It’s hard to ignore the headlines about soaring college tuition and mounting student debt. Misconceptions persist about the merits of “need-blind” admission, “no-loan” financial aid and other policies that shape who gets into college and how much they pay for it. But at Williams, the outlook is far more positive—and the picture much clearer. Provost Will Dudley ’89 explains why in the following Q&A with Williams magazine.
What is the college’s philosophy with regard to financial aid? What are we trying to accomplish?
We’re trying to ensure that every admitted student can afford to attend. We admit students based on their abilities and interests, what we think they can contribute to the community and what we think they can get out of the education we offer—not based on their families’ financial circumstances. That’s a core college principle. Parents have the primary responsibility for paying for their children’s education to the extent that they can. But talented students whose families can’t afford to pay what it costs to attend Williams ought to have this opportunity. There aren’t very many institutions that can do this—only 44 schools in the whole country. Forty-four out of 2,500 four-year colleges and universities, fewer than 2 percent, practice need-blind admission and meet 100 percent of full demonstrated need. Most other colleges and universities don’t have the resources to do that. It’s expensive. We’re fortunate to have the resources, and we put them to work in this way.
We spend about $100,000 per year on every student. But the “sticker price”—what we charge for full tuition plus room and board—totals a little more than $63,000. So even families who are paying the full comprehensive fee are receiving significant support from the college. You could say every student receives financial aid. Only about half our families pay the sticker price. For the other 1,000 families, the amount varies based upon their ability to pay. The average aided family pays a little less than $18,000.
The sticker price of a Williams education has doubled in the last 30 years. Has the financial aid program evolved as the cost has risen?
The underlying principle hasn’t evolved. If we admit you to Williams, we want you to be able to afford to come here. And when you come here, we want you to be able to take full advantage of all the curricular and extracurricular opportunities. When cost is a barrier to that, we figure out how to overcome it.
It’s important to understand that every aided student is insulated from the effects of rising tuition. As our cost increases, what we expect families to contribute remains the same, because their cost isn’t based on our cost. Rather, their cost is based on their income and assets, the number of children they have in college and other circumstances. We simply make up the difference with a larger grant. In fact, some families paying full tuition that can’t afford to contribute more when there’s an increase might end up receiving financial aid.
We also want to make the Williams experience for aided students as much like the experience for non-aided students as possible in every respect. Over time, as we’ve identified areas in which that’s not the case, we’ve marshaled the resources to level out those differences.
For instance, aided students have the same level of support for studying abroad as they have for studying at Williams. Books are free for aided students. We also pay attention to the discretionary allowance built into financial aid packages, recognizing that there are hidden costs to being a college student: doing laundry, getting a haircut, buying some pizza. We’ve increased that allowance by about 25 percent in the last five years to reflect how those costs have increased.
Thirty years ago, 38 percent of our students came from families that couldn’t afford to pay the sticker price. Today, more than half of the first-year class receives aid. Today’s average aided family contributes a little less than $18,000 toward the $100,000 that Williams spends per student; $18,000 is about the same contribution that aided families paid 30 years ago, in inflation-adjusted dollars, when Williams spent about $40,000 per student, also adjusted for inflation. So compared to 1986, today’s aided students are paying the same price for a Williams experience that is superior in innumerable ways.
What might people find counterintuitive about the cost to attend Williams?
The prevailing myth is that you have to be rich to be able to come here. That’s completely untrue. Of course, $60,000 is an enormous amount of money—it’s about the same as the median family income in the U.S. Most families can no more afford to pay $60,000 for an education than they could to pay $60,000 for a car. But unlike car companies, we actually discount our price based on what families can afford to pay. We’re working to overcome the myth that a Williams education is out of reach. One way is through our quick cost estimator, which we rolled out last semester. It takes about two minutes to complete. You can throw in any income—$50,000, $100,000, $200,000—along with some assets and the number of children attending college and get an accurate estimate of what it would cost that family to send a kid to Williams. I think people will be surprised. Williams is less expensive than the University of Massachusetts for families making anything less than about $140,000 a year. And students at many public colleges, including the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, where I’m a board member, are graduating with significantly more debt than they do from Williams and other well-resourced private schools. The majority of our students are graduating without any debt at all, and the loans for those who do borrow are, by and large, modest.
We start with the total cost of attendance, which includes tuition, room and board, and very small student fees that fund College Council and student activities. It also includes the cost of traveling to and from Williams twice per year, the cost of books and art and lab supplies, and a discretionary allowance that covers the incidental costs of living here for a year. Then we determine what the family is capable of contributing, which means money coming from parents’ income and assets as well as the student contribution through a modest work expectation—a maximum of 8 to 10 hours a week—and, in some cases, small loans. The maximum student loan is $4,000 a year. Whatever the family can’t contribute in those ways, we then make up through an outright grant.
How do you determine what a family can afford to pay?
The primary driver is income. We also look at families’ assets. We completely exclude from consideration retirement plans. We assess other funds at a rate of around 5 percent. There’s a myth that saving for college hurts you, because we’re just going to take it all from you. But we’re not. If you have $100,000 saved in the bank, it’s reasonable to ask you to contribute about $5,000 of that savings each year. So you’re still a whole lot better off for having saved that money. We look at home equity in a similar way, although we cap that. In some areas of the country, what people’s houses are worth can become quite inflated relative to their level of income and their level of actual liquid assets and ability to contribute. Roughly speaking, families below $75,000 in income, with typical assets, which means not very many, are not expected to borrow at all. We don’t package a loan for those families.
The loans that we package are for aided families whose income is above $75,000, and the amount of loan that we expect a family to take starts at $1,000 per year up to a maximum of $4,000 a year, based on family income and assets. It’s important to understand that a loan package is a recommendation. Families can and do choose to borrow more or less than we recommend. About half our families borrow what we suggest. About a quarter borrow more than we suggest, and about a quarter borrow less. So that’s some indication that our recommendations are pretty good.
There are schools out there that are “no loan,” meaning they don’t recommend that students borrow. But it doesn’t mean students at those schools aren’t borrowing. In fact, when you look at what students are actually borrowing per capita, even at the 44 best-resourced colleges in the country, they’re borrowing less at Williams than they are at a number of “no-loan” schools. More than half our students don’t borrow anything at all. The ones who do borrow are graduating with an average of about $15,000 in total debt. The national average is close to $30,000 for those who borrow.
You mentioned “need-blind” earlier, and you and President Falk also use the term “need-seeking.” What’s the difference, and why is it important that Williams be need-seeking?
Need-blind refers to an admission policy, and meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need is a financial aid policy. Williams is committed to both of those things. Need-blind is a promise that a family’s ability to pay won’t factor into the decision of whether to admit a student. Frankly, most schools aren’t like that; they need those tuition dollars, and whom they decide to admit depends a lot on what their families can pay. Being need-blind has been an important principle at Williams for a long time. But what I think a lot of people don’t know is that Williams and some of the other schools like us are also actively need-seeking. We are aggressively working to identify, recruit, enroll, support and graduate students who can’t pay or who can pay very little.
Families in which no one has gone to college, or families that have very or relatively low incomes, are far less likely to be aware of Williams. They’re less likely to know that coming to Williams can be a significantly better opportunity and more affordable for them than some of the opportunities closer to home. So our admission office works very hard to identify the most talented low-income students in the U.S. and around the world to make them aware of Williams, to help them understand why Williams would be great for them and, importantly, to get them on campus.
We run a program in the fall called WOW—Windows On Williams. We’ve nearly doubled the size of this program in the last couple of years because it’s so effective. We fly in, at our expense, about 200 low-income and first-generation students to spend a couple days on campus, meet each other, meet other Williams students and attend classes. The program is competitive; we get about 1,200 applicants. The students we select are very strong candidates for admission, and getting them here on campus dramatically increases the chances that they apply and will choose to enroll here if we admit them.
We have a similar previews program in the spring for admitted students who haven’t already participated in WOW and can’t afford to come here on their own. We want to make sure they get a chance to experience this place in person before they decide where to go to college. Our admission office travels to high schools where low-income and first-generation students are likely to be found. We have greatly increased the number of names of high school students we search through the College Board in order to make sure we’re turning up essentially every low-income student in the U.S. who has a plausible chance of being qualified to attend. We’re reaching out to students electronically and with paper materials. We recently redid our suite of admissions publications, testing their effectiveness in focus groups with low-income and first-generation students in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. That’s what need-seeking is: doing everything we can in a very active way to admit as many talented, low-income students as we can.
It’s obvious that financial aid is important to Williams’ lowest-income families. Can you talk about the difference it makes for families at higher income levels? How does the middle class student fare when it comes to financial aid?
In order to have the means to pay more than $60,000 a year to send your kid to college, you are probably in or approaching the top 4 or 5 percent of the American income distribution. So we provide financial support to families across 95 percent of the American income distribution. Our aided population spans families with almost no income to families making more than $200,000 a year. It’s a wide range, but the principle is the same for each family. We ask them to contribute what we think they can afford. A family making $25,000 probably can’t afford to contribute anything in terms of cash to a Williams education, and we wouldn’t expect them to. We’d offer that student a campus job. But there wouldn’t be any loan. A family making $200,000 can afford to contribute quite a lot, but probably not the full $60,000. “Middle class” is a hopelessly mushy term. The median American family makes about $60,000 a year and will probably pay $4,000 to attend Williams, with no loan expectation. But that’s not what many people mean by middle class, so I don’t think there’s a helpful answer to how the middle class student fares. Ultimately, we’re striving to make Williams equally affordable for essentially everyone who needs some level of support, and that varies depending on their family resources. Because it’s so individualized, the best way for a family to calculate what it would cost them to attend Williams is our new quick cost estimator tool, which we introduced last semester.
What’s the quick cost estimator, and how does it work?
Every college is required by the federal government to post a financial aid calculator on its website, and we’ve had one for some time. The most common one—the one we’ve been using—is provided by the College Board. It’s very good and accurate, but it’s also very detailed. It takes a fair amount of time to fill out, and you need to have your family’s tax return in front of you. There was a lot of evidence that many people didn’t want to use it, and many of those who did use it gave up partway through the questionnaire. An economics professor at Wellesley recently developed a simpler calculator that almost anyone can complete—one that’s accurate and reliable. It has six questions most people can answer off the top of their head. So within just a minute or two, they can get a good estimate. We’re partnering with Wellesley and the University of Virginia in using this new quick cost estimator. If you’re an admission officer meeting with high school students or guidance counselors, the quick calculator is a fantastic tool. When someone says, “$60,000? I can’t go to Williams,” you can whip out your iPad and have them punch in their family income and answer a few more questions. And they realize, “Oh, I’d only have to pay $5,000 per year? I had no idea.” Our admission officers are having those types of conversations on the road every day now. As of January, more than 3,100 people accessed the quick cost estimator; 76 percent of them completed all six questions. A good number of those who didn’t complete it are international students, who are prompted after the first question to use a different tool.
How has the student body changed over time? And how has that affected, or been affected by, Williams’ financial aid program?
It’s changed tremendously, and in many stages. Forty years ago, the college committed to coeducation. Thirty years ago, about 85 percent of students at Williams were white Americans; 15 percent were either students of color or international students. Today, just over 50 percent of the first-year class is white and American, and the number of students of color and international students is close to 50 percent. In the last 15 years, we’ve put an increasingly explicit emphasis on socioeconomic diversification. So in the Class of 2019, slightly more than 20 percent of the students are eligible for the federal government’s PELL scholarship program for lower-income Americans. Fifteen years ago, that number was closer to 10 percent. We’re proud of that, and we work really hard at it. The financial aid program makes all this possible. You can’t enroll students whose families can’t afford to pay what it costs to come here unless you have the resources to support them. We do have those resources, and we commit them to this effort. We don’t have a financial aid budget, in the sense of a fixed amount that we’re willing to spend. We admit a class, and then we’re committed to spending whatever it takes to enroll them.
Williams is no longer need-blind for international students. How does the college fulfill its aims with regard to access and diversity when it comes to this demographic?
We meet 100 percent of demonstrated need for every single student that we admit, domestic or international. We determine ability to contribute in the same way. Our international students are coming from more countries today than ever. And the acceptance rate for international students is around 5 percent, which is much lower than it is for domestic students. The competition is really incredible, because Williams has a fantastic international reputation. Many schools are bringing wealthy international students to their campuses in order to bring in more tuition dollars. We’re not doing that. We’re need-seeking internationally as well as domestically. In fact, our international population receives more aid than our domestic population. Roughly half of our domestic students receive financial aid, compared with close to 60 percent of the international population. And the average aided international student receives about $10,000 a year more in financial aid than the average aided domestic student.
Financial aid is the single largest fundraising priority for Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams. How much money is the college seeking to raise for financial aid, and how will it be used and prioritized?
One way to think about it is that we’re providing $50 million in financial aid support to our students each and every year. If you wanted to endow that whole amount, you’d need $1 billion, because we can basically spend 5 percent of the endowment over time in a stable way. At the moment, $400 million of our endowment is designated by donors for financial aid. That’s fantastic, but it’s also well short of what we actually need to endow the whole thing. So we want to increase the dedicated endowed support for financial aid to make sure that we’re able to provide 100 percent of full demonstrated need without compromising the quality of the education at Williams. Of the $650 million total campaign goal, we have a target of raising $150 million for financial aid, which would mean more than half our financial aid budget would be covered by endowment. Additional endowment for aid will also ensure that Williams students graduate with low—and, in most cases, no—loan burden. More than ever before, Williams is seeking to level the playing field for low-income students by covering the challenging and unexpected costs they sometimes face. Things like eyeglasses, dental emergencies, GRE testing fees, and clothing and travel for graduate school and job interviews. We’re always looking at ways in which our support of aided students could be increased. It all comes back to the core college principle of bringing the most interesting, talented, diverse students to Williams regardless of their ability to pay. And then, once they’re here, doing everything we can to ensure that every one of our students has equal access to all the opportunities and benefits of a Williams education.
Will Dudley ’89 is the provost and a professor of philosophy at Williams. In February he was named president of Washington and Lee University, effective Jan. 1, 2017.