Black students respond to magazine rankings

Surveys published recently by two prominent African-American magazines have placed the College within the top handful of institutions nationwide for black students to attend. In spite of this apparent comparative success, however, internal surveys and student opinion suggest that the College still has work to do in building the best possible environment for students from under-represented minorities.

The College was ranked 14th in the annual survey of the “Best Colleges for African-Americans” published in Black Enterprise Magazine. The survey rated 482 four-year institutions around the country based on the assessments of 1,855 African-American professionals in higher education.

Rankings were based on a composite of two scores: one for academics and one for social environment. The College earned scores of 3.70 and 3.25, respectively, on a 4-point scale. The majority of schools ranked ahead of Williams were either historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) – such as, Howard University, Morehouse College and Hampton University – or highly selective universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Columbia.

In one possible limitation of the survey, only recent graduates were contacted to complete the evaluation; the fact that currently-enrolled students did not take part in the survey may have added bias to the results.

In a separate study conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE), Williams ranked second among the nation’s 24 top-rated liberal arts colleges in its “comparative success in integrating African-Americans” into its faculty and student body. The JBHE based its rankings solely on quantitative measures, including black student yield – the proportion of admitted black students who matriculate – and the black percentage of total faculty.

“These things can give you a glimmer of insight, but it’s hard to draw large conclusions from them,” said Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs. “[The surveys] are what they claim to be – how you’re perceived by professionals who are at other institutions and have a particular interest in African-American students. That’s what you’re learning.”

Kolesar said he was struck by both the consistency of the College’s high scores in academics and this year’s unusually strong score on the social component of the Black Enterprise survey.

“Given our location and size, you wouldn’t think that we’d score that highly [on the social scale],” Kolesar said. “Williams was significantly higher than Amherst, which has the five-college area, and Swarthmore, which is in a suburb of a major city. . .You would think of Williams as being perceived as further from metropolitan areas and having a smaller number of African American students to interact with.”

“It’s a testament to a lot of hard work by a lot of people over a lot of years that Williams has done as well as it has attracting African American students,” Kolesar added.

Many black students on campus expressed surprise that the College was rated so highly, and some criticized the surveys for not including any student perspectives. “The opinion of an alum and a current student are going to be very different, so I don’t think that alumni are qualified to speak on behalf of the experience of current Williams students,” Rene Hamilton ’04 said. “What they do offer, though, is a perspective of the College when they were here.”

As to whether the rankings accurately reflect the social situation at Williams, Hamilton said, “I don’t think that numerical rankings should be given too much weight, and I would shudder to think that administration or admissions would revel in the fact hat we had such high numbers in the Black Enterprise rankings. Though the experiences of some may agree with the rankings offered, it is very clear that the College needs to do more work before the feelings of most black students currently at Williams are commensurate with the rankings offered by BE.”

“To be honest, I was surprised by the fact that Williams was ranked so highly in the surveys,” said Akil Pascal ’04. “But after I read the summary of the surveys I understand why, because the surveys were either done by asking people who didn’t necessarily go here. . .or by using a numerical formula, both of which don’t properly express the sentiments of black students who have attended Williams.”

“If these surveys took student input into account, maybe Williams would lose a few points,” said Sharifa Wright ’03, coordinator of the Black Student Union (BSU). “When you talk to people who are in the business of education, this is a great place. . .[but] how people get on socially is as important as how people get on educationally, and chances are that surveys can’t take those things into account.”

Several students interviewed for this article felt that, on the whole, the College has been more successful in building a good academic environment for black students than it has in promoting a positive social environment. The most frequently cited problem was a lack of social activities to bring people of different backgrounds together; of particular concern was low turnout by non-black students at recent Black History Month events.

“When it comes to classroom experience, I think there is great diversity,” A.C. Okwesili ’04 said. “You get to hear ideas from a lot of people from different backgrounds – everyone can speak their mind and you can learn a lot. Outside the classroom. . .you get the feeling that people are not being as open as they were in the classroom. Everyone has their own little groups and their own comfort zones.”

Although the two magazine surveys suggest that the College has done very well in comparison to other institutions in fostering a good environment for black students, internal surveys indicate that minority students are generally less satisfied with the Williams experience than other students.

In a 1999 survey of graduating seniors, 20 percent of self-reported minority students said they would “definitely not” or “probably not” choose Williams again, compared to 5 percent of non-minority respondents. While 63 percent of non-minority students were “very satisfied” and 34 percent were “generally satisfied” with their Williams experience, only 37 percent of minority respondents reported being “very satisfied,” with 57 percent being “generally satisfied.”

Kolesar noted that satisfaction ratings for minority alumni tend to go up when they are asked later in life. Nonetheless, these differential assessments of the College are an ongoing source of concern for the administration and the Williams community.

“I think Williams works very hard to win the approval of all of its students,” Aaron Jenkins ’03 said. “Over time, the College has improved a great deal in terms of targeting and meeting the concerns of specific groups, particularly groups of color. If concerns return back to the institution concerning a low approval rating amongst graduated alum, then the institution must pinpoint what changes need to be made to adjust that approval rating.”

Students emphasized that within the black community itself there is a great diversity of backgrounds and experiences, suggesting that satisfaction with Williams is a highly personal matter.

“I can say I’m satisfied with my experience at Williams because I think I’ve been able to carve a niche for myself, which is not a place that’s been made for me,” Wright said. “I don’t think every personality is able to do that.”

“I have been satisfied with my Williams experience but I can see why others like me are not,” said Broderick Dunn ’04. “The first African Americans graduated more than 100 years ago, yet they are woefully underrepresented in the administration and faculty of the College. Can an institution truly be diverse when its faculty does not represent the composition of its student body?”