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Family Wealth at Williams

When I was at Williams, I had a general awareness that some kids had tons of money, and some kids had less, and some kids had a lot less.  I always kind of envisioned myself as being somewhere in the middle, where I usually had enough money to go to the snackbar if I wanted to, and was able to go on spring break trips with the rugby team.  Even today, I have no real idea where I fell on the student wealth scale, except that I was pretty sure I wasn’t at the bottom or the top.  I had friends who had to think more carefully about their spring break plans, and also some who seemed to be able to afford just about anything they wanted.  What I didn’t remember noticing back then was these differences in wealth having much effect on anyone’s day-to-day life at Williams.  It seemed like most parties and other events were free to students, and I’d never heard of anyone who couldn’t be, for example, on the rugby team because they couldn’t afford the dues.  There simply weren’t that many things that I wanted to spend money on.  (Because I didn’t turn 21 until just before graduation, I never spent a lot of time at the Purple Pub.  I suspect that one could have run up quite a tab there).

When I read this eye-opening 2016 article written by Zach Wood about the effects of his family’s poverty on his Williams experience, I wondered whether I was being completely naive and overlooking obvious effects of wealth on what people did every day.  Here is an interesting quote from article, which I would encourage everyone to read in its entirety:

Unlike most students, I’m not only managing my coursework and campus activities, I’m also preoccupied with family concerns and financial hardship.

While I try not to let these issues interfere with life on campus, it can be difficult to focus on my work and other responsibilities as much as I would like to. Often, it’s frustrating because I go through each day feeling as though “my best” is never really “my best” because so much of my time and energy is spent trying to solve problems that many of my peers don’t have to deal with.

Three days before helping my uncle, the ceiling of my bedroom caved in. This was my vacation, meant to be a chance to relax and spend time with family. Instead, it was a reminder of the poverty I’ve always thought my mind would allow me to escape.

I was midway through a book I was reading for a sociology paper and I wanted to spend Thanksgiving break studying for final exams, applying for summer internships, and doing paid research for a professor to help my dad pay for my education. But my poverty had left a hole in the ceiling and made these goals difficult, if not impossible.

*******

I spent the next three hours cleaning up the debris and trying to find a way to cover up the gaping hole. The most difficult part was securing a wobbly plastic sheet over the hole by sticking tacks into the drywall without weakening portions of the ceiling that were already insecure.

When I go home for the holidays, I live with my dad, my grandma, my uncle, and my sister in a small, dilapidated two-bedroom house. Because we have four to five people living in such a cramped space, finding a place to do school work is a challenge. So when the ceiling caved in beside my bed, my work space mostly disappeared.

After rearranging the books, bags, and boxes stacked in the corners of my room — so that they were out of the way of the leaking water — I went downstairs to try to create some space at the kitchen table to work at temporarily. The noise from the television and family members cooking and talking made it difficult to focus, but that narrow spot at the edge of the table was the only space available.

My grandmother was sitting in the only chair left in the house, so I found two large suitcases, filled them with books, stacked them on top of each other, and sat on top of that. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was my only option.

A few minutes later, I tried to check my email on my laptop and realized that we hadn’t paid the Internet bill. There are no computers at my house and I’m the only one who has a laptop, so when I’m away for college, paying that bill is one less thing for my dad to worry about. (Fortunately, we were able to pay the bill the next day after my dad received his check from his second job as a valet.)

I didn’t often think about money (though I do remember getting a checking account at the Williamstown Savings Bank), which may have meant that I had more than most.  I just don’t know.  And I don’t know how many of my classmates might have had to deal with issues like those described by Zach Wood.

The College has seemingly put forth a lot of effort over the past 20 years to bring in kids from a wider range of socio-economic circumstances (how successful that has been is certainly a subject of debate).  Can those on campus now, or who have been there recently, tell us whether wealth differences amongst students seem more impactful than I remember?  Or have the disputes over race/ethnicity/sexual orientation overshaddowed some of these other possible flashpoints.  Does the location of the College make a difference in how wealth affects people’s experiences at Williams?  At Columbia, for example, I would imagine that money would have an enormous impact on everyone’s day-to-day experiences, simply because there is so much to spend money on in NY.  What are your thoughts?

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13 Comments To "Family Wealth at Williams"

#1 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On August 27, 2019 @ 7:54 am

> What I didn’t remember noticing back then was these differences in wealth having much effect on anyone’s day-to-day life at Williams.

The same is certainly true today.

> What I didn’t remember noticing back then was these differences in wealth having much effect on anyone’s day-to-day life at Williams.

> When I read this eye-opening 2016 article written by Zach Wood

1) Keep in mind that Zach is not always the most trustworthy narrator. That said, there is no doubt that he grew up in real poverty. The story (from his book) which most hit me was his description of the dental damage he suffered because his family could not afford to pay the orthodontist, after his braces were already in.

2) It is not clear if the number of students with these at-home issues is larger or smaller than it was back in the day.

3) It is not clear what Williams can do about any of that.

> overlooking obvious effects of wealth on what people did every day.

Williams is, and should be, a basically communist society — everyone lives in the same dorms, eats the same food, goes to the same classes — so the effect that household problems (whether of poverty, illness, death, divorce, etc) is as small as one could possibly make it.

> Can those on campus now, or who have been there recently, tell us whether wealth differences amongst students seem more impactful than I remember?

Outside of the extremes, it is incredibly difficult to estimate the wealth of student families. If family wealth has an effect of size X on what goes on at campus, other things (like intelligence, attractiveness, friendliness) have an effect of 100 X.

It would be much more important for college administrators to worry about those things.

#2 Comment By anonymous On August 27, 2019 @ 9:22 am

It also depends on how much wealth is shown.

Some of the most affluent families may not give their kids everything- the great spring break, the new Audi to drive senior year etc. Wealth may be hard to ascertain if the students are not spoiled- because at that age, almost everyone is equally poor without their parents money.

Kids who are struggling with day to day expenses should get a part time job if they want spending cash.

#3 Comment By anonymous On August 27, 2019 @ 9:24 am

I know the college will provide work for a decent wage for any student who wants it.

Plenty to be done in the mailroom- and nothing wrong with that.

#4 Comment By ’11 On August 27, 2019 @ 7:32 pm

it has a pretty big impact. if you are middle class you might try to save money on meal plan. its buffet meals so why pay for breakfast when u can eat bigger lunch and dinner. or why not just eat a really big lunch and snack for dinner. stuff like that. obviously super careful about eating out. wouldn’t dream of a spring break trip. might just stay on campus for many shorter holidays to save on travel costs. wouldn’t live off campus senior year. no dorm decoration at all, much less a tv or game console. no car in campus.

i think as you move down the income spectrum you have students that have less than ideal clothing and shoes for a williamstown winter.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On August 27, 2019 @ 10:20 pm

> you have students that have less than ideal clothing and shoes for a williamstown winter.

These lovely insulated duck boots are $27.45 at Amazon.

#6 Comment By ’11 On August 27, 2019 @ 11:41 pm

not sure if you are joking but you need shoes you can wear to the gym, to your dining hall job where you may stand around for hours, and there is also a ton of walking. duck boots are shoes for people who have at least two pairs. if you can only have one $30 pair of shoes, this would keep you from hiking, using the gym, using the track, etc. i would rather have cold and wet feet than be excluded from most physical activities at the college.

#7 Comment By Fragesteller On August 28, 2019 @ 3:38 am

What percentage of the students at Williams come from the top 1/10th of a percent in family wealth?

#8 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On August 28, 2019 @ 7:16 am

Fragsteller: See here for extensive discussion. About 1/5 of Williams students come from families in the top 1%. I am not aware of any data about the to 1/10th of a percent.

The statistics are interesting. If those 1/5 are spread evenly across the top 1%, then we might guess that 2% (about 10 students) are from the top 0.1%. But, my guess would be that they aren’t spread evenly. The bottom of the top 1% are not even that rich, at least in terms of development candidates. Those are from top 0.1% families. There might be 10 (as low as 5, as high as 20) such students each year.

Put it all together, and my guess would be 15 to 25.

#9 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On August 28, 2019 @ 7:18 am

> not sure if you are joking

Not joking! The claim was that there are students who can’t afford shoes appropriate for a Williamstown winter. Consider a poor students from, say, Arizona who has never owned (or needed to own) a serious set of boots.

My counter-argument is that $27 is a pretty low number . . .

#10 Comment By recent grad On August 28, 2019 @ 11:03 pm

David: Don’t those New York Times statistics brought up in the very post you mention give data for the top 0.1%? That data set says that 2.8% of students at Williams are in the top 0.1% of income, so 2-4x as many as you estimated.

#11 Comment By recent grad On August 28, 2019 @ 11:11 pm

As for those $27 boots, I’m the farthest thing from a fashion snob, but for practical reasons, I wouldn’t want to wear those at Williams. They look cheap, in terms of construction, and reviews of the item in question point that out as well (“buy these for fashion, not for comfort”). After an entire Williams winter of wearing these every day, they’ll almost certainly have broken down–and you’d probably have a few blisters, too. So yes, you’re right–$27 is not a huge investment for winter boots. But buying $27 boots guarantees that you’re going to have to replace them at least once a year, and most likely more often than that–the cheap stitching will come undone, the soles will wear through, etc.

So let’s say you have to buy these boots, at minimum, four times. That’s $108 over four years at Williams. Still not at all a ton to pay for a pair of boots–the student would be much better advised to buy a $108 (or less) pair of boots up front, because they’ll last them their entire Williams career and longer.

The very problem that we’re talking about, David, is that though it might not seem much to you, $108 can be too high a cost to pay upfront for such an item for low-income students. So you can point to the cheaper boots, because that’s what they’ll get–but they won’t be comfortable or sufficient, and they’ll guarantee having to buy cheap items again and again.

#12 Comment By abl On August 28, 2019 @ 11:43 pm

I think this discussion of boots is somewhat silly but I can think of few minor inconveniences that would be more actually disruptive than having one’s only pair of winter-capable shoes fall apart in the middle of a Williamstown winter. This would be particularly true if it happened to me during a period at which I didn’t have $50 easily and immediately on hand to rush-order a replacement pair.

#13 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On August 29, 2019 @ 6:43 am

recent grad: Your right! It is 2.8%. I missed that.