Giving back to the future

It’s that time of year again – the time when graduating seniors begin to receive requests for class gifts. In my estimation, many people will wonder why Williams College is already asking them for money. Didn’t they just spend the last four years paying a hefty chunk of money for their education? While there has already been plenty of discussion about the cost of a Williams education, the general consensus seems to be that it is worth it. But donations?  To some, that might seem to be pushing things a little too far.

Nonetheless, when thinking about this issue, it is important to know a little bit about the real cost of a student going to Williams. Even though students are asked to pay about $52,000 per year, the school still loses $30,000 to $40,000 per year on each student. There is obviously a serious problem that can only be solved in two ways if we don’t want to pay $90,000 per year to go here: reduce the cost of attendance for each student or find another source of money, such as donations. Since the College is currently using the latter option, many students, myself included, often wonder whether the first option should be given more consideration.

It does seem easy to point out many things that seem superfluous, things that we could just as easily live without. Why did we need to build a new student center when we already had one? Why are we planning to tear down a perfectly good, if perhaps architecturally outdated, library to build a new one? Why should we furnish commons rooms with nice televisions? If we didn’t do those things, perhaps we wouldn’t have to keep begging people for donations and maybe we could even lower the amount it costs the students to go here. But if we take a closer look at some of these issues, we begin to realize that they are not as superfluous as we thought.

In fact, we only need to look at other less fortunate institutions to see the consequences of ignoring these “luxuries.” There is a very real impact, both physically and mentally, on students when their educational institution cannot afford to renew buildings and provide them with the latest equipment. When a student walks into a classroom and wants to make a presentation but must spend 20 minutes trying to get the projector to display a picture because it is old and in need of repair, that student is no longer focusing on learning.  Instead, the student has to deal with a practical obstacle having nothing to do with education. Williams is not immune to that sort of problem, but is certainly able to reduce the impact it has on its students better than most other schools.
The psychological component is both stronger and more subtle. The sight of rundown buildings with peeling paint and cracks in the walls is depressing to anyone anywhere, and it is no different for students in college. There are already enough sources of stress and depression that college students have to deal with. At the very least, being able to look upon their dormitories and classrooms with a sense of pride can do something to alleviate that. Well-maintained buildings and nicely furnished common rooms can also do a lot to offset the homesickness that most college students experience at some point during their time away. Very few things would make one want to go home more than coming to a place that is rundown or filled with outdated, beat-up televisions and furniture. While Williams is not perfect in this respect, it certainly puts an emphasis on it that few other institutions can afford to.

There certainly are things that Williams can live without, as was evident in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. For example, the College canceled many Faculty Club events at the Faculty House. It was even willing to compromise on some of the very projects people claimed were wasteful, halting construction on the Stetson-Sawyer project and reducing funding for facilities renewal. However, the school remains committed to the importance of maintaining and renovating its buildings and furnishing dormitories, hopefully for some of the same reasons presented here.

If this school is to remain committed to these principles, it must seek out the funds to do so. What Williams students already pay is simply not enough to cover all of these costs. It is only fair that the school ask its students to help through donations. That doesn’t mean that it expects us to give money immediately, or that we should be able to contribute millions. Instead, donations should be regarded as a way of sustaining the school, so that it can continue to provide the same positive experience to future students.

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