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Thomas ’93 on Tyng

Ken Thomas ’93 sent in these comments on the Tyng Scholarship. See our discussion on the topic from last year.

As a Tyng and (I hope I may say) a friend of Phil Wick, I knew [or at least met!] every Tyng ’91-96, and had heard no negative comments about definition of need — excepting one Tyng who was unable to get post-grad support for a particular law school program (which, reasonably, was expected to increase earning potential and pay for itself).

[I also know of a public service lawyer who appealed to Tyng support to switch careers and finish a Ph.D. in the humanities, after 20 years of practice. Financial aid offers are not contracts, but there is much to suggest that Tyng is much more supportive than supposedly “similar” offers from other institutions.]

In my case, Tyng was quite generous. As I had a national fellowship during grad school [keep in mind that most people who get this kind of support will win outside grad support], Tyng supported three summers polishing German, French and Czech and doing pre-dissertation research.

Note both that Tyng is (strictly speaking) a private[-“ly endowed”] scholarship — [it is not a College-initiated program nor the result of institutional strategy, but the result of a specific bequest. In brief, Mrs. Tyng meant to give the Williams experience to those who might not otherwise have it, in memory of her husband and son fallen in war. While Fay Vincent’s concerns of donor intent are relevant, the Tyng Fellowship is also notably from a different era than the discussions of need-vs-merit we’re having sixty years later.]

Also relevant to recent discussions is that (in my case and in the case of several other Tyngs I knew) Tyng drew me to Williams in the face of similar “beyond need” offers from Harvard and Cornell. In the long term, it is also somewhat a result of Tyng’s influence in my life that I am currently more interested in financial gain than being an academic, but [my wish to pay back a debt to Tyng] is another story. In the position of a former Tyng, I would be glad to bring any concerns to those currently involved.

Phil Wick was the Tyng administrator during the time I was at Williams and I would presume the current Director of Financial Aid would know or be the current administrator. [Note that the Alumni administrator is a different position; there is also a student position, and, of course, Tyng is ultimately run by a Board of real human beings. In all things Tyng, through Phil Wick and others, I received a very strong sense of the privilege that had been given me and the tradition of service that comes across in Fay’s comments about need-based aid.

Re: David and Blake’s comments, there was also a sort of inherent secrecy that surrounded Tyng. Partly I think because Williams’ “egalitarianism” meant you don’t flaunt getting it, and partly because a private bequest is handled differently and not trumpeted like a college-sponsored scholarship whose calculated intent is drawing superior students. Thus I suspect the (naturally busy) adminstrators did not fully considered that Tyng might be confused with “merit scholarships” in the current environment — on the other hand, they also have an obligation to use the bequest for best good of Williams and of Tyng’s intent. Fifteen years ago people, including Phil Wick, were saying that Tyng should have more regular outreach events — perhaps some current Tyngs will step up, work with Paul Boyer and others, and solve the underlying problems?]

[I also wrote you the above while in the middle of a too-lengthy attempted commentary on merit need and peer effects. I just tried to boil my perspective down again, and came out with still more pages. Let me try making just two points:

a) If we accept that “peer effects” occur, then it is obvious that maximizing educational output — even at a national level — depends on exploiting and managing peer effects. This speaks against solely “need-based” aid, and once you accept that, you’re forced to rethink the goals of American education :)

b) Tyng represents Williams’ tradition of service, something that is also invoked by both Fay Vincent’s (and Phil Wick’s) committment to need-based aid. But Tyng itself promotes a “peer effect” — and I mean service to Williams and society in the long-term, not educating one’s peers while on campus or raising Williams’s SAT profile. Need-based aid is similarly often justified in the effect its receipients may have on society; they thus “merit” help because of social consequences. And regardless, the social goal is effected by compensation for merit. This suggests that the underlying social goal is more important than a means (need-based aid) and leads again to rethinking the goals of education.

Thanks to Ken for such thorough and insightful commentary. As before my main concerns are a) that the College is honest and upfront with Tyng Scholars and, less importantly, b) that the College stop claiming that it has no “merit aid.” If Tyng is not “merit aid” — or at least “an extra something awarded to an applicant of academic excellence that is above and beyond demonstrated financial aid needed to attend Williams and which convinces the applicant to attend Williams instead of some place else” — then the phrase has no meaning.

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#1 Comment By Blake Thomas ’97 On July 5, 2005 @ 9:14 pm

It’s strange, but pleasant to see someone responding to a post that you made thirteen months ago.

I agree with David: the Tyng is clearly a merit-based scholarship. But the amount of “extra something” that you get is based on need, so it’s a need-based scholarship. This illustrates how unique and basically weird the Tyng program is — I can’t think of another merit-based, need-based scholarship offered by any other prestigious school.

The need-based component of the program creates some real opportunities for students to experience a financial loss. There is a thriving market for “top” students out there, as discussed in a number of other recent posts on this blog. People are turning down hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid in reliance upon the promise of a Tyng fellowship. With huge sums of money at stake, it seems to me that Williams has a moral duty to make sure that incoming Tyng students understand exactly what Williams is promising.

This is why the way in which the Tyng program worked in the mid-1990’s troubles me. Ken’s post shows, unfortunately, that Tyng aid was not being provided using a consistent set of rules from year to year. Ken notes that “one Tyng … was unable to get post-grad support for a particular law school program (which, reasonably, was expected to increase earning potential and pay for itself).” This sounds EXACTLY like the program for which the Tyng administrators GRANTED me aid in 1997.

Even if the Tyng program had been consistent in that era, I still have qualms about particular courses of study being denied “need-based” relief because that course of study might be more likely to lead to monetary gain. First, that sort of undisclosed restriction feels unfair — like the fine print that you realize prevents you from using a mail-in rebate after purchase, it has a whiff of fraud about it. Second, it creates an opportunity for highly uninformed people to make highly paternalistic decisions. Who are these folks who meet for a few hours once a year to tell me what the best way is to live my life?

Ken Thomas speaks about two goals for the Tyng program, furthering Williams’ tradition of service and giving the Williams experience to those who might not otherwise have it. Those are worthy concerns, and in my view they are vastly more important than making sure some hotly desired students get another merit scholarship. But to serve those goals best (or even well), the Tyng program has to be designed to serve those goals and billed explicitly as serving those goals. If it is a scholarship designed to serve extraordinary students from poor backgrounds, then that’s what Williams should call it. If it is a program designed to give fellowships to students that will seek out lousy-paying jobs that do great social good, then why not choose the recipients at college graduation?

I’m not giving back the Tyng Bequest’s money, but I’ve never heard a good justification for why the Tyng program exists in its current form. Williams is full of outstanding students and outstanding people; the school will survive if two or three high achievers go somewhere else for a fat scholarship. Why do we need to compromise Williams’ ideals to give an extra benefit to a few that already have extraordinary opportunities being offered them by other fine institutions? Why not use the Tyng funds for one of the purposes that Ken describes?