Williams College, a small private liberal arts school in northwestern Massachusetts, plans to eliminate loans and work-study employment from its financial aid packages and replace those funds with grants — an example of a college responding to increasing public pressure to make higher education more affordable.
“We really wanted to get out of the way as much as we could for students to decide what they want to do with their college experience,” said Ashley Bianchi, Williams’s director of student financial services. “And we see this grant initiative as kind of an opportunity to do that.”
The college expects its all-grant program to benefit the roughly half of its undergraduates who receive financial aid, increasing grant aid to middle-income families by about $35,000 over four years, and to lower-income families by about $16,000. The plan will cost Williams about $6.75 million per year from its endowment, alumni donations and tuition revenue, the college said.
Momentum is building around efforts to persuade the Biden administration to cancel federal student loan debt, which totals more than $1.6 trillion in the United States. On Tuesday, the Education Department said it would give borrowers additional credit toward loan forgiveness under what is known as income-driven repayment plans.
Williams’s new program eliminates loans from the college or the federal government that in 2019 constituted 3 percent of the funding offered in the school’s financial aid packages; it also ends work-study 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 was able to afford that education through a financial aid package that consisted entirely of grants and work-study jobs in the college’s design and machine shops. Having loans probably would have pushed him to choose the highest-paying career possible, he said, rather than pursuing a postgrad fellowship and trying out different jobs.
In Cash’s view, the new all-grant program will remove financial pressure from students and make available time that they would have spent in work-study jobs. He said those students would be able to participate more fully in other aspects of their college experience, such as going to a professor’s office hours, volunteering in the community or studying abroad.
“All the moments there are really important,” Cash said. “And this kind of frees up a large population of students who might normally not take a lot of risks or explore as much as the student who doesn’t need financial aid to explore a lot more at school.”
The all-grant initiative may not be replicable at other colleges. Williams has a small undergraduate population of roughly 2,100 and a $4.2 billion endowment, compared with a national average of $1.1 billion. It is also highly selective, with an acceptance rate of 9 percent.
That admittance rate is part of why switching to an all-grant financial aid model probably will not make Williams accessible to more students, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a professor of higher education administration at the University at Buffalo. Most students, he said, do not receive a K-12 education of high enough quality to get into a school like Williams.
“For the students who are resilient enough and can find a way to do that, it’s an absolute game changer,” Daun-Barnett said. “It just doesn’t change the big picture.”
Daun-Barnett said many other colleges and universities would struggle to implement an all-grant program like that of Williams, which has a large endowment and can absorb the cost of awarding grants to its relatively small number of low-income students. Public colleges tend to have greater income diversity and would have to provide grants to many more students, he said.
Bianchi, the Williams financial services director, acknowledged that implementing an all-grant model is not necessarily viable for all colleges and universities.
“Finding nearly $7 million in anyone’s budget is really difficult, no matter what school you’re looking at,” she said. “But what we hope will happen is that other colleges recognize what’s happening here and think about the ways that they spend their money and decide if this is the right fit for them.”
Several colleges had already eliminated loans for some income brackets when Williams started considering that option in 2018, though none had also eliminated work-study requirements, Bianchi said. Williams already had gotten rid of loans for families with annual incomes of less than $75,000 and intended to slowly raise that threshold after ameliorating other college costs, such as health insurance and summer storage, for lower-income students.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the college distributed what it intended to be a one-time campus-job replacement grant that gave students funding outright instead of requiring them to work for it. In response, students told Williams administrators that the change removed the burden of figuring out how they would earn the required money and how much they could keep or send to their families, Bianchi said. That feedback helped the college decide to eliminate work-study in addition to loans.
A previous version of this article misstated the national average for college endowments. It is $1.1 billion, not $1.1 million. The article has been corrected.