Portrait of Jonathon Burne, Class of 2017, with his arms crossed and looking off into the distance.
By Michael Blanding ’95

On the occasion of the graduation of Williams’ 400th QuestBridge scholar in June, the magazine looks at the college’s work to expand access to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. To read about the first cohort of QuestBridge graduates, see The Quest Continues.

“I feel like I can literally go anywhere in the world.”

Like many of his classmates, Jonathon Burne ’17 expressed a sense of possibility as he prepared to graduate in June. But for the Arabic studies and political science major, who is headed to New York for a fellowship in immigration law, the words carried a deeper meaning.

Before coming to Williams, he had neither traveled outside Southern California nor considered an elite four-year college as an option.

Burne’s mother emigrated to the U.S. from Honduras. His father grew up in a middle-class family in Orange County. They met when she became his drug addiction counselor. A few years after Burne was born, his parents began using methadone and heroin together. Then they began manufacturing drugs and ended up in jail.

Burne went to live with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather was a linguistics professor and instilled in him a love of reading. Burne’s parents divorced soon after they got out of jail, and Burne bounced between Los Angeles and Orange County. He attended five different school systems while navigating ongoing instability in his family.

In high school, his honors history teacher told him about QuestBridge, a program that connects academically qualified students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with highly selective colleges. The opportunity seemed inconceivable to him.

“I had no way to conceptualize the idea of free money for college,” says Burne. “Yet there was a community of people who had come from backgrounds similar to mine and found ways to thrive.”

He joined Williams’ Class of 2017 with nine other QuestBridge students receiving full scholarships. Another 50 students affiliated with the program, who received nearly full scholarships, enrolled as well.

In four short years, Burne traveled to seven different countries through Winter Study courses and summer fellowships. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Amman, Jordan. He stayed on for a summer internship with an international development law firm and enrolled at a Jordanian institute for language studies. The experiences reaffirmed his “commitment to serving vulnerable migrant populations through academic, humanitarian and legal advocacy,” he says.

When Burne and his classmates crossed the stage at Williams’ 228th Commencement, the college celebrated the graduation of its 400th QuestBridge student since joining the program in 2004. It’s just one of a number of initiatives at Williams that, over the past several decades, have added up to measurable results—not only in broadening access for exceptional low-income students but also in building the most talented and diverse student body possible.

“Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a nice add-on,” says Williams President Adam Falk. “It’s essential to every element of our mission to have a broad impact on the world. If we’re going to be relevant to society in the century to come, we have to educate students from every part of that society.”

Higher education is widely considered to be a powerful engine of upward mobility. But a growing body of research is calling into question how well colleges and universities fulfill that role. One series of studies comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. The research, published earlier this year, shows that it’s increasingly difficult for people born after 1980 to move up the economic ladder and achieve more than their parents did.

Another Chetty study shows that the “opportunity gap” is growing, especially among the nation’s 38 elite colleges and universities. Approximately one in four of the richest students—those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution—attends an elite college, compared to less than half of 1 percent of the poorest students—those in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

“If you look at access at elite colleges in the last 20 years or so, there’s been virtually no change,” says Benny Goldman, a pre-doctoral fellow on the research team.

Williams is one of a handful of schools that are the exception, Goldman says. Comparing the Class of 2003 to the Class of 2011, the share of students from the bottom three-fifths of the household income distribution increased from 14 to 20 percent. And the share from the bottom fifth of the scale increased from 2.5 to 5 percent.

“That’s a doubling of representation,” Goldman says. “It’s clear Williams has made quite a bit of progress.”

The progress rests in part on a solid financial foundation. Williams is one of only 44 schools in the country that practices need-blind admission and meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, awarding $52 million in scholarships each year. To do this, the college has more than quadrupled its financial aid budget over the past 15 years, offering aid to 4,000 students during that time.

Portrait of Jared Currier, Class of 2009. He leans against a white pillar and is looking at the camera with one hand in his pocket. Short brown hair and short beard.
Jared Currier ’09 received an MBA at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and now works in marketing at General Mills. (Photo by Ryan Donnell)

Access is also a focus in Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams, a $650 million fundraising effort now in its third year. The college set a goal of $150 million in endowed support for financial aid, with an eye toward endowing the entire program over several decades.

But financial aid alone can’t move the needle on accessibility, which Williams recognized not long after it established its need-blind admission policy in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) ranked its 35 members—private liberal arts schools that were highly selective and need blind—according to the percentage of students receiving aid of any kind. Williams was second from last, with 28 percent.

“It was upsetting,” says Tom Parker ’69, then Williams’ associate director of admission. “We asked some hard questions about why.”

Williams convened a financial aid task force, which set a goal of increasing the number of aided students to 40 percent by 1990. The admission office cast a wider net in recruiting and began using student data from the College Board to target communications about financial aid to academically qualified, low-income students.

Meanwhile, in 1989, a group of Williams economists, including Catharine Bond Hill ’76, launched the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education to examine accessibility more broadly. Funded with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and often using Williams as a test case, the researchers published data-driven books, articles and working papers on a number of topics, including whether low-income students underperformed their more affluent peers academically (they didn’t); what low-income students at COFHE schools paid out of pocket for tuition (too much, prompting Williams to virtually eliminate loans from aid packages); and whether there really were enough high-ability, low-income students out there to meet enrollment targets (there were).

So, if the academically qualified students were out there, and the financial aid was readily available to them, why weren’t they applying to Williams—or to any other highly selective schools? That question has driven much of the college’s work on accessibility.

Portrait of Naya-Joi Martin from the Class of 2009. She is facing to the left with a big smile and has black curly hair and hoop earrings. The photo is taken from the shoulders up.
Naya-Joi Martin ’09 has a business degree from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and now works for its admission office. (Photo by Kay Hinton/Emory Photo)

Each year, an estimated 30,000 students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds are academically qualified to attend Williams and its peer institutions. Yet many of these students don’t apply to a single highly selective college.

Some don’t know these schools exist or are a viable option. Some are overwhelmed by the admission and financial aid processes. Some are reluctant to disclose socioeconomic information or lack something in their applications—an essay or references—that provides information about their backgrounds or circumstances.

Enter QuestBridge. In 1987, Stanford undergraduates Marc Lawrence and Michael McCullough began bringing economically disadvantaged high school students from East Palo Alto to campus each day for college-level classes and clinical experiences. The program soon grew into a five-week residency for high schoolers around the country that continues to this day. But McCullough felt the program didn’t reach far enough.

He and his future wife, Ana, developed QuestBridge in response. “There was so much interest in what we were doing and so many students that could use the support in ways that we knew how to do,” Ana McCullough says.

The “bridge” in QuestBridge is simple. The program identifies exceptional students who meet the criteria for admission at one of its highly selective college partners and helps those students apply to the college of their choice. The colleges, meanwhile, provide full scholarships to QuestBridge “matches” and meet the demonstrated need for a larger pool of students who just miss the financial qualifications for a full scholarship.

Amherst, where Parker joined the admission office in 1999 after serving as admission director at Williams, was one of the first schools to join QuestBridge in 2003.

“The faculty advisory committee was overwhelmed,” he says of response to the first matches’ credentials. “They said, ‘Here’s a kid with a 1390 on the SATs where English isn’t spoken in the home. We’d love to teach this kid.’”

Williams, where Hill was serving as provost, joined a year later and welcomed 14 matches to the Class of 2009. Among them was Jared Currier ’09, who grew up in a tiny logging town in Maine and worked after school at the restaurant where his mother worked, and Naya-Joi Martin ’09, who says her mother, a touring backup singer, made possible Martin’s private school education and extracurricular lessons in the Bronx. (Read their stories and others in “The Quest Continues.”)

Successful QuestBridge applicants are usually in the top 5 or 10 percent of their class academically and take the most rigorous classes offered by their schools. They typically come from households with incomes less than $65,000 per year, and they’re often the first in their family to attend a four-year college. The students may demonstrate an “unusually high level of family responsibility (caring for siblings or working to support the family),” as the program’s website states, and they’re involved in leadership or community activities.

Their applications include information about their schools—such as how many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and what programs are offered—as well as directed essay questions that help admission officers get a more complete picture of their circumstances and how the students might transition to college.

“In the traditional application, the onus is on the student to share any information they want to about their socioeconomic status or their family life,” says Liz Creighton ’01, Williams’ dean of admission and financial aid. “The QuestBridge application prompts the student to talk about their lived experience and reflect on how it has impacted their life. It helps the applicant understand that admission officers want to gain a deeper understanding of their story and that the information will be used to help contextualize the rest of their application.”

Providing such context has a measurable impact on students’ chances of being admitted to college. Mike Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, found that providing consistent high school data increased an economically disadvantaged student’s chances of being admitted by 25 percent. Admission staff had “a better sense of what the student accomplished relative to what opportunities were available,” he says.

The number of QuestBridge scholars at Williams has steadily increased since Burne and his classmates joined the Class of 2017, from 60 in his cohort to 77 in the incoming Class of 2021. To help cover their tuition, the Class of 1969, Parker’s class, is supporting financial aid for QuestBridge as part of its 50th reunion gift.

QuestBridge is just one of a number of programs and policies implemented over the years aimed at making the college more accessible, or “need-seeking,” Falk says.

“Because low-income high school students don’t have access to the same resources as their more affluent peers, we know we have to affirmatively seek them out if we want to enroll them at Williams,” he says. “We’re not blind to their economic circumstances. We’re actively looking for students who need financial assistance.”

Creighton now oversees both admission and financial aid to better align the college’s efforts to be need-seeking. Williams also created a deanship dedicated to supporting first-generation and low-income students. (The incoming Class of 2021 has the highest percentage of first-generation students ever, 20 percent.)

“For each of the 550 students we enroll, there are 550 sets of needs and experiences,” Creighton says. “One of the beauties of a small school like Williams is that we can be high touch and responsive to individual student needs.” Says Falk, “We have to make sure that every student, whatever their economic circumstance, understands and believes that all of the resources of the college are there for them. It’s absolutely essential that low-income students develop a sense of ownership that can come so easily to others—that this is my college, and it’s here for me.” The college helps remove barriers to accessibility with need-based grants covering study abroad, Winter Study courses, independent research and summer internships. Textbooks and course materials are free for all aided students, and there’s need-based funding for job interviews and graduate school visits and preparation.

Portrait of Jonathon Burne, Class of 2017, with his arms crossed and looking off into the distance.
Jonathon Burne ’17 is headed to New York City for a fellowship in immigration law. (Photo by Mark McCarty)

To make it easier for high school students from low-income families to visit campus, the college offers Windows on Williams in the fall, a three-day, all expenses-paid program. Students attend classes, meet with faculty and undergraduates, stay in the residence halls and attend workshops on admission and financial aid. A similar program called Previews is held in the spring for admitted students. Those who enroll can also participate in the Summer Science or Summer Humanities and Social Sciences programs, five-week mini-semesters to introduce them to life as college students.

“These may be the only opportunities many students have for an immersive experience on a college campus before they arrive for their first year,” Creighton says.

It was a Windows on Williams visit that first brought Burne to campus before he submitted his QuestBridge application. He says he struggled at first to adjust to the unfamiliar landscape. But a conversation about Marxism with English professor Christian orne in the Faculty House dining room during the visit sealed the deal for him.

“I was doing all these readings by myself and never had a chance to vocalize what I was learning,” Burne says. “It was hard to walk away after that and say that I would not like to come here.”

Michael Blanding ’95 is a Boston-based freelance writer.