From WSO:

what’s up with this? I was under the impression that this grant would be beneficial to students, but it seems like they just reduced my need by $400 and now my books are free… i’ve never even come close to spending $400 on books so this seems like a financial aid cut! in which cases will this actually help students financially?

I just came to the same conclusion. I’ve never actually spent a penny on books but have still needed every freaking penny I’ve been given. Where the hell am I going to come up with an extra $400 between now and my bill????!!!

Good questions. See the thread for further discussion and sensible points from Will Slack. See here for background. My previous (slightly edited) comments still apply.

How does anyone know whether or not this change will be “cost-neutral?”

1) Even if it isn’t, it may still be a good idea.

2) Let’s just focus on financial aid students. This semester, the College budgeted $400 for each of them. Call that $400,000. Now, did $400,000 really leave the bank account of Williams in September? I am not sure. The students on full rides did get a check. (But isn’t that a very small percentage of the student body?) But even students who are expected to pay as little as $1,000, did not get money from Williams for their books. They were just charged $1,000 instead of $1,400 because the College assumed that they needed the $400 for books.

But, next semester, things change. Put students in two different groups.

a) Those who got checks from Williams this time. Those students will just get checks that are $400 lower, but they get to buy books. How can the College possibly know that they will spend, on average, $400 at Water Street? (I am happy to believe that smart Ephs like Finan and Winters can come up with all sorts of spreadsheets that estimate such an outcome, but I have real doubts about the accuracy of those forecasts. More below.)

b) Those students who send checks to Williams, every amount from $1,000 to $45,000. Those checks will rise by $400.

3) Let’s consider some reasons why the 1,000 students on financial aid might spend much more than $400 per student now that books are free.

a) Why not buy all the recommended books as well as the required ones? They are free! Program only applies to required books.

b) Why not buy new books rather than used books? They are free!

c) Why wouldn’t professors significantly increase the number/price of required books and reclassify some recommended books as required? Right now, I (and other Williams teachers) try to take care in selecting books. We don’t won’t to screw students, especially students on financial aid. (Although we know that the College is supposed to provide enough aid to cover textbooks, we recognize that the aid may not be enough and, more important, that any leftover money can be used by students for whatever they want.) Now, books are free to half the students. And the other half of students almost all come from extremely rich families, at least relative to Williams professors. No need to worry about their book expenses! And if making a book (officially) “required” rather than just “recommended,” makes it free for half the students in the class, then I will be sorely tempted to do so.

In fact, does this apply for Winter Study? I suspect that a majority of my students are on financial aid. Why not just order up some books, call them “required” and help these students out? I may just do that . . .

4) To be clear, I have no opinion yet as to whether this is a good idea. I just have serious doubts about its cost-neutrality.

I would not be surprised if the 1,000 students on financial aid spent much more than $400 on books next semester. Anyone want to bet?

It would be fun to compare the forecasts which were made a few months ago with what actually happens. If anything, it looks like the program might save the College money since it is taking $400 away from students who have not in the past (and won’t in the future?) spend anywhere near $400 on books. And, to reiterate, I am sure that Ephs like Winters and Finan did a much better job in constructing a forecast than I could have in their place. I just think that these sorts of specific problems in management and estimation are educational for all concerned.

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