A Closer Look: The summer earnings requirement

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A recent op-ed by Konnor Herbst ’20 helped to amplify the conversation around the summer earnings requirement for students receiving financial aid (“On summer earnings: A case against an unequitable requirement,” Sept. 19, 2018). In this Closer Look, the Record examines the requirement in more detail.

Newly-appointed Director of Financial Aid Ashley Bianchi explained the requirement in its most basic form: “The summer earnings expectation is part of the student’s expected contribution,” she said. “The amount we assign to the summer requirement is based [on] what we know about student behavior over the summer and average earnings over the course of the 10 to 12 week summer break.”

Bianchi explained that the student contribution – their earnings, savings and borrowing – is considered first in terms of financial aid. Then their parents’ contribution is added as appropriate.

In his op-ed, Herbst explained the requirement. “The requirement is an extra $1950 added to their term bills that reduces to $1300 for those in extreme need, such as students on full financial aid,” he wrote. Bianchi explained that for incoming first-year students, who are considered to have less earning power, the requirement is reduced to $1500 and $1000 for those in extreme need. She added that these numbers place Williams “among the most generous schools in [the Consortium on Financing Higher
Education (COFHE)].” 

According to COFHE President Kristine E. Dillon, “[COFHE] is an unincorporated, voluntary, institutionally-supported organization of 35 highly selective, private liberal arts colleges and universities, all of which are committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students.” Other members of COFHE include fellow NESCAC institutions like Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury as well as schools like Yale, Harvard and Pomona. 

Herbst recognized the widespread nature of the requirement. “I understand that the summer earnings requirement is not unique to Williams, but that does not mean it is reasonable – especially in its current form,” he said.

Bianchi noted that the requirement is flexible. “Students may request that their summer contribution be waived during one of their four summers at Williams. Last year, we received about 90 waivers, and more than 90 percent were approved,” she said.

However, Herbst questioned the purpose of the requirement to begin with. “What’s ‘meaningful’ about forcing students to borrow money that they never thought they’d have to borrow or about taking most of a student’s summer earnings[?]” he asked.

Bianchi recognized the importance of students choosing what they do over the summer. “We believe that it is up to students to determine what type of job they pursue in the summer,” she said. “That can run the gamut from returning home and working locally, to staying on campus to work alongside faculty, to exploring a job or internship opportunity in a new region or field. While we do not dictate what students do during the summer to earn money, we hope that whatever they choose will enrich their learning experiences here.”

Herbst suggested, however, that the requirement also restricts these summer opportunities for students – limiting their options to jobs that will provide sufficient income to meet the requirement.

Bianchi recognized that the summer earnings requirement presents problems to students. “This is an important issue and one we’ll explore and analyze more fully in the months ahead,” she said. “Right now, students have the opportunity to request that their summer contribution be waived during one of their four summers at Williams. We also work with many students to figure out alternative options for financing their summer contributions, so I encourage anyone interested in learning more to reach out to your financial aid officer to navigate those choices.”  

Instead of offering these temporary solutions, Herbst advocated for larger changes. “[The College] should strive to make [the requirement] more equitable by considering scaling the summer requirement with a student’s financial aid or getting rid of the requirement entirely,” he said.

However, eliminating the summer earnings contribution would come at a great cost to the College. “[It] would cost nearly $2 million annually. While Williams is fortunate to have generous resources to support students in so many ways, this amount of money is non-trivial and requires us to examine our budget carefully and consider tradeoffs and alternate plans over the next several years,” Bianchi said.

Still, Bianchi agreed that this issue is one worth exploring. “This is a really important issue and one we’ll absolutely explore more fully in the months ahead. Students will, of course, have an important voice in that discussion,” she said.