An investment in diversity

Last week’s revelation in the Record that the administration is considering dropping need-blind admission for international students came as a shock to the entire international student community. Initial reactions ranged from disbelief to outrage, and many international students felt that the administration considers somehow less essential to the student body as domestic students. This accusation against the administration is misguided, and the final decision was not nearly as drastic as feared. Nonetheless, need-blind admission should still be reinstated as soon as possible.

A lot of the outrage against this proposed policy change stems from a fundamental misconception about College admission. The assumption is that admission should be “fair” in the sense that all students should be judged solely on the basis of the sum of their achievements, without regard to their personal backgrounds, including race, gender and, yes, home country. But this is not the case, and the mission statement of the College reflects it nicely: “We […] select [students] for the academic and personal attributes they can contribute to the educational enterprise, inside and outside the classroom.”

The key word here is “personal.” It is evident that the College should use academic standards to judge the students’ applications. But this is not nearly a sufficient criterion. The reality is that every year Williams gets swamped with applications from extremely talented people, and the admission office has an excruciatingly difficult task of making some selection. At the very top, it’s simply not possible to distinguish neatly the top 500 applicants from the next 500. The admission office might just as well flip a coin. Of course, they don’t – instead, they start looking at “personal attributes.”

So when the admission office goes about “constructing” the class of 20XX, they do far, far more than just select the most talented applicants. They shoot for the right “composition” that will create a diverse, interesting, multi-faceted student body. So in any given year, they want to make sure that certain percentages of the student body fulfill certain criteria: racial criteria, geographic criteria, athletes, musicians, Div. I-, II- or III-oriented people, dancers, actors, and so on and so forth. So if, for whatever reason, eight fantastic didgeridoo players apply one year, you can be sure that Williams won’t accept more than two, no matter how good the other six are. It’s certainly not “fair” that the presence of the other didgeridoo virtuosos should affect one’s chances of admission, yet that’s precisely what happens.

This is, then, the motivation for need-blind admissions: not some notion of “fairness,” but a concern that not being need-blind could create a suboptimal student body in the sense that Williams would: a) not attract the brightest students and b) end up with an undesirable “composition” of the student body. Being need-blind allows the College to pick and choose students to end up with the “composition” it deems desirable.

Hence, as members of the Williams community, we need to ask ourselves the question: what are the consequences for the College of dropping need-blind admissions for international students? Clearly, the College can save some badly needed money. An international student’s financial aid is on average $10,000 higher than that of a domestic student. Just one additional year at Williams for a “needy” international student buys you many, many video game libraries. And as hard as this may be to admit, but the academic quality of the overall student population would probably suffer very little. There are simply too many qualified applicants, both from richer internationals and from domestic students, who are easily talented enough to replace the “needy” international students.

No, this is about “composition.” This is about the important contribution that international students on financial aid make to the College community. Generalizations are a tricky business, but there is at least anecdotal evidence that the population of international students has changed fairly drastically since need-blind admission was introduced for international students. It’s not difficult to see why: international students who can afford Williams tuition would have to come from the elite populations of their respective countries. This doesn’t mean they’re any less “international,” but it does mean that they would be generally expected to be more familiar with American culture and the American education system before coming to Williams. However, it is sometimes precisely the lack of familiarity, the curious view of the outsider, the sudden bewilderment that can make the presence of an international student beneficial to everyone around him or her.
The decision to introduce “soft” need-based admissions is an acceptable compromise, but one that should be reviewed as soon as the financial situation permits. Veering away from need-blind admissions saves money, but it also comes at a cost that cannot be measured in dollars.

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