College raises tuition 3.9 percent; fee remains below average of peer institutions

Williams tuition is back on the rise after two years of decline relative to inflation. Next year’s tuition will be $33,750 – a 3.9 percent increase over this year’s. Though this is the first time in the last three years that Williams has raised tuition more than the rate of inflation (tuition was not increased at all in 2000-01), Williams remains well below the average sticker price for most colleges of its caliber.

Williams’ tuition will be the second lowest among the 31 schools that make up the prestigious Consortium on Financing Higher Education. Only Rice University is lower. Williams’ tuition growth is also lower than most of its peer schools, which raised their tuition an average of 4.6 percent to $35, 915.

Brown University is currently the most expensive of Williams’ peer schools at $36,356, followed by Swarthmore at $36,092 and Bowdoin at $35,990.

“I like to say to people that we are better than [schools like Harvard and Amherst] and we’re less expensive,” said Morton Schapiro, president of the College. “I never say cheaper; you cannot talk about cheapness when you’re talking about $33,000 a year. That’s not cheap by any means, even if you’re rich.”

The College sets tuition by looking at tuition and financial aid as complementary parts of a unified strategy. It sets tuition at a rate that is affordable for families that will not qualify for financial aid and then sets its financial aid policy so that a Williams degree is available to students who demonstrate financial need.

The College currently offers financial aid to families up to approximately the 95th percentile of family incomes. A family at the 95th percentile makes an average of $146,672 a year, and the sticker price of a Williams education is roughly 22 percent of its household income.

The financial aid policy makes it so that a family in the top quintile of family incomes will pay an average net price of $22,013 in 2001-02, or roughly 20 percent of its family income. A family in the bottom quintile, however, paid only an average of $1,683, or 11 percent of its family income. The difference between the net price and sticker price is made up for by grants from the College.

“We now have a structure that we think looks right,” said Cappy Hill, provost. “It may be that the shares for middle income families are still daunting and we may need to do more there. I’m pretty confident at the low end. We’re now asking a low-income family to pay less than $2,000 for a year at Williams and we think that is something that they can hopefully pull together.”

As long as the incomes at the high end continue to grow and financial aid can continue to make tuition a degree more affordable for families across the rest of the income distribution, neither Schapiro nor Hill have any problem seeing tuition continue to grow.

“You’re leaving money on the table,” said Schapiro. “If the people who are in the top 5 percent are having their disposable income increasing at a hefty rate – which they are – and you go up less than that, then you are asking for a smaller percentage of their income to support Williams. Maybe you should take that money and sweeten the pot on financial aid. May be you should take the money and build a student center of your dreams.”

Building a student center of its dreams is definitely in the College’s immediate plans, as well as building an expensive new theater and dance complex and renovating Stetson Hall and Sawyer Library. With these ambitious capital expenditures, as well as an anticipated negative return on the endowment for the second straight year, the College is counting on the success of an ambitious capital campaign. If the endowment continues to sag and the capital campaign misses its goals, a tuition increase is where the College will likely make up the difference.

“If we were to get into a position where we had a couple of years of poor returns on our endowment, we see [tuition] as a sort of insurance,” said Hill. “If we needed to either significantly degrade our program or increase our sticker price, we’d increase our sticker price. If we were to raise the sticker price, we would also keep an eye on our financial aid policies to make sure we protected families who need aid.”

Schapiro hopes that the College’s new, more generous financial aid policies will help attract more students from lower-income families. “Our percent on need-based aid is relatively low, though not as low as Middlebury’s,” said Schapiro. “It’s easy to rationalize that because of our rural location, but the truth is that this has always been a school with certain feeder schools where you’re not going to find a lot of low-income kids.”

The key to the financial aid policy will be vigilance from the College. “We’re in a position right now where it looks like a reasonable structure,” said Hill, “but we’ll keep monitoring it to make sure we’re not discouraging anybody from applying to Williams who we’d like to have in our pool.”

So what does the future hold for the cost of a Williams education? Schapiro acknowledges that as long as family incomes keep growing there is no end in sight for how high tuition could rise. Which means that when this year’s graduating seniors look to put their first born through college in 25 years, the cost of a year at Williams could be conservatively estimated at $70,655.

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