A demonstrated need

After taking a closer look at the College’s financial aid policies, we at the Record acknowledge that there is much to celebrate. The College is in a unique position among American institutions of higher education; there are a select few that have sufficient financial resources to award full tuition aid to the neediest American students, as well as “100 percent of every student’s demonstrated need” which, in the College’s case, annually totals more than $50 million per year. However, we believe there are certain ways that the College calculates “demonstrated need” that must be reformed.

Questions regarding how to determine financial aid awards should not just be seen as mere calculations – financial aid (or the lack thereof) has a real impact on students and their families’ lives. Financial aid is not just a question of money but is also a question of livelihood, particularly for middle class families that might not qualify for full tuition assistance. Families should not have to worry about there being a gap between their actual need and their demonstrated need.

This is why we believe that there should be a change to the College’s assessment of non-liquid assets in determining how much money a family can pay for a Williams education. While we commend the College for its efforts in modifying the non-liquid asset calculations in the College Scholarship Service, or CSS Profile, we believe that the College should shift to policies similar to those of Harvard, Princeton and Bard, schools that discount home equity and small businesses completely. We do not think it is right to expect a family to sell or borrow against a primary residence or small business in order to afford tuition.

Similarly, retirement accounts through government programs should be treated separately from independent accounts. The College counts contributions to government programs like 401(k) as assets, so many families have to cease contributing to their retirement funds when they also have to pay tuition. This practice should be reconsidered, as it can have consequences for families’ financial futures.

In addition, the College should consider returning to the no-loan policy it flirted with for three years. (In 2011 the College earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first college to renege on a pledge to eliminate loans from students’ financial aid equation.) The decision to bring back loans for some students on financial aid came after the endowment plunged by $500 million during the financial crisis. As of last year, however, the College’s endowment is up to nearly $2 billion, slightly higher than pre-crisis levels and the highest it has ever been. Especially since our peer institutions – most with lower net and per-student endowments – kept their commitments to no-loans, we believe the College should reevaluate this policy. It would certainly help the College attract more students who would otherwise go to Amherst or Ivy League schools if they knew they would graduate without loans. And while the endowment is not an endless pool of money to be siphoned from, this goal could be achieved if financial aid is prioritized over other spending areas in annual budgetary plans.

At the very least, in the short term, the College should commit to getting financial aid packages to sophomores, juniors and seniors with alacrity. This will help Williams families better explore their financial options each year, whether or not they must take out loans.

  • Laylah Ali

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. I was a financial aid student who graduated from Williams (in 1991) who experienced a great deal of frustration with the way that financial aid was dealt with at the time. I was proud of Williams when it changed to the no-loan policy in 2007 (though we weren’t exactly a leader of institutions on this issue) and very concerned when we so quickly changed direction when other institutions did not. I have not heard a clear answer on why this policy could not be reinstated. Are we taking on too many debts elsewhere?

    Laylah Ali, Professor of Art