Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, interviewed President Falk for the segment, “Why the best low-income students often don’t apply to the most competitive colleges,” which is an issue relevant to the College, especially with the comprehensive fee climbing to $61,070 next year.
One in every seven students at the College is the first in his or her family to attend college, but Falk still believes that the College needs to improve in this regard.
“We’ve been working extraordinarily hard to attract low-income students for the last decade.” Falk said. “It’s a continuing effort. Socio-economic diversity is fundamental to the relevance of Williams. Every student should have the opportunity to interact with students from different backgrounds. Talent is found in every corner of the United States and it’s our goal at Williams to educate the most talented students we can find.”
Falk notes that, when financial aid is taken into consideration, Williams and other selective institutions are often more affordable for low-income families than local state or community colleges. Because the College and other selective institutions do not ask families to contribute more than their assessed abilities to pay, low-income families end up paying much less than the $61,000 sticker price, and potentially less than it would cost to attend a less selective institution with a lower sticker price. Falk says that although the comprehensive fee is high, the most important thing is to make sure that low-income students understand that they will not be expected to pay all of it or to incur large debt. Relatively small differences in tuition are not nearly as important as the fact that for many families $60,000 is already an impossibly large sum to pay.
According to the Class of 2017 Profile, 54 percent of students receive financial aid from the College, which Falk says is the highest percentage ever. Though the College treats this as a positive statistic, the fact that approximately 95 percent of families across the country would qualify for financial aid from the College reveals that a discrepancy still exists.
“Our financial aid is need-blind, and we would never turn down a student because of his family’s inability to pay. At the same time, net tuition revenue accounts for over a third of our operating budget. If 95 percent of students needed financial aid we would never be able to afford that,” Falk said, “I think it is important to note that we spend roughly $90,000 per student each year and fees are only roughly $60,000 right now. So in a very important sense, every single student is on financial aid. It’s just a question of how much.”
While all selective colleges face similar difficulties attracting low-income students, the College faces some unique challenges. Half of the student body comes from families capable of paying a tuition bill higher than the median household income in the United States.
“A large part of our campus comes from affluent families. To create an environment where everyone can thrive, you have to be sensitive to that fact. It is important that our students not feel divided or alienated,” Falk said. “That’s why we have programs during orientation for first generation students, among other things. We’re proud of our diverse culture here, but we also understand that encountering that diversity for the first time can cause some to be uncomfortable… It isn’t just about getting a diverse group of people here, it’s about making sure they’re comfortable and that everyone can succeed.”
In addition to the affluent student body that influences the College’s image, students from low-income families may not be aware of the College due to its small size and remote location. The admissions office is trying to revise its materials after a focus group of low-income students from Los Angeles showed to be less informed about the College than preferable.
“Access to opportunity in secondary education in this country is correlated strongly
to socioeconomic background. Poorer communities have fewer resources, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that they produce fewer students qualified to attend Williams. That’s why it’s important that we find those students and convince them to consider Williams,” Falk said.
The College hopes to attract more applicants from low-income students through programs like Windows on Williams and QuestBridge. Admissions officers visit high schools, but given the small size of the staff and large number of underfunded high schools, the Admissions Office cannot reach out to every school. Alumni living in more distant communities supplement the Admissions Office’s efforts, according to Falk, but he hopes that guidance counselors can do more to encourage low-income students to consider colleges like Williams.