Let’s Talk . . . About Affordability at Williams

Dear Alumni, Parents, and Friends,

As the national conversation on college affordability generates ever more heat than light, I’d like to make clear for you the situation at Williams. It’s an important topic.

The answer to the question, “What’s the price of a Williams education?” is the unlikely sounding but true, “What you can afford to pay.” And we cap even that at two-thirds of what it costs us to provide that education. Nothing else in the economy is priced this way; I think that’s why the public has a hard time understanding it.

This short video, in which you may see a familiar face or two, explains the surprising financial model of Williams and similarly endowed colleges.

As you see, Williams isn’t a business out to make a profit. We’re here primarily to advance the public good through the contributions our alumni make to society, which they do to a degree disproportionate to their number. Our students also benefit directly from their education, of course, so it’s appropriate that they and their families pay some portion of its cost. But we ask no one to pay the full cost. Everyone pays a portion—it’s a matter of how much.

Families do sacrifice to send their children to Williams, and we work hard to honor those sacrifices. But when deciding each year on the comprehensive fee (tuition, room, and board) we’re not so much establishing a price as we are setting the level of general subsidy.

For half of our students, those who receive financial aid, that subsidy expands to meet 100 percent of their demonstrated need. Their families have incomes that range from almost nothing to more than $200,000.

Contrary to what you’re hearing about colleges nationally, Williams has become more affordable in recent years, not less. We’ve changed the financial aid formula in ways that lower what we expect parents to pay, and we’ve increased the number of low-income students. The percentage of students who receive federal Pell Grants, for instance, has doubled since the late 1990s from 10 percent to 20 percent.

The average total grant for a first-year student is now $43,000. Accordingly, our loan levels are low—among the lowest in the country, and even lower than at some schools that officially have no-loan policies. The most that we’d ask families to borrow is $4,000 a year; families with incomes up to $75,000 and typical assets are not expected to borrow at all. Of the Class of 2012, only 31 percent had borrowed by graduation.

One measure that we look at closely is net price, which is the comprehensive fee minus grant aid. This is the bottom line that families pay. It may surprise you to learn that when adjusted for inflation the median net price for aided students at Williams has actually gone down over the past decade and a half by almost 40 percent.

Net price chartWe spend a lot to pursue our mission of providing the finest possible liberal arts education. This means we compete for the best students, faculty, and staff, and we take great care in creating a community with the educational facilities and services that will prepare our students to lead fuller, more effective lives.

In doing so we constrain spending where we can, thus the real decrease, as the video shows, in what we call managers’ budgets, which represent all non-personnel operating expenses.

We are fortunate to be able to provide such great opportunities to our students and to admit them to the college without regard to their ability to pay. And when I say “we,” I don’t mean those of us in Hopkins Hall. That “we” includes almost all of you who are reading this, since it’s all of us together who make this possible.

So the next time you hear someone claim sweepingly that colleges have become crazily unaffordable, I hope you’ll say, “Actually, that’s not the full story.”

Adam Falk