The mission of Williams is to be the best in the world.
“Best” means two things: First, we want the most academically talented students. Second, we want those students to thrive at the College more than they would at an alternative institution. If one ignores the second criterion and focuses on student quality, we are not the best college in the world today.
The average SAT section score for the Class of 2020 is about 720. At Macalester and Wesleyan, it is 690. At Yale and Princeton, it is about 750. Macalester and Wesleyan are fine schools. Yet every Eph considers Williams, correctly, to be a cut above – not because our dining hall food is tastier, our professors are more learned or our facilities are more sumptuous, but because our students are smarter.
Yet that same reasoning applies to Yale/Princeton relative to us. A 30-point difference in the score on a single SAT might not seem like much. Can anyone really say that an applicant that scored 750 is meaningfully “smarter” than one who scored 720? But, to the extent that we think that the quality of the College’s student body is better than that of Macalester/Wesleyan, we need to admit that it is worse than that of Yale/Princeton. As long as that is true, we will never be the best college in the world.
Note that this judgment does not depend on using only the (potentially flawed) metric of SAT scores. Williams is worse than Yale/Princeton and better than Macalester/Wesleyan on any reasonable measure of academic performance, whether that be the ACT, SAT II Subject Tests, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, high school grades, teacher recommendations and so on. Elite schools rank applicants using, more or less, the same criteria. SAT scores are a handy, and public, summary statistic which demonstrates the relative quality of our student body.
The Williams admissions process is both complex and opaque but, broadly speaking, admitted students can be placed in two categories: academic and other. “Academic” admits are students who were admitted primarily for academic reasons. “Other” admits have scores/grades that would have led to rejection if it were not for some special attribute. The vast majority of “other” admits fall into three categories: athletics, race and income. In aggregate, they make up about one-half of each incoming class. In order to create a Williams with students as smart as those at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford (HYPS), we need to replace about 100 of these “other” admits with “academic” admits.
First, we need to loosen the admissions goal for international students, which is currently at 8 percent. Besides the problematic morality of a policy that is indistinguishable from the Jewish quotas implemented by elite colleges a century ago, treating an (English-fluent) applicant born in Shanghai differently from one born in St. Louis makes little sense. The best college in the world will have the best students, regardless of the color of their passports.
Second, we need to significantly decrease the admissions preferences given to athletes. The College has been decreasing these preferences for 15 years. Despite much grumbling from coaches and predictions of mediocrity from fans, the Director’s Cup trophies continue to roll in. It turns out that Williams coaches are excellent recruiters even when admissions standards are raised. Let’s raise them some more.
Third, we should decrease the preferences given to under-represented minorities (URM) and to students from low income families. Of course, there are scores of such students with top-notch academic credentials. They would still be admitted and, eagerly, enrolled. But, given a choice between a URM or poor student with a 620 SAT average and a non-URM (perhaps an Asian-American?) or non-poor student (perhaps the middle class child of public high school teachers?) with a 770 average, we should prefer the academically more talented applicant.
Fourth, we need to recruit more seriously. The number of Tyng Scholarships should be increased and their use should be focused on the most desirable applicants, almost all of whom will be African-American. Rather than offering them for incoming first-years, we should use the Summer Science Program and Summer Humanities and Social Sciences Program to target highquality poor and URM high school juniors, potential applicants that we currently lose to HYPS. Senior faculty at the College should devote as much effort to attracting excellent students as our coaches do to recruiting excellent student-athletes.
A Williams whose student quality matched Yale’s would be halfway to meeting its mission of being the best college in the world. Such a Williams, at least in the short-term, would have about as many URM students as Middlebury, as many Pell Grant recipients as Colby and athletic team winning records similar to Hamilton’s. That seems a reasonable trade-off.
David Kane ’88 lives in Newton, Mass.