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Merit Scholarships

The claim is occasionally made that Williams does not distribute “merit” scholarships or aid. That is, any aid that is given is no more than that required for demonstrated financial need. In a FAQ on financial aid, the College says:

Are there any merit scholarships at Williams not based on need?

No. All financial aid awards at Williams are based on need as determined by the Office of Financial Aid. The College strongly believes that its scholarship funds should be used to fully meet the demonstrated need of each of its financial aid students. Williams does not sponsor and/or match National Merit Scholarships.

But I don’t think that that is true. I think that Tyng Scholarships and, probably, Williams Opportunity Scholarships, should be considered merit scholarships. The College says:

Tyng Scholarships are the most prestigious Williams awards. They are designed to meet a student’s demonstrated need, primarily with Tyng Scholarship assistance, for each year at Williams. Further assistance is available for three years of graduate or professional school or the equivalent of summer study or research.

So, if a Tyng provides money for law school, money that you do not need to attend Williams, isn’t it a merit award? Perhaps we now have a Tyng scholar, or buddy of one, among our readers who can enlighten us. I have been wrong about financial aid issues at Williams in the past.

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#1 Comment By David Rodriguez On May 12, 2004 @ 9:57 pm

As a recipient of a Tyng scholarship, I was under the impression that it was in fact a merit scholarship, given the college’s literature describing it. The grant associated with said scholarship was also substantially higher than the 2000 dollars in loans (i.e. full tuition) I received from UPenn (my second choice).

To my very displeasurable surprise, however, the college sent me a letter this past summer stating that my parents now earned too much money and that they were no longer able to offer me such a scholarship. Admittedly it was a rather large jump in AGI, and I wouldn’t really blame them if it was in fact a financial aid grant, but that was certainly not the impression that I got. I planned to attend grad school (and still somewhat do), so the fact that I no longer was going to be offered need based financial aid for grad school was perhaps the biggest blow of all.

Evidence supporting that it is in fact a merit scholarship:
– The fact that they say it’s the “most prestigious Williams award.”
– There’s a minimum GPA requirement while you’re at Williams (which I was far above, I might add, so they couldn’t have taken it away for that)
– Getting three years of need based financial aid for grad school is amazing. For grad school, your parents are no longer considered contributors to tuition, so it’s essentially damn near a grant for three years of grad school.
– You get Tyng money sponsored summer research. The money offered by this program, as of last year anyway, was pretty low and not competitive as far as summer jobs or the alumni sponsored internships go, so this is less significant.

Evidence against:
– “They are designed to meet a student’s demonstrated need, primarily with Tyng Scholarship assistance, for each year at Williams.”
– They took my scholarship away because of an increase in my parents’ AGI.

Thus I, much like yourself, am left rather in the dark. Really the only other grant or financial aid I was offered that came close to the Tyng was the Marshall scholarship I was offered from Franklyn and Marshall, which is explicitly a merit scholarship (it was roughly the same amount in annual grants, but didn’t include graduate study). Anyone else care to shed some light?

#2 Comment By Mike On May 12, 2004 @ 11:28 pm

Ha, it clearly describe it as based on the students “demonstrated need”. How clear to they need to be.

#3 Comment By David Rodriguez On May 13, 2004 @ 12:40 am

Yes, but why not give everyone with demonstrated need a tyng scholarship? Clearly it’s not only based on “demonstrated need”. I think there were only about 10 recipients in my year. I mean I suppose you could say that they cherry pick certain applicants with “demonstrated need” and give them extra perks, but like I said, the money offered was substantially higher than anything I’d received anywhere else. According to U Penn, my demonstrated need was a trivial amount in loans. The only exception is the Franklin and Marshall merit scholarship I mentioned previously.

Thus the argument that it is based on “demonstrated need” is questionable. They very well could have said, “okay, this applicant demonstrates a ‘need’ for a trivial amount in loans, thus he is eligible for a Tyng scholarship.”

Yes, believe exactly what they tell you. Morty said it himself: it makes perfect sense for institutions to offer merit scholarships to certain people. Why not claim that this is a scholarship based on need (seems to be loosely true) and offer it to top applicants? Maybe I wasn’t even close to qualifying for financial aid, thus they could no longer claim I needed help from the financial aid office. I can assure you that this scholarship played no small part in deciding where to attend. The fact that I question the actual purpose of such a scholarship should come of no surprise.

Keep your condescending comments to yourself.

#4 Comment By David Kane On May 13, 2004 @ 3:18 am

David writes that:

that I no longer was going to be offered need based financial aid for grad school was perhaps the biggest blow of all.

Really? I guess that I can imagine how the College can get away with changing the amount of aid each year for a Tyng depending on the changes in family AGI (which I think is adjusted gross income), but I would not have expected that to effect the graduate school component of the award.

Also, I don’t think it is true that “For grad school, your parents are no longer considered contributors to tuition.” This depends a lot on the specifics of the program. There are many graduate schools that do consider parental income, at least for stuidents who have not supported themselves for X years.

By the way, to the extent that you are considering graduate school in something related to economics or political science or public policy, I would urge you to a) continue with the math major and b) take as many of the STAT courses at Williams as you can.

#5 Comment By (d)avid On May 13, 2004 @ 12:11 pm

A couple quick observations:
1) Most graduate programs require parental income regardless of how long you have been on your own. My wife worked as a defense consultant for 8 years prior to applying to graduate school and she still needed to list her parents’ income. Older incoming graduate students complain about it every year (and it occurs at almost every school they apply to). However, since most of the top graduate programs pay a stipend and do not charge tuition (unlike business or law schools) it doesn’t much matter.

2) There is nothing logically inconsistent to award need based scholarships via a merit criteria. There are far more students with need than the Tyng scholarship fund can afford. Some decision criteria is necessary. The college has decided to provide the Tyng scholarships to those deemed meritous WITHIN THE POOL OF THOSE WITH DEOMNSTRATED NEED. I see nothing illegitimate or terribly confusing about the process (though having the award yanked could be questionable). Presumably the college wants to attract the “best” students with need and offering scholarships is a good way to attract such students. Merit/Need doesn’t have to be dichotomous or mutually exclusive.

#6 Comment By David Kane On May 13, 2004 @ 12:32 pm

The College should not claim that it awards no merit based awards if a Tyng provides money for graduate school. A Tyng is, clearly, partially need-based, but, whatever else one might say about money for law school, it is not part of anyone’s financial need for attending Williams.

Tyngs and other such scholarships are still worthwhile. I am glad the College does them. I would suspect that such awards will become a larger and larger part of Williams as schools like Franklin and Marshall try to lure away students like David R.

I just think that the College should be more forthright as it confronts the increasing competition for desirable students.

#7 Comment By Blake Thomas On May 14, 2004 @ 4:57 pm

I was a Tyng Scholar, entering Williams in the class of 1993. In that era, at least, it was a merit-based program, although eligibility may have been limited to students who would receive need-based financial aid.

In my era, the program reduced all Tyng Scholars’ loans by $1000 per year, eliminated the financial aid work requirement, and provided one small summer stipend. The real benefit of the program is the Tyng Fellowship, which provides three years of need-based financial aid for graduate school.

David’s comment above illustrates how little information the financial aid office gives to Tyng recipients about their awards. The fellowship program, in particular, is completely amorphous. In letters to prospective Tyng Scholars, they bill the program as need-based aid (with parental income very much taken into account, unfortunately for David), but the aid package is not based on the full cost of the graduate program, and they expect substantially greater loan commitments from graduate students than from undergraduates.

All of the Tyng Scholars in my class had committed to Williams believing that the fellowships would be substantially similar to our undergraduate aid. Several of us turned down full-tuition or full-ride scholarships to other elite schools, thinking the Tyng program was more lucrative, so the fellowship news was a shock. We wrote some nasty letters back and forth to the financial aid office and threatened to get a lawyer (although even then, we recognized that it would have been a pretty flimsy claim). They told us that they would work to clarify the descriptions of the program given to prospective freshmen. Sorry to hear that things haven’t gotten better.

I love Williams, and I am profoundly thankful to the strangers who generously gave the funds that let me attend. The admissions and financial aid offices should be more careful, however, to not engage in puffery that misleads prospective students. If they can’t stop this pattern of behavior, they should shut the Tyng program down.