they want, but they shouldn’t be able to quiz people about their background or to publish statistics on what percentage of the student body is this, that or the other category.

    Perhaps the best parallel would be religious background. No one knows (I think) what percentage of Williams students are Baptist or Catholic or Jewish or whatever. The College would probably think it unseemly to even ask such a question. Why should they care? Of course, an applicant whose life is centered around her Baptist faith might very well discuss this on her application and, to the extent that the College feels (correctly) that having a mix of religious and non-religious students at Williams improves everyone’s education, she might benefit in the application process from this. That is, there is nothing wrong with the College accepting a very religious Baptist over someone with slightly better high school grades and recommendations and standardized test scores for the sake of improving everyone else’s education.

    The same, obviously, applies to race, class and all the other attributes on which applicants differ. But I would be more trusting of the process — more ready to believe that the admissions department was weighing the trade-offs “correctly” — if the College couldn’t brag that 23% (not 22% or 24%) of the students were “US minority” (an interesting terminology that). However, in a world in which the College likes to trumpet things like:

    February 9

    The Boston Globe reported that Williams ranked second among national liberal arts colleges in percent of black students in the first-year class and in black student graduation rate.

    The Boston Globe reported that Williams College was ranked second, after Amherst College, in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education rankings of 24 selective institutions. The rankings looked at the percentage of African-Americans within the student body and the graduation rate of these students.

    I worry that the college playing a numbers game. Maybe Williams has the highest proportion of German/Irish/Jewish/insert-your-favorite-group-here students of any school in the country. Maybe it has the lowest. The critical issue is the quality of the education that the students who are there receive. I find it hard to believe that that quality can be measured by ethnic box checking.


    Previously Marginalized Voices

    Continuing on the diversity theme, Philosophy Professor Steve Gerrard has an article that ties the debate to Wittgenstein. After a too long preamble, he concludes with:

    My Wittgensteinean argument has been: the pursuit of truth depends on the selection of a plurality of salient and representative examples; the selection of such examples is, at the very least, partially determined by what strikes the individual as salient; thus, the pursuit of truth partially depends on a community of seekers of truth who consider different examples salient.

    What kinds of diversity are epistemologically relevant is a contingent matter, and it is a contingent truth that in our particular society at our particular time, race and gender (and not, say, the color of one’s eyes) are crucial (but not necessarily overriding) factors in determining what examples an individual considers worth noting and investigating. This becomes especially significant in the case of individuals who are members of groups that have historically been marginalized in the academy.

    Thus, in addition to the moral, political, and pedagogical reasons for Williams College’s affirmative action programs, our institution, as a community of seekers of truth, depends on the increasing participation of diverse and previously marginalized voices.

    If the United States Supreme Court voids affirmative action programs, that would not be the first time that government has made philosophy more difficult.


    1) I shouldn’t be too critical since I love it when professors write for the Record and otherwise engage in the public intellectual life of the College. Williams needs more of this, not less.

    2) To be cool, remember to say, “Vittgenstein.”

    3) It has been a long time since I read Wittegenstein, but, as best I remember Professor Lipton’s class on the topic, Gerrard is perfectly correct in his argument.

    4) As a “contingent matter,” I couldn’t disagree more with Gerrard’s claims about the importance of race, at least as it is currently used by Williams. While it is true that my lovely daughters are members of group (women of mixed race ancestry) that has been “historically been marginalized in the academy,” I don’t think that it is true that their perspectives will be different enough from randomly selected Anglo (more polite terminology than “white”, in my view) applicants to warrant a preference in the admissions process.

    5) But I would still go along with this argument — i.e., that Williams provides a better education with preferences than it would without them because of the increased diversity of viewpoints thereby provided — if it were more widely applied. For example, an applicant who had grown up in a city like Sarajevo or Grozny or Bahgdad would be likely to have a dramatically different viewpoint regardless of the color of her skin then one who had grown up in the typical US suburb. If affirmative action as practiced at Williams bought more of these students to Williams, then it would seem a lot more reasonable than a program which seems mostly designed make for pleasingly diverse pictures in the admissions brochures.


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