Need-blind admissions challenged by other schools

On March 30, the Williams Admissions Office sent acceptance letters to 1152 of 4527 applicants. All admissions decisions were based on an expected yield of approximately 40 percent and a target class size of 535.

At the time of press, 503 accepted students had committed to Williams, with 175 still left to hear from. “I’m expecting about 15 more,” Dean of Admissions Philip Smith said. “We think it’s going to be safe to take 20 from the wait-list,” as compared with only nine last year.

Admissions officials see this as a good thing. “There are plenty of very, very talented kids on the wait-list,” Director of Admissions Tom Parker said. “In an ideal world I’d like to take 25 to 30 kids of the wait-list every year. Otherwise the wait-list loses integrity; it becomes a second prize, an honorable mention.”

The likelihood that more students will be taken off the wait-list is only one feature of a year that admissions officials admit has been more than usually chaotic. “In the past a lot of this was science,” Parker said. “Last year we wanted 545, and we got 545 exactly. But this year was different,” he added. “It’s more like, ‘I think it’s going to happen, but I’m not so sure as I used to be.”

The main reason, Parker explained, is that many schools, such as Princeton, Stanford and Yale, have adopted new financial aid programs whose effects are still unknown. To further complicate matters, some colleges—notably, Swarthmore—have engaged in untraditional financial aid packaging without publicly announcing their plans.

“Swarthmore dropped a bomb on us a few weeks ago—a Pearl Harbor kind of deal,” Parker said. “To be perfectly honest I’m extremely upset.”

Parker explained Swarthmore’s position: “It seems they forgave the loan and the summer earnings expectations for the 120-140 ‘most desirable’ financial aid recipients in their applicant pool—and that’s a lot of kids.” In addition, Swarthmore has expanded two of their scholarship programs to include more students.

The University of Pennsylvania, Parker added, “has also done some things this year in terms of preferential packaging but we don’t know what.” Cornell is rumored to be reviewing its system as well, and admissions officials suspect that other schools could have engaged in practices similar to Swarthmore’s.

The combined effects of the various alterations in financial aid are hard to understand, even with the developing information about Williams’s yield this year. “It’s just too early to tell,” Smith said.

Parker agreed, “We hate to draw conclusions at this point … We are a very data-driven, research-oriented institution. We are not about to make any wild speculations.”

While the admissions officials are not yet sure of the specific effects, they do know that the entire situation represents diminished control here at Williams over the whole admissions procedure. “The more I lose control of what happens,” Parker explained, “the more likely it is that we get 30 more men than women, or we do badly with musicians.”

One particular aspect of this concern is the effect it will have on minority students’ decisions to come to Williams. “A lot of this preferential packaging will be targeted at students of color,” Parker said, “so that’s where we might suffer.”

At this point, the department hopes that its fear will prove ungrounded. If current projections are correct, the yield this year will only be one percentage point down from last year, which is not extremely significant even if, as Smith suspects, the new financial aid policies are the reason.

In addition to practical considerations, however, Parker is not happy with the moral implications of moves such as Swarthmore’s. “What is philosophically questionable with this,” Parker explained, “is that there is no socioeconomic basis for this …. It’s just a competitive gesture on the part of the Swarthmore admissions office.”

He continued, “More and more people are willing to compete for students with dollars. But what’s short-sighted is that if we all do this we will just cancel each other out …. It represents to me an appalling lack of wisdom.”

One major concern is this type of system’s threat to need-blind admissions. “There’s only a small number of places that can do this: be need-blind and also monkey around with traditional ways of giving financial aid,” Parker said. “Swarthmore can do this, Princeton can do this, etc. …But there are some schools that can’t do this and remain need-blind. That’s the kind of choices they’re going to have to make.”

“The Department of Justice is dancing a jig,” he added. “They want to turn colleges into General Motors and Toyota—have them compete with each other to drive down costs. But if you care a whole lot about need-blind admissions, this is not great news.”

Another factor at play in admissions decisions this year was the decreased target class size: down to 535 from 545 for the class of 2001. “Part of this is due to rooming situations with first-years,” Parker explained. “There are some rooms here that in this fantasy world at Williams are ‘bad.’” With a smaller class next fall, the College can ideally turn some of the smaller doubles into singles and make first-year rooming more comfortable.

The decision to accept fewer students is also due to the fact that the college as a whole is currently slightly over its targeted size of 1,960 undergraduates. Parker suggests that some reasons for this excess could be that fewer students are choosing to live off-campus, and that more students are graduating in four years instead of taking time off.

To combat this Williams has also cut down on its acceptance of transfer students. “We took the fewest number of transfers,” Parker said, “since 1979.”

Despite numerous complications this year, Smith is, on the whole, pleased with how admissions this year are shaping up. First, the previews program appears to have been especially successful this year. “There is solid evidence that the students who attended the previews were very pleased with their visits,” Smith said.

And from what officials can tell at this point, the Class of 2002 promises to be extremely talented. “Is it a strong and diverse group?” Smith asked. “Yes, it is. And we’re very pleased.”

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