Admission adopts need awareness for internationals

On Tuesday, Interim President Wagner sent out an all-campus e-mail announcing that the College will be moving to a need-aware admission policy for the Class of 2014’s international applicants. Wagner cited the decreased size of the endowment and the need to curb growth in financial aid spending as the reasons for the policy change. “The cost of international aid in the last decade rose by more than 200 percent (more than $4 million),” Wagner’s e-mail read. “In the College’s changed financial situation, that rate of growth is unsustainable.” Tuesday’s notification comes on the heels of the Jan. 31 decision to re-instate loans for financial aid students.

The admission office first instituted the need-blind policy for international students for the Class of 2006. According to Wagner, the current switch to need-awareness was “an institutional decision, based on broad consultation on campus and with the Board of Trustees, but ultimately made by me and senior staff.” The Advisory Group on Admissions and Financial Aid (AGAFA) played a consultative role, according to Sara LaLumia, AGAFA member and economics professor. AGAFA includes administrators in the Office of Financial Aid, the dean of the College, admission officers and four faculty members.

Admission policy

According to Wagner’s message to the community, the College’s new stance on taking financial aid into account for international applicants will not match the policy that the admission office used prior to the Class of 2006. Rather than separating international applicants into two pools, one for those who require financial aid and one for those who could pay full tuition, admission officers will look at the international applicant pool holistically to maintain a target amount of financial aid spending.

Dick Nesbitt, director of Admission, also emphasized that the Office of Admission will not be looking at the amount of financial aid each individual applicant applies for. Instead, according to Wagner’s e-mail, the admission process will “aim to build an entering cohort … that in terms of aid approximates a rough dollar target that will begin where it is now and grow over the years at a rate slower than it has been.”
Nesbitt further stressed that the group of international students in future classes will not look like that which the campus matriculated before need-blindness. “In the old days, we were only giving financial aid to five international students a year,” Nesbitt said, referring to the time he began working for the admission office in the 1980s. “By no means are we going back to that.”

Nesbitt also explained that need-awareness will only serve as a tipping point for students of equal merit: Only for applicants with equally strong applications will financial aid determine acceptance.

Nesbitt also said that the admission officers’ travel schedules will not change due to the policy change; College employees will not tailor their trips to hand-select wealthier students. Nesbitt did say, however, that the College will likely target more students from United World Colleges, a group of international schools whose students receive $10,000 grants from the Davis Foundation to subsidize their college tuitions.

Financial savings

“The College needs to adjust its expenditures in response to the changes in our resources and the global economic downturn,” Wagner said. “If we don’t make this move, it’s hard to imagine where else further savings would come from, since we have significantly reduced every other line item in the budget.”

Nesbitt and Wagner both said that the policy is not intended to dramatically cut the financial aid allotted for international students, but rather to manage the dollar amount the College puts forth for international students as a whole. “I think that there’s no way of saying how much we’re going to save the College,” Nesbitt said. “It’s not an exact science.” Roughly $1 million was spent on financial aid for the current group of first-year internationals, and Nesbitt said the admission office is looking to remain close to that amount for the incoming class.
Nesbitt anticipates admitting a similar percentage of international students for the Class of 2014 as are in the Class of 2013 – roughly 6 percent, or 30 to 35 students, which still falls below the 8 or 9 percent in previous classes.

Going forward, Nesbitt and Wagner both expressed that a need-aware policy will prevent the admission office from further reducing the number of international students in each forthcoming class. In his e-mail, Wagner framed this concept in terms of preventing international matriculation from decreasing further, but according to Nesbitt, “If we’re need-aware, we actually may be able to admit more international students.”

The College intends for need-sensitivity to create a savings over the course of four years. Nesbitt said that the policy would not make a significant enough financial change after just one year; Wagner’s e-mail projected $1.2 million savings over a four-year period.

Impact on diversity

Wagner acknowledged that limiting financial aid represents a different kind of budget cut for the College. “Given the value we place on diversity, financial aid is about the only line of the budget that hasn’t been reduced,” he said. “On the contrary, it has gone up substantially this year as it will next year.” He framed the new policy as a reduction in budget growth, rather than a cut.
Peter Just, professor of anthropology, articulated the unfortunate influence the new policy has on community standards. “The reason I think it’s regrettable is that if we have two values that we have felt are most important over the last 20 years, they have been diversity and inclusiveness,” Just said. “It’s a terrible shame that we feel it’s necessary to make these specific reductions because they most directly affect both.”

Erdem Sahin ’11, an international student from Turkey, echoed the policy’s consequences for diversity. “I understand that measures need to be taken against this financial situation, but at the same time, I think Williams will lose, too, if international students on financial aid are denied access to this education,” Sahin said. “I think the international student body itself is more diverse now when more socioeconomic backgrounds are being represented.”

Nesbitt and Wagner each communicated that need-awareness will not significantly overhaul the type of international students on campus. “I want to emphasize … that going forward Williams will continue to have a very diverse student body, including among our international students,” Wagner said.

“We’ll still have a good mixture of students from around the world,” Nesbitt added. “There are very few [students] in the international applicant pool who don’t qualify for aid,” he said, explaining that the number of wealthier international students that apply is limited to begin with.

Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs, echoed Nesbitt’s belief that need-awareness will not significantly change the diversity of international students. He cited the 1300 international applicants for the Class of 2013 as evidence of the wide pool the admission office has to work with. “If the College decides to take need into account in the admission of a few international applicants this year, we will still be able to matriculate a group that’s extremely strong academically and socioeconomically diverse,” Kolesar said.
However, several international students like Sahin have countered that international students are less likely to apply to Williams if the Office of Admission drops need-blindness. “If I’m an international student who needs some form of financial aid, Williams will probably not be my first choice, whereas I know that my application will not be evaluated in terms of the need I have somewhere else,” Sahin said.
In a meeting last Friday, International Club members also talked through the diversity international students lend the campus. At the meeting, Bangkok native Thammika Songkaeo ’11 said that if the College considers wealthier students more seriously, “the international community becomes a prep school environment.”

In addition, Just emphasized how integral international students are to the measure of campus diversity. “It’s a genuine kind of diversity they’re bringing,” Just said, explaining that internationals are not bringing diversity only as a group, but also within themselves, with a range of ethnic, national, socioeconomic, linguistic and other backgrounds.

Similarly, Sahin talked about the unique way international students bring global themes to life. “We study cultures here; we study religions here; we study languages here,” he said. “International students are living representatives of the stuff that we study.”

Student response

Since finding out that the administration was seriously considering need-aware admission for international students, the International Club has worked to coordinate an organized response. Before Wagner sent Tuesday’s e-mail, the club was planning to meet with trustees to gain more official information and to send letters to senior staff and trustees conveying their objections to the policy, said James Mathenge ’12, co-chair of the International Club.

However, since Wagner confirmed that the College is adopting need-sensitivity, the International Club has not yet had time to regroup. Mathenge noted that the club will no longer request an official meeting and is reconsidering sending letters. “We feel that the matter is already pretty much decided,” Mathenge said. “We appreciate that the College officially communicated it today,” he added, since much of the frustration communicated at Friday’s International Club meeting stemmed from a lack of a clear institutional message about the policy’s likelihood and reasoning.

Though the admission change will only directly affect those internationals who are applying to the College this year and in future years, many current students have expressed significant concern about the policy’s intersection with the College’s value system.

Viktor Nagy ’12, from Hungary, lamented that need-awareness sacrifices evenhandedness. “The College defines us as a group of students subject to a different admission policy,” Nagy said. “All we want is just to be treated equally.”

Sahin elaborated on the repercussions the policy has for the international students already on campus. “I think that all international students on financial aid would agree that this is a huge privilege to be here,” Sahin said. “But at the same time I get the sense that the administration is thinking it’s not worth it for us to be here. Do we not contribute enough to the community? It’s as if someone is saying we are first in line to be sacrificed.”

Sayantan Mukhopadhyay ’12, an international hailing from Kuwait, agreed that the policy inspires troubling lines of thought. “It’s not just about future generations of Ephs – I think it also has a lot to do with the current mental health of international students,” Mukhopadhyay said. “Everybody’s kind of second-guessing themselves, and they’re thinking ‘What if this were me? What if I were applying next year? Would I still be a Williams student?’ and it fills people with insecurity, which just is really counter-productive.”

Mukhopadhyay also talked about the relationship between domestic students, international students and the new policy. “Domestic students, oftentimes in an effort to be accepting, forget that a lot of their peers are international students … and I think a lot of people just aren’t conscious that it affects a lot of their close friends,” he said.

Nagy, however, said that domestic students have been positively involved in campus discussions about the issue last week. “It was good to know that so many domestic students defended us,” Nagy said.

Indeed, several domestic students have not only expressed empathy, but also personal investment in need-aware admission for internationals.

Nneka Dennie ’13, a student from the U.S., voiced disagreement with the admission policy change. “As the daughter of immigrant parents I’ve seen first-hand how education has enabled people to come from less ideal conditions to a country where there are a multitude of opportunities,” she said.

Susannah Emerson ’12 also expressed disappointment in Tuesday’s announcement. “When I was looking at schools one of the things that really attracted me to Williams was that it was need-blind, and I remember thinking that I would be proud to go to here,” Emerson said.

Reputation of the College

As Emerson suggested, many in the community have wondered whether the need-aware policy will compromise the College’s prestige and character both in the U.S. and abroad. Before yesterday, the College was one of six institutions that were need-blind for internationals, including Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale and Amherst. Middlebury dropped its need-blind policy last year.

“When I was researching colleges before I came here, I looked at places that were need-blind for international students,” Mukhopadhyay said. “It was an indicator that Williams was up there with the big shots.”

Nesbitt, however, indicated that often the College is more directly in competition with institutions like Harvard and Yale for students who do not require financial aid, because they are able to make choices independently of their offered aid packages. According to Nesbitt, the admission office will probably accept around 80 international applicants to yield its target of 30-35.

In terms of public attention, Kolesar noted that negative publicity does not necessarily affect applications. “Relative to [the] Duke lacrosse [scandal in 2006] and to many other incidents, including at Williams, the media attention to something like our introducing some loans or having need affect the admission decisions of a few international applicants, is a drop in a distant bucket,” Kolesar said.