Decreased number of applications raises admissions questions

In a possibly troubling development, the College received 299 fewer applications for the incoming first-year class, decreasing from 4,955 for the class of 2004 to 4,656 for the class of 2005, according to recently released admissions data. While Dick Nesbitt, director of Admissions, has heaped praise upon the class of 2005, the diminishing admissions numbers have raised concern among other members of the community.

Specifically, current Williams students look to changing rates of admission, applications pool size and student body composition and often misinterpret the data negatively.

“It’s a little disturbing, considering the general upswing in admissions in other liberal arts colleges,” said Joe Buccina ’04.

“I think it’s important to keep our number of apps up so that we continue to get top students here on campus.” Others echoed Buccina’s opinion, and spoke about their fears that a smaller applicant pool would give Admissions less of a choice in accepting students, and could lead to a decrease in the overall strength of the student body. The general consensus was that fewer applications automatically degraded the quality of the applicant pool. Furthermore, many other liberal arts colleges in the region such as Bowdoin, Middlebury and Wesleyan have experienced increases in their applicant pools, triggering worries that students who would have applied to Williams are now applying to other small New England liberal arts colleges instead.

Among some of the concerns raised was the fact that Middlebury and Bowdoin both did away with requiring mandatory SAT-I scores for students applying for the class of 2005, and both schools recorded significant size increases in their applicant pools. The publication of an op-ed piece in The New York Times several months ago by Morton Owen Schapiro, president of College, arguing that the SAT is a useful and valid tool for use in the application process also led to some fear that Williams lost an opportunity to entice more students to apply.

However, Nesbitt had only positive comments about the College’s newest class and the admissions process in general.

There can be many reasons for the decrease in applications for the current freshman class. Nesbitt was enthusiastic in his comments on the various issues raised by the community, and expressed his confidence in the College’s ability to maintain its academic edge by constructing a strong student body exhibiting strong and diverse achievements. While many felt that the decrease of 300 applications was a serious problem, application numbers at the College have historically fluctuated by much more (see graph, page 5). In fact, application numbers have fallen by more than this year’s decrease, only to rebound in the next year. Nesbitt mentioned that in looking at College admission files over the past several decades, application numbers have in fact remained relatively consistent.

Nesbitt also challenged the perception that there was less competition for seats this year, or that there was a loss of actual quality within the pool. He pointed to the high academic achievement statistics of the class of 2005, and echoed the oft-heard phrase that the current freshman class is one of the brightest ever to matriculate at Williams. “I’m not so concerned about what the number [of applications is] is than about quality. If I thought we were losing quality, I would be concerned,” he said. He said that in his opinion, there has been no drop in quality, and conjectured that part of the decrease in applications could be attributed to the fact that fewer inadmissible students (students who would be rejected by the College) had applied to the College than in previous years.

Nesbitt also sought to disconnect this year’s application decrease from the elimination of the SAT-I requirement at some other small colleges in the region. “When you look at the data, we have much more of an overlap with Yale [than with Bowdoin or Middlebury]. The overlap is more with bigger universities,” he said. Based upon surveys of accepted students, most of those who decline enrollment at the College elect instead to attend large research universities such as Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth. Nesbitt pointed out that the College’s yield percentage (approximately 48 percent), which represents the percentage of students matriculating at Williams, is comparable to that of many of the nation’s large research institutions. Consequently, Nesbitt was unconcerned about the increases in applications at Bowdoin and Middlebury, or the fact that the SAT-I was no longer required for applicants to those schools.

Schapiro had a similar reaction. “What matters is the strength of the new class, not the number of applications,” he said. “If Williams wanted to inflate its number of applicants, thereby lowering its admit rate, we could do it in a second ? either by misrepresenting the ability to get into our school or playing with two-part applications or deferred admissions. I’m not worried about our ability to stay competitive for top high school students, and neither, it seems, is U.S. News who, for better or worse, just ranked us as the most selective liberal arts college in the country. An unfortunate aspect of not requiring SATs is that more students who are not remotely admissible apply. Our students are great and the new changes in our academic program will make us even more in-demand.”

While total applications and acceptances decreased, the number of acceptances offered to early decision applicants increased from 180 for the Class of 2004 to 191 for the Class of 2005. A concern mentioned for several years is that the binding nature of the Early Decision application gives a school less of an incentive to offer a generous financial aid package, since all students accepted through the Early Decision program are bound to attend. “A few high-profile colleges take greater than 50 percent of their final classes through Early Decision,” said Nesbitt. “Doing that makes you lose out on some of the best students applying through regular decision.” Nesbitt stated that in general, the Office of Admission tries not to use up too many spots as a result of the Early Decision program, and establishes a rough cap on Early Decision acceptances at 35 percent of the entering enrolled class.

Last year, in part due to a series of articles published in the Record, an intense and occasionally confrontational discussion occurred on campus regarding the role of athletic recruitment and the place of legacy status in the admission process was also mentioned. As with most academically elite colleges, the admissions office accords children of Williams alumni an edge over the general applicant pool.

Furthermore, a large percentage of students having one or two alumni parents is accepted through early decision, leading to rumors that children of alumni are virtually assured of admission if they apply early. Nesbitt was unequivocal in rebuffing such an idea. “A slight special consideration is given to children of Williams graduates, and it makes sense from an institutional standpoint, I think,” he said.

However, he emphasized that all applicants with family members who graduated from the College are not automatically admitted regardless of their achievement. Specifically, he mentioned that average scores of children of alumni on standardized tests and high school extracurricular activities are similar to statistics for the accepted student pool at large.

“What I think tends to be the situation [of children alumni getting in early] is that more children of alumni know the college, they’ve come to reunion; there’s a much greater likelihood of the school being their first choice,” he said, in explaining the large numbers of early-admit legacy students.

The admissions data also showed a significant increase in minority students matriculating at the College. The percent of minorities in the freshman class went from 22 percent of the class of 2004 to 25 percent of the class of 2005. Historically, the College has had less-than-glowing success in attracting minorities to apply and matriculate.

Nesbitt pointed to recently-implemented programs targeting minority students as a cause for increased minority enrollment. In particular, he spoke about the success of the multicultural preview and fall recruitment weekends, in which students are invited for a weekend to participate in various events and experience life at Williams. Last year, approximately 100 students participated, but, as of this printing, the admissions office has received 200 responses to take part in this year’s two weekend programs, which will take place in October and November. While he feels that this past year’s decrease in applicants is a statistical blip, Nesbitt was nonetheless clear in speaking about keeping Williams competitive in terms of attracting the top applicants to matriculate at the College. “We are starting at a disadvantage vis-à-vis places near cities,” he said. “High school students are predisposed to places near cities and their entertainment. The reality is the city entertainment is geared to adults with lots of money.” Nesbitt’s colleagues at urban universities, he said, often speak of a small segment of their student body being able to take part in all the cities had to offer; those on financial aid, however, are forced to stay on campus because they are unable to afford frequent trips into the city. “It can be very divisive,” he said. “[At Williams, though], there are surprisingly large amounts of culture, and everyone can participate.”

“I think it’s fairly easy to participate in the community at Williams,” said Ju Kim ’04, emphasizing a feeling of equity on campus. “The College subsidizes so many activities, like SAC (Student Activities Committee)-sponsored concerts and Images [Cinema] to name a few. It’s also very easy to go to the Clark [Art Institute] or MASS MoCA in North Adams.”

Nesbitt cited several factors as key in attracting quality applicants.

“First and foremost is our number-one ranking in academic reputation. It gets people to look at Williams,” he said. “But the key is getting students to the campus and then promoting the access to research, to extracurricular activities, to the programs available here.” Williams is still not as well known as many larger peer institutions, and thus has to work harder to persuade accepted students to enroll. Nesbitt spoke at length about the fact that once students come to campus to visit, they can witness the level of personal access students have to their professors and College resources. Participation in student government and committees, for instance, and the fundamental nurturing nature of the community immediately differentiates the College from peer institutions.

“Preview weekends are very productive,” he said. “There are some [accepted applicants] who have their hearts set on Yale, or Harvard, but the undecided ones are positively affected by coming here for previews. The yield of students attending previews [who enroll] is very high.”