A look at Williams from outside

In a recent cost-value analysis of higher education, Business Week singled out Williams as the focus of scrutiny, by giving the College’s financial practices a moment in the spotlight. Williams was chosen for its reputation as a “medallion” school and its widely recognized Project on the Economics of Higher Education.

The article elicited mixed reviews within the administration, largely due to its somewhat ambiguous distinction between the terms “elite” and “elitist.” Headlined “Williams: Where the Elite Get Eliter,” the article reported, “[the] cost has never been an obstacle at Williams, which spends a stunning $80,000 a year educating each undergraduate.” To some readers, the article appeared to depict the College as a wealthy school of social elites. However, Business Week journalist Bill Symonds intended a different point entirely.

“People often say that schools like Williams are overcharging and the point we were trying to make [was that] they’re undercharging. Williams is not charging the cost of providing that education,” Symonds told the Record.

It seems counterintuitive to consider the expense of attending Williams as a bargain, but the reality remains that even those families paying full price – nearly 60 percent of the student body – contribute less than half of what the College spends on each student in a given year.

“It is really a good deal, but that’s not the way that people think about it. Every student is getting a subsidy. They don’t understand how much it actually costs to provide the education,” Symonds added.

Most of the debate concerning the article centered about the nuances of the title. Richard Nesbitt, director of Admissions, said “elite” can be an “uncomfortable word.” The phrasing of the title gave the impression that Williams not only draws its student body from society’s upper classes, but also perpetuates the preeminence of those classes by offering an education that cannot be replicated at schools with fewer resources and smaller endowments.

Gordon Winston, professor of economics, who provided Business Week with data on per student costs, said that whereas the information “appeared to be accurate…the ‘rear view mirror’ tone might rub some the wrong way.” While the article leaves room for this impression, the use of “elite” was primarily directed at the reputation of the College, not at the attitude of its student body.

In practice, elite is the name of the game in the realm of higher education; for better or for worse, a school’s reputation is the arbiter of its success. The true difficulty lies in pursuing excellence without unintentionally cultivating pretension. Has Williams fallen into that trap? For Symonds and the administration, the answer is a resounding “no.” Moreover, the College makes a noteworthy effort to emphasize need-blind admissions and financial aid. The image of Williams as a self-consciously prestigious east coast institution is strongly resisted. “Elite is fine – elitist is not,” President Schapiro said.

“We try as much as possible to get the message of affordability out,” Nesbitt said. He acknowledged, though, that the admissions process is more easily navigated by affluent applicants; the costs associated with college trips alone prevent some students from visiting campus. Thus, fostering socioeconomic diversity at Williams is not a matter of finding funds with which to subsidize tuition, but a matter of finding low-income students at all.

“I was a little disappointed with the Business Week article, in that we have been working very hard to get the word out that a Williams education is available to all qualified students, regardless of family income,” said Cappy Hill, provost of the College. “If a student can get in, our financial aid policies make it possible to attend. The article didn’t make that as clear as I would have liked.”

Every prospectus sent out by the Admissions Office this year included a newly revised guide to financial aid. In addition, the College recently stepped up its commitment to low-income applicants through the extension of financial aid to international students, a virtually unprecedented policy and the increase in financial aid package stipends for personal expenses. The article did not mention these initiatives.

Symonds focused on the educational luxuries made possible by the College’s endowment. Offerings such as the tutorial program distinguish Williams from state schools and allow the College to compete with the Ivy League. “While folks will interpret the Business Week piece in a variety of ways, such national recognition of our tutorial program along with other parts of our strategic plan bodes well for an institution that over the past year has already experienced impressive gains in both the number of students who apply, and the percentage of students who accept our offer of admission,” Schapiro said.

From this perspective, the article is good press, especially in light of Business Week’s audience. Symonds observed that “if you look at the demographics, a lot of [our readers] are really interested in medallion schools. Either they went to one of those schools, or they want their children to go to one of those schools.” Symonds himself is a Dartmouth graduate.

From a more critical perspective, the article promulgates the image of Williams as a school for the rich. Mark Rosenthal ’03, former CC co-president, expressed concern that assessments of the College are formed by perceptions of its wealth: “I think if you look at the impressions our peers in the surrounding communities have of our students and those of other schools like ours, you don’t see them saying that we’re all really smart but instead…that we’re all really rich.” Indeed, only five percent of the student body receives a full free ride.

However, this reality seems to have less to do with Williams specifically than with higher education as whole. A recent study conducted by the Educational Testing Service found that of first-year students at the 146 most selective colleges and universities, three percent were drawn from families in the bottom quarter of the income bracket. Even more startling, the lower half of the income bracket is represented by only 10 percent of the matriculating first-year classes at these institutions. The attention given to racial and ethnic diversity is currently higher than the attention given to socioeconomic diversity in college admissions.

While few would dispute the educational value of state-of-the-art facilities and one-on-one interaction with professors, there is controversy as to whether such offerings result in higher earnings following graduation. Until several years ago, it was widely accepted that attending an elite institution was the first step toward a life-long track of success. A study conducted in 1998 by Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor, and Stacy Dale, a researcher at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, tracked students who were accepted at elite colleges and universities but opted to attend state schools. Overall, they found that the students earned salaries on par with those of their elite counterparts. They concluded that future earnings are a function of a student’s natural intelligence, not the prestige of his or her alma mater.

Krueger and Dale’s findings have been vehemently criticized in some circles, which contend that the prestige of an elite college or university lends credibility to a student’s résumé. The debate is blurred by the role of financial aid at more expensive private institutions.