Every year in Chapin Hall, the incoming students are reminded that they are the smartest class ever to attend Williams College. Statistics are cited and SAT scores expounded as evidence of the brilliance of the newly matriculated freshmen.
A lot of people make jokes about how the classes are continually getting smarter and smarter. They chuckle at the thought and the comparison. But maybe we’re making the wrong comparison. Perhaps the question isn’t whether the new class is smarter than past ones, but rather whether it’s as good as it could possibly be?
Getting into Williams isn’t easy, whoever you are. All are expected to have strong transcripts and solid boards. A Williams student is expected to be well rounded as well, with a record that demonstrates interest outside the classroom. Yet, these standards are not consistent across the board. Issues of affirmative action, athletics and legacy taint the purely meritocratic nature of the admissions process. There are costs and benefits to each of these trade-offs. The question is to whether they’re worth it.
Affirmative Action is not a new topic. Standards are lower for certain minorities; it’s just a fact. Yet I believe the benefits of this policy far outweigh the costs. We gain a diverse community in a place that otherwise would be lily white. Further, we accept responsibility for a system that is not equal. There are people who disagree with me on this question, but I leave it to this: Can you honestly say that there is no advantage to growing up white in this country? I don’t think you can. Admittedly we may not have yet taken full advantage of our diverse community, but that’s another column.
Second, our standards are different for athletes. Again, this is a fact that can’t be disputed. Coaches do have some leeway to getting in their recruits. I think this is a question of degree more than anything else.
Like any other activity, athletics is something that should be taken into account when considering applicants just as we take into account musical skill or artistic skill. But athletics overwhelms either of these two categories. I certainly respect the commitment of an athlete, being one myself, but perhaps we indulge too much in this category. Certainly I believe athletes bring something to our community, but we bring so much that admissions should vary to the degree it does? I don’t know, but it is a question worth asking.
Finally, Williams is particularly good to the children of alumnus and alumna. There is a large difference between that standard of admission. This is not to say that all legacies are less qualified students, but there certainly are some that are. Unlike the above exceptions, this is a purely economic decision. Legacies are admitted because that decision tends to bring in more money, pure and simple. It is a necessary compromise in the financing of higher education. Unpleasant, but necessary. Again, with the rather large endowment that we have, this may be a question of degree.
When we get to Williams though, all of these questions become irrelevant. Everyone begins at the same place with equal footing. How someone got here doesn’t really matter once they’re here. What does matter is what is brought to the community. I wonder, does the admission of one more student who is an incredible athlete or whose parents may as a result give more money make Williams that much better of a community? I don’t know.
But, these are questions we should all be considering. The type of community Williams values is reflected in its admissions process. These are choices that we make and they will come under greater scrutiny soon as we select a new Admissions director.
Whether or not we will eventually make significant changes is debatable, yet the questions should at the very least be on the table.