Provost Will Dudley’s discussion (pdf) of financial aid at Williams is equal parts useful and misleading. Let’s spend five days discussing it. Today is Day 5.

For instance, aided students have the same level of support for studying abroad as they have for studying at Williams. Books are free for aided students. We also pay attention to the discretionary allowance built into financial aid packages, recognizing that there are hidden costs to being a college student: doing laundry, getting a haircut, buying some pizza. We’ve increased that allowance by about 25 percent in the last five years to reflect how those costs have increased.

1) One recurrent complaint from faculty is how high on the hog Williams students live, even “poor” ones on financial aid. How much can you really be struggling if you can still afford to take nice spring break vacations with your friends?

2) The “free books” is almost certainly an absurd boondoggle, as we noted at its creation 7 years ago. Discussion here and here. Recall:

Let’s consider some reasons why the 1,000 students 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!

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

c) Why wouldn’t professors significantly increase the number/price of both required and recommended books? 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 recognize 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!

The Record should do an update on the program. It has almost certainly been a failure, which is why no (?) other elite school does the same.

Back to Dudley:

Thirty years ago, 38 percent of our students came from families that couldn’t afford to pay the sticker price. Today, more than half of the first-year class receives aid.

This is incredibly misleading, for reasons that we have gone over again and again and again.

Summary: Understanding the change (if any) in economic diversity at Williams is easy. Just tell us the family income of the 10th poorest, 50th poorest and 100th poorest student in each class for the last 20 years. Previous discussion here. Williams has this data easily accessible since all those families filled out financial aid forms. (It is much harder to estimate trends in the incomes of the richest families.) The fact that Williams declines to make this data available makes me highly suspicious about how much of an increase, if any, there has been in economic diversity.

Today’s average aided family contributes a little less than $18,000 toward the $100,000 that Williams spends per student; $18,000 is about the same contribution that aided families paid 30 years ago, in inflation-adjusted dollars, when Williams spent about $40,000 per student, also adjusted for inflation. So compared to 1986, today’s aided students are paying the same price for a Williams experience that is superior in innumerable ways.

Interesting but debatable. Williams spends $60,000 more per year in inflation-adjusted dollars than it did 30 years ago. Is it really that much better? I have my doubts . . .

Print  •  Email