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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.
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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.


Taylor Thesis V: Academic Rating

On page 82, Taylor provides some interesting background on the meaning and distribution of the academic rating (AR) system used at Williams.

The academic rating is a vital number that is gleaned from a student’s application. As seen in Table 6.3.l.a, the greatest percentage of students in this study falls in the “academic 2” category, with 27.1 percent of students qualifying for this rank. There are approximately the same proportions of students in the ranks above and below this one, as 15.7 percent of students are academic 3’s and 15.3 percent earn the distinction of being an academic 1. Again, it is important to remember that the students being studied are those who have applied, been admitted, and matriculated to Williams, thus this information is not indicative of the characteristics of the applicant pool. One of the most interesting findings is that over 16 percent of students were ranked as an academic 6 or below. Academic 6’s and 7’s are so close to the bottom of the scale as to be nearly off the Williams’ admission radar, to say nothing of the academic 8’s.

I think that Williams would be a much better place — and a more academically serious one — if the vast majority of academic 6’s and 7’s were denied admission. I also suspect that those students, though denied admission at Williams, would do quite well at a Hamilton or Connecticut College. Applicants who are academically mismatched at Williams should be careful what they wish for.


Taylor Thesis IV: Questbridge

Taylor provides some interesting details on Questbridge in pages 29-30.

A very new initiative for Williams is participation in the QuestBridge Program, which is a third party service that matches low-income, high-ability students with the top colleges and universities in the nation. The QuestBridge Program actively targets low-income students with the promise that if these students are able to become QuestBridge scholars, they will be given the opportunity to attend a prestigious university for no fee. QuestBridge rigorously chooses their scholars, and then matches the students with appropriate institutions based on their academic qualifications and their ability to qualify for a full ride. The program is effective because of its simple advertising campaign, which is easy for low-income students to understand, and because it takes a lot of the work out of the college search for these students. Since many low-income students are the first in their families to attend college, they are unfamiliar with the college application process, and the QuestBridge program simplifies the process for them. QuestBridge is attractive to colleges and universities because it identifies qualified low-income applicants, saving these institutions the trouble of finding these students themselves. It is helping these institutions reach out to low-income students by increasing awareness about the feasibility of attending a selective school.

The program is relatively new, as it was started in 2003, but seems to be valuable and effective thus far. For the 2004-2005 applicant year, Williams received 8 1 “matches” from the QuestBridge program. The college determined that 14 of these 8 1 actually qualified as needing a full ride under Williams’ financial aid equation, and all 14 were accepted. Of these students, 6 were male and 8 were female, and at least 9 of them were minority students. The students came fi-om all reaches of the United States, fi-om Hawaii to Texas to New York. In addition to these admits, Williams also contacted a number of other students from the QuestBridge list, telling them that the College could not offer them a full ride but that it could give them a great aid package and encouraging them to apply. Of these, seven students applied to Williams and accepted the offers of admission. Only one of these students was male, and five were minorities. With the QuestBridge program, Williams is essentially contracting out some of its admissions work, and this year received 21 students that otherwise inight not have applied. The college pays QuestBridge a $15,000 annual fee, then pays $4,000 for each student obtained through the program that completes his or her first year at Williams.

See here for previous EphBlog posts on Questbridge.


Taylor Thesis III: Experiments

On page 28, Taylor writes:

Meanwhile, Williams has decided to experiment with recruiting low-income students through specifically targeted letters. In the past, Williams has used its list of low-income students from the College Board to simply send out information about the college. Now the college is using two recruiting letters: one that specifically targets low-income students and one that does not. This recruiting year, the college randomly sent out one of the two letters to all low-income students. The number of students who respond to these letters and ask for more information about Williams will be recorded, and the college will use the results of this experiment to determine whether the targeted recruiting letter is effective.

Cool stuff. There are many interesting papers to be written with this data. One of the great advantages in hiring economists (Morty, Cappy Hill) to run Williams is that they are much more likely to appreciate the power of randomized experiments in generating knowledge. There is much more that the College should be doing (and, perhaps, is doing behind the scenes) along these lines.


Taylor Thesis II: Progressive Tuition

Continuing our review of some of the highlights on Lindsey Taylor’s thesis, we come to page 17.

Prior to this study of COFHE institutions, Hill and Winston wrote a paper focusing exclusively on Williams College that also addressed net prices relative to family incomes. They found that the percentage of quintile median family income paid at each quintile during the 2000-2001 school year at Williams, starting with the lowest, was as follows: 41 percent, 24 percent, 23 percent, 21 percent, and 21 percent. This regressive pricing changed dramatically the next academic year, when the percentage of quintile median family income paid, starting with the lowest quintile, was: 11 percent, 16 percent, 14 percent, 18 percent, and 20 percent.

By increasing grant aid, and thus reducing net price, Williams was able to change their pricing to be gently progressive. Over this two-year period, the students in the 95th income went from 21 percent to 20 percent, while the average overall student payment fell from 29 percent to 26 percent.


1) The paper cited by Taylor is here. She also discusses a related work. Both papers look interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to go through them.

2) The abstract to the Hill and Winston paper notes “One usefully concrete number: the average student in the bottom twenty percent of the income distribution pays $1,683 while the full tuition is $32,470.” I think that “pays” here includes any loans taken out. In other words, the average student from the bottom quintile graduates with no more than $6,500 in total loans. I think that this is a fairly radical change from the 1980’s. As far as I can recall, there were plenty of Williams students in that era from poorer families who graduated with much more debt. Is that right?

3) I think that Morty played a major part in the decision to change Williams pricing. Now, to some extent, Williams had no choice but to do this since all its major competitors are actively recruiting less wealthy students. If Williams does not offer these students more grants and fewer loans, they will just go elsewhere.

4) In other words, although Taylor and Hill/Winston seem to talk about these changes in terms of redistribution (making tuition bills more “progressive”), I think that the real issue is not one of justice so much as competition. The people who ran Williams 20 years ago had similar political beliefs to those who run it today. But they didn’t worry too much about loading up some young Eph with a bunch of debt because they knew that that young Eph would, after graduation, have the opportunity to earn a bunch of money. (The fact that colleges colluded also removed any worry that the young Eph would find a better deal and go elsewhere.) Now Williams, if it wants to have any students from families with bottom 20% income, has no choice but to offer huge grants, even to a student who has every intention of becoming a rich investment banker.


Taylor Thesis I: Abstract

This week’s project is to highlight the most interesting aspects of Lindsey Taylor’s 05 thesis “Low-income students and college admissions : a case study of Williams College,” advised by President Schapiro. Thanks again to College Librarian David Pilachowski for making this work electronically available to all. Although the readership of EphBlog is not large, it is in the hundreds. Disseminating the best writing/research of Williams students is one of our goals. The five posts this week are an example.

Each day, I’ll be quoting portions of the thesis and providing brief commentary. Let’s start with the abstract.

Low-income students are severely underrepresented at elite institutions of higher education like Williams College, and any demand that their population be increased must consider the value of having low-income students at such an institution. This study examines low-income students that were admitted and matriculated to Williams based on data from their college applications, comparing their qualities and characteristics to their more affluent peers to determine where these students fall in both the academic and nonacademic spectra of Williams students. The performance of low income students once they arrive at Williams is analyzed in relation to the rest of the student body. An explanation of the College’s policies toward and history of admissions and financial aid as well as of new initiatives undertaken by the College to actively recruit talented, low-income students provides a context for this study. It appears that having socio-economically disadvantaged students at Williams is in no way lowering the standards set by the more advantaged students. Most low-income students are a valuable addition to the campus, possessing a respectable array of academic and non academic characteristics that place them solidly in the upper middle range of students in most respects.


1) This is a great topic. More economics theses should be written about Williams. The smaller your focus, the better the result. The fewer your predecessors, the more valuable your contribution.

2) It is nice to see an abstract. Not all economics theses at Williams seem to have abstracts. (At least Jen Doleac’s ’03 did not.) They all should.

3) Spectra? I need to brush up on my Latin, obviously.

4) Taylor somewhat buries the lead when she notes that “It appears that having socio-economically disadvantaged students at Williams is in no way lowering the standards set by the more advantaged students.” This is true, as she demonstrates, but it suggests that the lack of more representation from low income students at Williams is appropriate. In other words, if Williams were unfairly discriminating against low income students, then we would expect these students to do better then their peers. Since they do about the same, Williams is not discriminating. This means that the current proportion is about “right.”

5) Taylor claims that low income students are “solidly in the upper middle range of students” at Williams. I know that she wants this to be true, but I don’t see where she demonstrates this.

6) Annoyingly, the pdf version of the thesis that the College provides is 77 (!) meg. Of course, I should not complain since I have pushed so hard for any access. Also, given that the College had no option other than to scan in the pages and the turn those scans into pdf’s, it isn’t clear that it could make the file smaller. But the CEP ought to change the thesis requirements so that students need to hand in an electronic and hard copy of their theses (whether public access is provided is a different question).

Although you should of course all read the Taylor’s thesis for yourselves, I hope to highlight some of the more interesting bits over the course of the week.


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