Now that yield data for the Class of 2015 is in the books, the College has turned to its next task: allocating financial aid for those who qualify among the class’s 541 matriculants. Of those individuals, 52 percent of the incoming class – out of the 63 percent who applied – will receive some sort of aid. This marks a one percent decrease from last year, when 53 percent of the Class of 2014 was awarded financial aid.
For the upcoming fiscal year, the total allocation for financial aid is just under $48 million, or 22 percent, of the College’s operating budget. This marks an approximately $1.8 million increase from this year’s $46.2 million financial aid allocation.
For students on financial aid this year, the average aid package totals $40,363, which includes all federal, state and private outside grants, a grant from the College called the Williams Scholarship and campus employment, according to Paul Boyer, director of financial aid. Boyer said that on average, $35,481 of that figure is comprised of the Williams Scholarship and 92 percent of the Williams Scholarship comes from the College’s own funds.
“The message here is that the Williams Scholarship contributes to an incredibly high percentage of the financial aid package,” said Boyer, who has worked in the Office of Financial Aid since 1982 and has witnessed firsthand the development of the College’s financial aid program over the past 30 years.
Evolution of financial aid
While 53 percent of the student body currently receives financial aid, roughly one third received aid several decades ago, Boyer said. Ten years ago, in the 2000-01 academic year, 40 percent of students were receiving aid, compared with 37 percent in 1990-91 and 34 percent in 1980-81.
“The College really made a conscious effort to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the student body … in the last 10 to 15 years,” Boyer said, citing only a six percent increase from 1980 to 2000 in students who received aid compared to a 13 percent increase over the last decade. “It’s very telling of how the student body changed,” he said.
According to Boyer, not only the number of students on financial aid but also the amount of aid given to each student has increased in recent decades: In 2000-01, the average aid package was $22,550, in 1990-91 it was $13,826 and in 1980-81 it was $4454. In each case, these figures included aid given via the Williams Scholarship, work-study funds and loans. “Over that 30-year period, there’s been a ninefold increase in that figure,” Boyer said.
Additionally, the percentage of the Williams Scholarship covered by the College’s own funds has increasedrom 71 percent in 1980-81 to 92 percent currently. “Some of that change is related to the College reducing student loan debt, particularly in the last decade,” Boyer said, citing the period from the 2008-09 academic year to the 2010-11 academic year in which loans were not included in financial aid packages. “Even though we’ve re-instituted loans, they are still not at the federal maximum and we do not double-loan students,” by giving them two loans in their packages, which is something other institutions often do, Boyer said. Loans will be reinstated starting with the Class of 2015.
Financial aid over
The College’s budget for financial aid has expanded over recent decades: The Class of 1986 was the first incoming class that cost over $1 million in financial aid, whereas the Class of 2015 will total just over $12 million, according to Boyer.
While the number of students receiving financial aid has remained fairly constant over the last several years, there was a slight increase in the percentage of students in the Class of 2013 awarded aid. Of the matriculants to the Class of 2012, 50 percent were awarded aid, whereas this figure for the Class of 2013 was 53 percent.
“In these last two to three years, more people were applying for financial aid because incomes were dropping, so more people were qualifying,” Boyer said.
According to Provost Bill Lenhart, the past two years have seen an increase in the number of requests by families for mid-term reviews of financial aid and eligibility, although this increase was not dramatic. “Of greater financial impact to the College were the short-lived elimination of the loan component of our financial aid packages and the lowering of the cap on home equity, which protected more of the value of a family’s home when determining parental contribution to the payment of student charges,” Lenhart said.
Speaking to the increase in financial aid awarded over time, “I think we sort of have to evaluate on a year-to-year basis,” Boyer said. “If that percentage needs to grow, then what do we need to do to make sure we have enough money to provide for all the students who qualify for financial aid?”
He explained that while some schools practice “gapping,” or promising to meet student financial need up to the last $3000, for example, “I don’t think we’ll ever have a policy like that at Williams,” Boyer said, noting the College’s long-held policy of meeting 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need.
“Managing student debt is certainly a trend that we’ve been conscious of,” Boyer continued. He said that before loans were repealed in 2008, the College tried to keep them “competitively low,” and now that loans have been reinstated, the College is “still striving to keep them competitively low and manageable for students to repay.”
In budgeting for financial aid each year, “there’s not really an allotment,” but instead a projection model based on how things change over time. This model is what factors in to building financial aid into the budget, Boyer said. He stressed that the office doesn’t have a “cutoff point” in that once a certain cost is reached, no more students are given aid. “It just keeps going back to the commitment to need-based aid,” he said.
“While an expenditure level of 22 percent of the College’s operating budget may be sustainable,” Lenhart said, “the kind of growth in financial aid as a percentage of overall spending that we’ve experienced over the past decade certainly is not.
“However, this is a consequence not only of increasing the level of support that each aided student receives but also of our success in identifying and attracting an increasingly socio-economically diverse pool of highly talented applicants each year,” Lenhart continued. “As a consequence of efforts nationwide to increase educational opportunities for such students, these individuals now have many options available when selecting a college, which in turn limits the extent to which this population is likely to grow as a proportion of our or our peer institutions’ applicant pool.”
Lenhart added that it is hard to imagine the College being unable to meet the demonstrated need of each student that matriculates, and he said he doesn’t see that happening is in the future. “Certainly, though, as an institution, we are going to have to grapple with the question of how much further financial aid can grow as a proportion of our overall spending as well as how we can manage that growth in line with our principles and aspirations,” he said.
How aid is awarded
Need analysis for financial aid packages is determined largely by family income and assets as well as other financial factors, such as how many siblings are in college.
“We call it a snapshot approach,” Boyer said. “It’s always at a point in time, and we’re usually focusing on the income earned in the prior year.”
Students must reapply for financial aid each year, and their aid packages are subject to change in parallel to family financial situations. Boyer explained that while aid packages generally do not change between the fall and spring semesters, the College does conduct a mid-year review process in some cases.
“If we have made a determination in the spring based on prior income, for example an older sibling decided not to go back to college in September, those things can be reevaluated and re-calibrated,” Boyer said. “But when a family’s income changes in the current calendar year, we often put them off to a mid-year review, which is in January of the current academic year. Usually we’re looking at families who’ve seen a decrease in income. If need increases as a result of the mid-year review, then we’re able to offer more scholarship to meet that increase in need.”
Boyer noted that the College does not give out full aid to any students, nor has it ever. “Everybody who is on financial aid, even if their parent contribution is zero, still has summer and term-time earnings to contribute,” Boyer said, adding that about 17 percent of students who receive financial aid fit this description.
Boyer noted that despite the College’s reinstating loans into the financial aid package, “we have lower loan expectations than many in our peer group,” as well as one of the lowest summer and term-time earnings requirements among peer institutions.
“Williams has also made up any difference in state and federal financial aid shortfalls,” Boyer said. Despite economic and budgetary pressures, “Williams has always filled the gap with its own scholarship money.”
The College is a member of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), which is comprised of 31 schools, including Ivy League institutions and small, elite liberal arts colleges.
Within this group, the College ranks 12th for the percentage of students on financial aid. Mount Holyoke ranks first with 64 percent. At Amherst, 59 percent of students receive financial aid and 60 percent do at Harvard.
The College is fourth behind Amherst, Harvard and Yale, respectively, in percentage of cost to attend covered by institutional grant aid, which is determined individually by each institution. The College differs by $350 from first-ranked Amherst. “It really relates to how you put together your cost of attendance budget,” Boyer explained. “These kinds of colleges, Williams included, are using a lot of their institutional funds to meet the needs of students.”