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Williams College president explains move to end student summer earnings requirement

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Williams College
Williams College
Williams College President Maud Mandel.

Starting this summer, undergraduates who attend Williams College through the help of financial aid packages will no longer have to contribute their summer earnings toward tuition. President Maud Mandel says the move is an effort to provide an equitable college experience to students regardless of their financial means. It’s part of a larger pursuit of what the private college calls “True Affordability.”

According to Williams, it costs more than $72,000 a year to attend the school, but the college says the average cost for families receiving financial aid is closer to $16,000.

Around 2,000 undergraduates attend the liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Mandel spoke with WAMC Berkshire Bureau Chief Josh Landes about the policy change, and how it reflects larger trends in higher education to minimize the financial burden on students and their families.

MANDEL: We are removing the summer earnings requirement from all Williams student financial aid packages. So traditionally, students who study on financial aid have an amount of money they make over the summer which they then pay back to the school to cover various costs, and Williams is now doing away with that requirement for all four years of a student's time at Williams.

WAMC: At this point, do you have a sense of what exactly this impact is going to look like on an average student basis? How much money are we talking about here as far as alleviating costs and such?

Yeah, we do expect that it will have significant, several thousand dollar reduction and it will vary by case in terms of the level of financial aid, but it could be up to about $6,000 per student and we'll help both our highest need students and our middle income students in, we hope, in significant ways.

Walk me through the conversation that led to this move. There was news just last month about Smith College making a considerable alteration to their own financial setup for students- Eliminating loans from undergraduate financial aid packages, replacing them with grants. Is this part and parcel with an industry-wide conversation or just something happening internally at Williams?

I would say both/and. I would say in our sector of higher ed, there has been a lot of consideration in many institutions about how we can better support students on financial aid at all of our schools. But our conversation has predated that. And in fact, we removed one summer of earnings requirements a few years ago, and did have the hope that we would move to the steps that we've taken today as soon as we could. We really do seek to ensure that our doors are open to all talented students, regardless of financial circumstances, and so Williams has long prioritized investments to make a Williams education accessible to everyone we admit. But in recent years, it's really become clear that the way we've historically calculated financial need is often missing the mark for middle income families. And students often tell us of the hidden costs that are buried in the whole package that aren't fully captured in aid awards, and working families explained that the share of earnings and savings we asked them to contribute sometimes leaves them worried that Williams is beyond their means. And so we're seeking to make changes that help those families where they are and particularly ones that allow students to take full advantage of the educational opportunities at the school, and we've been, we're referring to this as True Affordability. And this really means taking a fresh look at what areas of our aid is not fully covering the student experience. And summer is one of those key times where students are exploring internships, doing research, sometimes doing educational travel, and the need to work for their Williams education in that time was interfering with their ability to take advantage of those summer opportunities. So this initiative really grew out of several years of our thinking about where we could have the highest impact in allowing students to take full advantage of all Williams has to offer.

As the college continues to work towards that concept of true affordability, at this time, are there other concepts or other ideas that you're thinking about implementing to get closer to that goal?

Well, we are continuing to look carefully and study the data of where the pain points are for our students. And we have done this, of course, by covering book grants for all aided students, offering study away opportunities for aided students. This summer exploration initiative comes out of the same evaluation of the data and the, I guess you could call it, ethnographic research of talking to our students and learning, and their families, and learning where those pain points are. So I think we'll continue to do that and continuing to investigate where we can make initiatives and changes that have the most impact.

Looking over that research, what stood out to you? What was the narrative there about Williams students and their backgrounds and how they're impacted by the financial burden of college?

Well, I think, you know, it's I think it's fair to say- So, Williams has long sought to support the full demonstrated need of all members of our community who are joining the campus. And that is, has been a commitment. That doesn't mean that over time, we haven't learned things about where there are sticking points for families. And I think one of the things most notable is our highest need students are often fully supported in ways that one might call the low middle and middle middle income students are not- And the summer earnings requirement is a really good example. Everybody had a summer earnings requirement, but how much you're assessed, how much you can afford to pay as a family, was linked to the financial aid modeling and determination. And so it affected different members of the community differently. And that's one of the things we're trying to do with all our financial aid now as we think about True Affordability, is to think about how different parts of the program and the ways that we support students do a better job of covering these kinds of access to learning programs. The book grant really came out of that, too. You can see our financial aid is really trying to target where the experience, the learning experience, might somehow be impeded because of financial cost.

Going back for a moment to that Smith College decision to move from loans to a grant program, what were your thoughts on that as a leader of another Northeastern liberal arts institution? What were your thoughts on that decision?

Sure. Well, first of all, I applaud all of my peer institutions thinking carefully about financial aid and moving the needle, and you're seeing this happen in many institutions. As I mentioned at the beginning, I think that's terrific for all the talented students that are dispersed across the sector of higher education. And so my first thought was, it was real pleasure to read their and in other schools, what they're doing. I think, what you will see if you look across comparatively across institutions is some, students at some institutions have concerns financial concerns that are different than at others. And Williams has been a fairly generous financial aid provider for a long time now. And so in studying our own data, and what our students were telling us, we found that this initiative was really the place where we could have the greatest impact. But I'm sure other schools are figuring that out. They're looking at their own data and figuring out and listening to their families and figuring out where they can have the most significant impact, and they're making moves in those directions. They're all for the good.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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