diversity initiativesWilliams College

Student Recruitment and Admission


Student diversity at Williams has primarily taken the form of men and women from all segments of American society -- ethnic, racial, and socio-economic -- and increasingly also from countries beyond the United States. Over the last several decades, the College has intentionally increased the diversity of the student body through its admission policies. One purpose has been to educate students from different backgrounds who will then provide leadership for the varied segments of American society. The College also holds firmly the belief that all students benefit more from studying at a residential college with students from varied backgrounds than in a more homogeneous setting. By expanding access, the College can make the largest contribution to society.

Studies show that academically strong prospective students are drawn to diverse campus communities. These studies include surveys of students admitted to Williams, in which one of the attributes they most often check as describing themselves is "values diversity."

Current admission and financial aid policies are based in large part on the policies proposed in the report of the 1984 Financial Aid Task Force, appointed by then President John Chandler and chaired by then Provost Steve Lewis. This report and its recommendations were endorsed by the College community, including the faculty and the Board of Trustees. The Financial Aid Task Force evolved into the Advisory Group on Admission and Financial Aid (AGAFA), which continues to oversee admission and financial aid policy. Chaired by the provost, AGAFA includes the directors of admission and financial aid; other administrators, including the Dean of the College; and four faculty members.

AGAFA and the Board of Trustees, in reassessing admission and financial aid policies about every five years, have reaffirmed the goals established in the mid-1980s, with minor changes. In 2002, the Board approved the reduction of loan burdens for all financial aid students, particularly those from the lowest-income families. More recently, loans were reduced even further, eliminating them entirely for the lowest-income families. Need-blind admission for international students was instituted beginning with the Class of 2006.

In concert with policy adjustments over the past five years, the Admission Office has significantly stepped up recruiting efforts to enhance both the domestic and international diversity of the College. The number of prospective students brought to campus for multicultural visitation programs each summer, fall, and spring has more than quadrupled since 1999. Some can travel here by bus but most are flown in at the College's expense. The recently initiated Parent Program, which subsidizes the travel and overnight visit of parents of admitted students of low-income backgrounds from the New York City area, has proved especially successful. For Previews for students admitted to the Class of 2009, the Parent Program has been extended to low-income parents from the Chicago area.

Overseas recruitment has also intensified. Prior to 2000, there had been very little international travel by admission staff. Recently, however, two admission staff members have traveled abroad each fall, one to Asia and one to Europe, thanks, in part, to a grant from the Davis Foundation. Primarily due to an overwhelmingly positive response to the new need-blind policy, applications from non-U.S. citizens have more than doubled in three years.

The results of these recruitment and yield efforts are evident in the composition of the most recent entering classes. Through the mid-90s, roughly 23 percent of the student body was American students of color; that number now approaches 30 percent. In that 10-year period, international student numbers have doubled. The Class of 2008 includes among its 537 members 57 Asian Americans (11 percent), 55 African Americans (11 percent), and 44 Latinos (8 percent). Another 6 percent are non-U.S. citizens -- 32 students from 20 different foreign countries. Forty-five percent receive need-based aid from the College.

While these figures are encouraging, recent research by Williams economists Gordon Winston and Cappy Hill reveals that Williams, like many other highly selective colleges and universities, could do a better job of including the most under-resourced and under-served students in the nation. Only about 10 percent of our students come from families in the lowest two quintiles of the national income distribution, while more than 70 percent come from the highest quintile.

In response to this disturbing revelation, the Admission Office has undertaken several initiatives, beginning in the 2004-05 admission cycle, to identify and recruit more high-ability, low-income applicants:

  • Geo-demographic data provided by the College Board through its Descriptor Plus service made it possible to target students from low-income "neighborhood clusters." Students so identified received specially tailored letters emphasizing affordability and financial aid opportunities.

  • Respondents to the low-income search have been invited to attend summer or fall multicultural programs. Those who showed interest but who were not able to attend were offered application fee waivers.

  • Low-income search response data have also helped to identify high schools with pockets of high-ability, low-income students. Each admission officer has devoted more fall travel in each region to under-resourced high schools.

  • Partnering with QuestBridge, a program created to establish a link between higher education and highly motivated, academically talented low-income and underserved youth in the United States, has proved very successful.

While final results are not in for the Class of 2009 (as of this writing), early indications suggest that these initiatives targeted at low-income prospective students have been effective. The number of applicants requesting a fee waiver increased nearly threefold, and the number of admitted applicants identified as first-generation college students increased to 178 from 138 last year. The Admission Office is optimistic that its continuing efforts, including those recommended below, will translate to a much more socio-economically balanced student body in the foreseeable future.

Next Steps

  • Study the reliability of geo-demographic data provided by the College Board Descriptor Plus Service. If we plan to continue to use this data to identify low-income prospects, we need to be more confident of its accuracy.

  • Lobby the College Board for access to self-reported income data to simplify identification of low-income prospects. Currently the College Board withholds this information.

  • Explore ways to communicate effectively the message of affordability and financial aid opportunities to prospective students and their families. This would include experimenting with the text of first-contact Search and respondent follow-up letters.

  • Work closely with QuestBridge to obtain files in June rather than September to identify possible Quest Match Scholars for summer and fall campus visitation programs.

  • Continue to expand our contacts with local, regional, and national organizations committed to helping low-income students gain access to higher education.

Principal Author:
Dick Nesbitt
Director of Admission