To the Williams Community,

Financial aid has been much on the minds of members of the Williams community as we have thought about ways to control the growth in its cost that would align with the great value we place on having a diverse community.

The process of setting the College’s price is complicated and at odds with how the world generally works. Since we live with this system every day, we tend to forget that outside of Williams and a small number of similar colleges, there may be no business or organization that charges for its goods or services only what an individual can afford to pay. That is amazing. (More so when you consider that even the top price that is charged covers only about half of what the College spends per student.)

The system has worked remarkably well. We have been able to make the benefits of a Williams education accessible to strong students from all economic backgrounds. And, while parents do make sacrifices to send their children here, when we ask them if it was worth it, 98% say yes.

As astonishing as this system already was, it became more so when a few years ago we dropped loans from all aid packages and began to admit all international students without regard to their ability to pay.

We could take those steps because our endowment had been growing at quite an amazing rate. Since that is no longer the case and apparently will not be the case again anytime soon, the College has needed to cut expenses virtually everywhere. Given the value we place on affordability, the only exception has been financial aid, which grew again this year (by about 12%) and will grow next year.

What we have explored are ways to control the growth in overall spending on financial aid that would be consonant with our commitment to broad financial accessibility. One way was to reintroduce modest loans in the aid packages of some students. Families with low incomes will still not be expected to borrow. When, beginning with the Class of 2015, we go back to something that resembles the loan program that was in place until fall of 2008, Williams will continue to be attractive to students of all incomes and we will have a wonderfully strong and diverse student body.

This will also be true as we begin to admit international students somewhat differently than we have in recent years, beginning with the class entering this fall.

Until the Class of 2006, Williams each year maintained two pools of international applicants: those who had applied for aid and those who had not. We admitted only a few who had applied for aid. All other admitted international applicants were among those who could pay the full fee. For the last several years we admitted international applicants without regard to their ability to pay. We also let the percentage of international students in the class drift up to a range of 5% to 8% (though one year it topped out at 9%); any higher would have been financially unsustainable. This enabled us to matriculate a cohort of international students with significantly more presence and diversity, to the great advantage of us all.

But as a result, the cost of international aid in the last decade rose by more than 200% (more than $4 million). In the College’s changed financial situation, that rate of growth is unsustainable. One way to reduce it would be to have fewer international students. But no one wants that and no one wants it to be the case that all of our international students are able to pay the full fee.

The way to avoid either of those outcomes is to use intelligently some form of need-awareness for international applicants. This does not mean going back to the two-pool system in place before the Class of 2006. It also does not mean that the Financial Aid Office will compute the need of each international aid applicant and the Admission Office will then admit the most desirable international applicants until the aid runs out.

The Admission Office will know which applicants have applied for aid, as it does now, but will not know the level of each applicant’s need. The office will then look at the international pool as a whole and aim to build an entering cohort that is not only academically strong but that is geographically and economically diverse and that in terms of aid approximates a rough dollar target that will begin where it is now and grow over the years at a rate slower than it has been. This new system should result in entering cohorts of international students that roughly resemble the one that we are blessed with now and at a rate of cost increase that is sustainable. When four classes have been admitted this way the increase in our international aid budget should be about $1.2 million less than it would have been. We do not expect this change to affect dramatically the pool of international applicants, which is extremely strong.

I understand how unsettling it is for many members of our community to have to contemplate altering our aid practices somewhat. Even with the changes we have adopted, however, the system by which Williams determines how much to charge aided families will still be among the most generous in the history of higher education, as it should be, and among the most amazing anywhere in the broad economy. And we will continue to serve and to benefit from a wonderful and diverse community of students.

With regards,

Bill Wagner
Interim President

My comments later.

In other news, Williams is bringing back the quota for Jewish students.

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