Last Monday, President Falk sent out an email outlining comprehensive costs for 2011-12. Tuition and fees will increase from $52,340 to $54,560. This 4.2 percent price hike may seem problematic at first, but after taking the state of the economy and financial aid packages into consideration, the size of the increase makes more sense. This is not to say that there will not be consequences that go along with raising the cost of a Williams education; Middle class families (like mine) will be especially burdened by the tuition increase. But by in large the generosity of our financial aid system and the need for recovery from the financial crisis of the late 2000s outweigh the consequences of the increase.
The strongest justification of the annual tuition increases is the robust financial aid system we have. Last year, 100 percent of demonstrated need was met through scholarship, grants or loans. This is especially impressive considering that Williams practices need-blind admissions domestically, which means that more aid-requiring students enroll. The average financial aid package was $41,672, so the average family contribution was around $11,000. The average student’s indebtedness at graduation was slightly over $8000 (although this may be skewed by the large number of students that graduate with no debt).
These facts and figures are nice, but what do they mean? They mean that a Williams College education is a great deal. The cost of educating a Williams student tops $100,000 – the average student pays $11,000. That is a good deal. Think of it this way: If you were purchasing your first car and someone suggested that you buy a BMW 5 series at $55,000, you may be hesitant and reply that it is too expensive. You would not doubt the quality, as Beemers are known to be great cars, but the price just wouldn’t make sense for you. Now imagine that you found a dealership where the average price paid for this luxury ride was only $11,000. That would change the whole situation. A Williams education is similar to this deal, except that it is much better. Its full sticker price is only half of what its production cost is, and students’ families actually pay a 10th of that production cost on average. On top of that, it enables the customer to increase his future earnings significantly. Suddenly that Beemer is looking like a good deal.
However, the value of a Williams education does not mean that tuition increases should be met without skepticism. To judge this 4.2 percent increase, it must be compared to other schools’ and Williams’ increases of the past. In 2000-01, Williams enacted a tuition freeze but had to go back on that policy. In 2004, tuition ballooned by 6.6 percent. In 2006, it spiked 5.8 percent. According to finaid.org, the average college tuition increase is eight percent per year. We are well below that, thanks to our exceptional (but still recovering) endowment. For rivalry’s sake, I scoured the internet to find Amherst’s tuition increase for next year. Unfortunately I could not find the information, but I did find that our endowment is recovering quicker. Williams has been able to slowly recover from the economic crisis and has kept tuition increases below national averages and in the middle of highly selective colleges and universities.
The tuition increase for this year is reasonable, but it will have negative effects. These are most easily seen after examining whom it will affect most. To people on either end of the socioeconomic spectrum, it will make little difference. The lowest income students will receive larger financial aid packages and the wealthiest families will not be burdened by a $2000 dollar increase. About 10 percent of Williams students come from the lowest income quintile. Fifty percent of Williams students come from the top five percent of American wealth. That leaves a significant portion of students who would be considered middle class. The middle class will bear the brunt of this increase, because they get packages that cover only a portion of tuition while having salaries that make covering this increased cost a sacrifice. This may sound like a Lou Dobbs “War on the Middle Class” segment, but it unfortunately is the case.
So while this tuition increase is reasonable when compared to increases in the past, national average tuition increases and peer institution tuition increases, it still will make a significant difference in the lives of many students. Williams should continue to give generously and increase price conscientiously. The College needs to keep the sacrifices of its whole community in mind. Students and their families, faculty and staff all need to make concessions to keep Williams vibrant and strong. I worry that too much is heaped upon students and their families, regardless of their tax bracket. Everyone at Williams benefits from being part of the community. The fact remains that we are the only ones in the Williams community who pay to be here, and it seems like we (and our loved ones) sacrifice the most. Even so, this year’s tuition increase was reasonable and will hopefully lead to a strengthened College (and smaller tuition increases in the near future).