Williams decision important, yet minor move; national college tuition reform needed

Interim President Carl Vogt recently made the bold, courageous, inspirational and trend-setting declaration that Williams College would freeze tuition for next year, a first since 1954. Actually, hold those compliments; Williams tuition is still ridiculously high.

However, the complaints lodged by a student leader in a rare New York Times article about our prestigious College’s innovative move are nearly as ridiculous. This tuition freeze is less significant than all the hype laid upon it by its supporters; what is much more impressive is College Council Co-President Bert Leatherman’s mocking of it. In case you haven’t seen his statement, the Times quotes him as proclaiming, “I don’t think it’s any act of generosity or Williams going out of its way to make the College more affordable, it’s just a fact of the American boom, a more extraordinary announcement would have been they’re hiring more faculty, or they’re going to give a free ride to 100 students from Appalachia or South Africa or inner-city blacks, something like that. That’s the school’s challenge.”

Actually, his do-good, ultra-fanatical, equal opportunity liberalism is a wonderful view, but misses many larger points. But, in attacking Williams, a leading institution in offering financial aid, for not raising tuition in order to offer more scholarships, Leatherman was trying to sink the wrong ship.

Williams, thankfully, has “need blind” admissions, which means, in short, that we believe that we give a free ride or partial ride to every student who cannot pay for the exorbitant tuition. Whether or not the Williams definition of financial need is high enough, the point is that we believe as an institution that we offer every student 100 percent of his/her financial need. The Directors of Admission and Financial Aid both supported this freeze, and they are expected to be the advocates for equal opportunity on campus. These are the experts who would know and advocate change if Williams were not giving enough financial aid. They have not complained; they thought the money was better spent on this tuition freeze. Officially, students from Appalachia and the inner city receive enough monetary support.

Of course, we all know that this is far from enough help; many students end up in state universities or missing college because of short-term family financial needs. The annual cost of attending Williams is roughly $10,000 above the poverty level for a family with children! Something is wrong with college financing.

Well, no, let me rephrase. Something is capitalistic about college financing. Universities and colleges raise tuition to the point in which nobody would pay that much, and then lower it. It’s supply and demand at a pretty simple level. Supply and demand such as this, however, has no place in higher education, or education in general.

As President Clinton has said, higher education should be accessible to all. All institutions of higher education should be accessible to everybody regardless of economic status. With this goal, a new form of financing would be necessary to couple the influx of students with the rising costs of college. This is a problem that surpasses Williams College and tuition freezes. A national policy or agreement among colleges is the next step.

Fortunately, Williams has put pressure on other universities while also giving something back to families. Educational opportunities should not be stifled by fiduciary needs. Leatherman should not feel as though we do not give poor people equal access, and middle and even upper class families should not feel burdened with student loans and inadequate financial aid grants and scholarships. No student should choose a college based largely on price, which many (if not a majority) of students sadly consider a defining priority in the college search.

What one college does with roughly $2 million is a great initiative towards making education affordable and Williams is proudly taking the lead by finally halting (if only for one year) the pattern of skyrocketing fees. However, it is only a drop in the bucket. The missing link between truly accessible education and continued excellence in higher education is governmental support. National and state programs exist in large numbers to help defer part of the costs of college for some. However, these programs are just as ineffective at reaching the ultimate goal of universal higher education as tuition freezes or some extra scholarships are.

The US needs to take a portion of its supposed surplus and invest in “human capital.” We need a second GI Bill for all citizens in need of financial help with colleges. To make a classic and cliched liberal comparison, the US is one of the only countries left with an educational system that costs the consumer. Today’s economic prosperity and technological improvements beg for a larger commitment to education in general, and especially higher education. We need a political leader focused on improving access to education beyond a paltry 50 scholarships or tuition freeze.

Though noble in intent and substance, the tuition freeze is only a first step. Williams and its comparative institutions need to use such freezes to force college costs into the political spotlight so that the US can finally realize its commitment to higher education.