Access index compares College’s financial aid policies to peers

The New York Times’s College Access Index, a measure of colleges’ efforts to improve economic diversity, recently ranked Williams 15th out of 100 top colleges, in a tie with three other schools.

The index examined the net price for students who come from households earning between $30,000 and $48,000 a year and qualify for federal aid, as well as the percentage of first-years who received Pell grants between 2012 and 2014 on average, a measure of what portion of students come from low-income families. The New York Times’s Upshot Blog calculated the z-scores of these data for colleges with four-year graduation rates of 75 percent or higher in 2011-12. A z-score of zero represents a college with an average net price and an average percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. The methodology is imperfect and does not measure the portion of students that come from middle class families, the author noted.

“The biggest downside of using the Pell Grant as a measure is that it treats students just above the threshold as no different from affluent students,” David Leonhardt of the Upshot Blog wrote. “A college that enrolls many students from families making $75,000 a year may be somewhat more economically diverse than a college with an identical share of Pell recipients but fewer middle-income students.”

The College received a score of 1.4, indicating an above-average commitment to economic diversity. Vassar, which performed the best of all colleges included in the index, received a 3.1. Among peer colleges, Grinnell, Smith, Amherst and Wesleyan also received higher scores.

The College ranked 24th, tied with five other schools, in its proportion of first-years receiving Pell grants, with 18 percent. Among peer colleges, only Amherst performed better, with 20 percent of first-years receiving Pell grants.

“Much more goes into that than the number of Pell Grant recipients you have on your campus. For example, the expansion of the Pell Grant eligibility tables under the Obama administration could be the largest contributing factor for Pell growth since 2008, regardless of an institution making changes in the number of low and middle income students it admits,” Director of Financial Aid Paul Boyer said.

The College had the 29th lowest net price, tied with two other schools, at $9,300. Among peer colleges, Pomona had the lowest net price at $5,200. Vassar, Haverford, Bates, Claremont McKenna, Trinity (Conn.), Amherst, Wesleyan, Hamilton, Bowdoin and Colby also had lower net prices than Williams.

“While we may appear to have a slightly higher net price than our closest competition, that difference is mostly due to them having maintained a no-loan policy,” Boyer said.

The College had the tenth highest endowment per student, according to the Upshot Blog, at $840,000 per student. Peer colleges Wesleyan ($200,000 per student), Smith ($440,000 per student) and Vassar ($340,000 per student) ranked higher on the Access Index than Williams despite their smaller endowments.

“The biggest theme to emerge from our analysis is that otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity. In this area, endowment is not destiny, and prestige is not destiny,” Leonhardt wrote.