Justice is need-blind

In its international students, Williams has a tremendous asset. They bring diverse perspectives to campus. They perform well academically (having filled nine of the last 20 valedictorian slots even though fewer than two in 20 students are international). They make excellent foreign-language tutors. In a number of ways, however, international students remain second-class members of our community. Most importantly, in terms of financial aid, Williams is need-blind for domestic students but need-sensitive for international students. Given the College’s commitment to inclusiveness and diversity, we, the board members of Williams International Club, believe the college should apply a uniform policy to all of its students.

International students who apply for financial aid stand at a disadvantage in the admissions process. That is, Williams, being need-sensitive for that demographic, prefers to admit foreigners who request no financial assistance whatsoever. On the other hand, admitted international students who did not originally apply for financial aid remain technically ineligible for such aid throughout their Williams careers. Should the family coffers run out, therefore, unaided international students must, in principle, pack their bags. “The policy,” said Paul Boyer, the director of financial aid, “says there is no financial aid” available to them. (In select cases, Mr. Boyer continued, the College may make exceptions to this rule, but there is “no guarantee.”) Such is not the case for their domestic counterparts, who may request financial assistance at any point during their tenure here.

This policy is not altogether unreasonable. International applicants know what they are in for and must provide evidence that they are in good financial standing in order to obtain a visa. What is more, Williams already goes a long way to accommodate foreigners. The share of international students who receive aid is greater than that of the student body as a whole, they need more aid on average than other students and, indeed, the college meets the full demonstrated need of every international student it does admit.  At any rate, said Dick Nesbitt, director of admission, need-sensitivity “hasn’t really changed our policy that much.” Since we are already among the nation’s most generous colleges for international students, it is natural to ask whether we should walk the extra mile. After all, only six U.S. colleges are currently need-blind for everyone.

If Williams is truly committed to inclusiveness and diversity, it will walk the extra mile. That was probably President Schapiro’s reasoning in 2001, when he announced that Williams would join the then only four other United States colleges that were need-blind for everyone. We regrettably dropped this policy in 2010 as a cost-saving measure in the wake of the financial crash. On the bright side, said Interim President Wagner at the time, the College would not actually cut the total amount of aid awarded to international students, which would “begin where it is now and grow over the years at a rate slower than it has been.” Two years later, Williams slashed aid funding to international students by over 30 percent. Not since 1998, and possibly earlier, had that demographic received less financial aid as a percentage of the total amount available. Meanwhile, overall aid expenditure has continued to grow. These trends suggest a value judgment on the part of the College that places American students above international students.

In addition to calling into question our ideas about diversity, the present financial aid policy directly influences the makeup of the student body. The extent to which this is the case is difficult to measure; Mr. Nesbitt said the impact so far has been “marginal,” as factors such as our U.S. News & World Report ranking matter more to some students than financial aid. Prioritizing wealthy students in the admissions process, however, will necessarily affect socioeconomic diversity. What is more, high-caliber foreign applicants typically pay close attention to which colleges are fully need-blind. As one international student told the Record in 2010, “When I was researching colleges before I came here, I looked at places that were need-blind for international students” (“Admission adopts need awareness for internationals,” February 17, 2010). One such college is Amherst, our main competitor in the local admissions market. There is little question that need-sensitivity not only hurts diversity but also sends a negative signal to applicants.

But can Williams afford to be fully need-blind? The answer may well be affirmative. According to Mr. Boyer, an international student costs approximately as much to support as a domestic student with the same level of need. Although international students require more and larger aid packages than the student body as a whole, the same is true of many other demographic groups on campus, so this is not a compelling reason to stay need-sensitive. Our endowment, moreover, is almost up to speed; last year, it was close in real terms to its 2008 peak. Most importantly, Williams is presently in the quiet stages of a major fundraising campaign, which will surely help bring its liquidity to unprecedented heights. If the college advertises to potential donors that it wants to return to being fully need-blind, then it may be even better poised to spark their enthusiasm and enlist their support.

Many groups rightly complain of feeling marginalized at Williams. International students, in particular, must deal with de jure differential treatment in addition to the existing challenges of living and learning in a foreign country. Williams has come far, but still has a long way to go before it may call itself a truly inclusive community. Our ability to get there depends in part on whether we are willing to bear the cost of welcoming students here on the same terms regardless of their national backgrounds. The time is ripe: As our fabled endowment regains its strength, and as the College embarks on a milestone fundraising campaign, we invite the President and the Board of Trustees to revisit our financial aid policy for international students.Untitled

Financial aid data from Williams’ Common Data Sets.

Inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kristian Lunke ’16, John Chae ’16, Young Sun Lee ‘16, Mie Mizutani ’17, Bingyi Wang ’18, Andy Yao ’17, Fan Zhang ’17, Weitao Zhu ’18

  • Rick James

    “These trends suggest a value judgment on the part of the College that places American students above international students”-I think there’s a better way to send a message than being inflammatory.

    • Jeff Meng

      I don’t think it is inflammatory at all. Unequal treatment reflects unequal value judgment.