Financial aid at Williams, as at all elite schools, is three parts true generosity, two parts virtue-signaling, one part sharp-dealing, and a soupçon of farcical ignorance to flavor the stew. Previous posts include the 2016 five part series on a Provost Will Dudley ’89 presentation, a four part analysis of an excellent 2014 Record article, this 10 (!) part analysis of New York Times coverage of the broader issue of socioeconomic diversity, this 2009 discussion of financial aid data submitted to the US Senate, our five part analysis of Lindsay Taylor’s ’05 thesis on low income admissions, this 5 part series about Pell Grants, this 2017 series about the Equality of Opportunity project and lots more slapdash mockery about financial aid policy/politics.

TL;DR: You should no more trust the advice/information from Williams when it comes to financial aid than you should accept, without checking, the attestations of your local used-car dealer. Neither Williams officials, nor your car dealer, are bad people and all are under various legal obligations concerning fraud, but caveat emptor is the only reasonable attitude.

1) Start with advice for parents: If you think your kid will get accepted by an elite school, then a) Save zero money in her name, b) Do as much of your savings as possible in retirement accounts, c) Pay off your mortgage and, only after you have done all the above, d) Save money for college. Even if you are poor (or, at least, not rich) , Williams will take every dime that is in your child’s name. Plan accordingly.

2) “Financial need” is not a natural constant like the speed of light. Williams may think that you need $25,000 in aid. Middlebury might put the number at $10,000. Harvard might offer $40,000. All will claim to have met your “demonstrated need.” None are lying, per se. That they disagree about your “financial need” demonstrates that there is no such thing as an objective measure, used by all schools (despite what the colluders at the 568 Group would like you to believe).

3) Williams, like almost all elite schools, is not meaningfully more socio-economically diverse today than it was 10, 20 or even 50 years ago. More students get financial aid, but those same students — with the same family incomes — would not have required financial aid two decades ago because tuition was so much lower than. Consider how dominated we are by the wealthy:

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About 20% of the students at Williams have come from families in the top 1% of the income distribution for, approximately, forever. And that is OK! Lots of rich families have smart kids and the scions of wealth need to attend college somewhere. I just wish that Williams would stop preening about how much socio-economic diversity has changed when, in fact, it hasn’t.

But maybe things are different at the bottom?

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Maybe, if you squint, you can see change here. The percentage of students from families in the bottom 60% — many (most?) of them not “poor” by any reasonable definition — has increased from, say, 12% for the class of 2005 (the x-axis is birth years) to 20% for the class of 2013. But:

1) There was no change for the 5+ years before 2013. We were at 20% for the class of 2009.

2) There has been no change in the decade since. Recall Adam Falk’s report in 2016 that “almost 20%” of Williams students were “low income.” Naive readers will claim that Adam Falk can’t possibly define “low income” as students who come from the bottom 60% of the income distribution, but that is exactly what Williams does. Summary: 20% of the class of 2009 and 20% of the class of 2020 come from families in the bottom 60% of the income distribution. There has been no change for more than a decade, at least.

3) Some of this change was accomplished by down-weighting other aspects of socio-economic diversity. Morty loved bragging about how the class of 2012 was 21% was first-gen, meaning neither parent went to a four year college. But Williams cares less about that now and more about raw income, so first-gen has dropped to more like 16%. Given that more Williams students have parents who went to college — including fancy colleges like Harvard and Yale — now than it did a decade ago, is it really fair to say that Williams is more “socio-economically” diverse?

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