“We wanted to get as much out of the students’ way as possible to help them decide what to do with their college experience,” said Ashley Bianchi, Williams’ director of student financial services. “And we see this funding initiative as a kind of opportunity to do that.”
The college expects its all-grant program will benefit about half of its students who receive financial aid, and the four-year grants by about $35,000 for middle-income families and about $35,000 for lower-income families Raise $16,000. The plan will cost Williams about $6.75 million a year from his endowment, alumni donations and tuition, the college said.
The momentum is building around efforts to convince the Biden administration to cancel federal student loan debt, which totals more than $1.6 trillion in the United States. On Tuesday, the Department of Education said it would give borrowers additional credit for loan forgiveness under so-called income-driven repayment plans.
The Biden administration is giving more borrowers a chance for debt relief
Williams’ new program eliminates college or federal government loans, which accounted for 3 percent of funds offered in school financial aid packages in 2019; it also ends part-time jobs, which were 4 percent. The annual price of an education there is more than $77,000, including tuition, room, board and other fees.
Kai Cash, who graduated from Williams in 2019, said he could afford that education through a financial aid package that passed solely from fellowships and internships in the college’s design and machine shops. Credit probably pushed him to choose the best-paying career, he said, rather than pursuing a postgraduate scholarship and trying different jobs.
Cash believes the new all-grant program will take the financial pressure off students and free up time they would have spent on side jobs. He said these students would be able to participate more fully in other aspects of their college experience, such as attending a professor’s office hours, volunteering in the community, or studying abroad.
“All the moments there are really important,” Cash said. “And that kind of liberates a large group of students who don’t typically take a lot of risks or explore as much as the student who doesn’t need financial support to explore a lot more in school.”
The all-grant initiative may not be replicable at other universities. Williams has a small student population of about 2,100 and a net worth of $4.2 billion, compared to a national average of $1.1 billion. It’s also very selective, with an acceptance rate of 9 percent.
The US could have given thousands of student loans but never told the borrowers about it
That admission rate is one reason the move to an all-grant financial aid model likely won’t make Williams more accessible to more students, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a professor of college administration at the University of Buffalo. Most students, he said, don’t get a quality K-12 education to get into a school like Williams.
“For those students who are resilient enough and find a way to do it, it’s an absolute game changer,” said Daun-Barnett. “It just doesn’t change the overall picture.”
Daun-Barnett said many other colleges and universities would struggle to implement an all-grant program like Williams’s, which has a large endowment and the expense of providing scholarships to its relatively small number of low-income students can carry. Public colleges tend to have greater income diversity and need to provide scholarships to many more students, he said.
Bianchi, Williams’ financial services director, acknowledged that implementing an all-grant model isn’t necessarily practical for all colleges and universities.
“It’s really hard to find almost $7 million in anyone’s budget no matter what school you look at,” she said. “However, we hope that other colleges will realize what’s happening here and think about how they’re spending their money and decide if this is right for them.”
Several colleges had already eliminated credit for some income brackets when Williams began considering the option in 2018, although none had also eliminated work-study requirements, Bianchi said. Williams had already eliminated loans for families with annual debt Earnings less than $75,000 and intends to slowly raise that threshold after improving other college expenses such as medical insurance and summer storage for lower-income students.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the college handed out what it was to describe as a one-time campus job replacement grant that gave funding directly to students rather than requiring them to work for it. In response, the students told Williams administrators that the change removed the burden of figuring out how to make the money needed and how much to keep or send to their families, Bianchi said. This feedback helped the college decide to eliminate work study in addition to loans.
A previous version of this article misrepresented the national average for college endowments. It’s $1.1 billion, not $1.1 million. The article has been corrected.