As a graduate of The College of William and Mary (master’s of public policy, 2008), I was disappointed to read about the school’s adoption of the so-called “high-tuition, high-aid” financial model. Proponents claim that this model helps institutions target resources to low-income students, but that goal fails when low-income students are scared off by high sticker prices and when institutions re-direct the higher tuition revenue to purposes other than low-income students. William and Mary is likely to fail the first test and already has failed the second.
William and Mary is not the first institution to try this model. In 2004, Harvard announced a generous new financial aid policy which would allow low-income students from families earning less than $40,000 to attend the prestigious institution at no cost. (William and Mary is the second-oldest college in the United States, second only to Harvard, so it likes comparing itself to the school in Cambridge.) Harvard received a huge amount of attention from national newspapers and trade publications, but what about the low-income students it targeted? Well, a Harvard student did some clever research and found that it may have increased low-income enrollment at Harvard by 36 students in the first year.
Reflect on that number for a second. Harvard is the most famous higher education institution in the world. It has 10,000 undergraduates. It announced to the world that it would give a free ride to any poor student who got in, and it managed to attract only 36 more low-income students. (The same study found that low-income student enrollment at Harvard fell back in line with historical averages in subsequent years.)
Other institutions have tried this “high-tuition, high-aid” model as well, and it turns out that they’re not doing much better. Highly selective institutions with highly generous financial aid policies are all struggling to recruit and enroll talented low-income students. William and Mary needs to come up with a specific, compelling rationale for why its plan is different, because aid alone won’t change the situation.
The second part of this model relies on actually spending the increased tuition revenue on financial aid for low-income students. As Andrew Gillen has documented at the macro level, most institutions are using increased revenue for something other than aid to low-income students. William and Mary’s plan is all out in the open. The chart at the bottom of the Inside Higher Ed story shows pretty clearly that they plan to raise $6.2 million from tuition increases and spend $2.2 million, or 35 percent, of it on financial aid. The school doesn’t mention what percentage of that money would actually go to low-income students, but it’s clear that the majority of the increased revenue will not be going to increased financial aid.
The most disappointing thing is how William and Mary President Taylor Reveley sees his own institution. In making the announcement, Reveley decried the fact that the college is ranked 33rd in the U.S. News & World Report but comes in 112th in financial resources. Reveley sees this as a problem that needs to be fixed with higher salaries and more faculty and staff (indeed, they’re planning a nearly $7 million increase in faculty and staff salaries and benefits). But another way to look at this is that William and Mary appears to be thriving as it spends fewer resources than its competitors. It should be touting this as a success in efficiency, not trying to outspend its competitors.
Photo Credit: William and Mary Society of the Alumni