Williams: Where the Elite Get Eliter

On a recent wintry afternoon in his spacious office, Williams College environmental studies professor Kai N. Lee jots notes as Mark Orlowski, a junior, reads a paper entitled Boundaries and Agendas: Framing Environmental Policies and Politics. As snow falls outside, junior Shawn Powers -- the only other student in the class -- listens intently. When Orlowski finishes, Lee offers a detailed critique, gently chiding his brilliant student for jumping ahead of the issues raised in the assigned reading. Then Powers, an economics major, offers an equally detailed response. Next week, it will be Powers' turn to write a paper for the other two and get their feedback.

This tutorial, with just two students and a professor, is modeled on the legendary Oxford University format. The intensive instruction is one of the offerings that gives Williams, one of America's most elite colleges, its top-notch reputation. Even as other universities are slashing costs, 2,000-student Williams hopes to lift the number of students taking tutorials to 650, from 250 two years ago. "Such intimate teaching is enormously expensive," concedes President Morton O. Schapiro. For one thing, it requires 15% more faculty.

But cost has never been an obstacle at Williams, which spends a stunning $80,000 a year educating each undergraduate on its bucolic campus in northwestern Massachusetts (table). Of the 4,000-plus colleges in the U.S., only some three dozen "medallion" schools -- including the Ivy League -- spend anywhere near as much. Even subtracting room and board, Williams spends more than four times as much as many public universities and 10 times as much as many community colleges.

Williams' $1.1 billion endowment makes that possible, since it effectively subsidizes even its wealthiest students to the tune of nearly $40,000 a year. In 1995, students attending the wealthiest 10% of colleges got subsidies averaging $22,800 apiece, says Williams economics professor Gordon Winston, while those in the bottom 10% got a break of just $1,800. Endowments and gifts provide most of the subsidies in private colleges, while taxpayer funds do so in public ones.

Williams isn't entirely insulated from the economy's pain, though. Its endowment is down 25% from 2000. Still, it has $400 million more than in '97 and 90 times the $12 million average at private colleges.

So Schapiro can keep spending. In addition to more tutorials, he's adding interdisciplinary seminars, which use more teachers, and plans some $190 million in new buildings, including a student center and a theater-and-dance building. One aim is to make Williams even more appealing. "There are only four schools that beat us in head-to-head competition" for students with stellar test scores and grades, says Schapiro -- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. "We're close to an even split with Amherst, Dartmouth," and a few others, he says. Everyone else is "in the rearview mirror."

Williams is one of the few private colleges that doesn't need to give discounts to lure good applicants if they don't qualify for financial aid. Indeed, a record 5,300 applied to Williams last fall. Williams does give need-based aid to some 41% of its undergraduates. But because few poor students meet its rigorous academic standards, only about 5% of the student body gets a full free ride. Meanwhile, 59% are wealthy enough to pay the entire $38,000 a year for tuition, room, board, and books.

President Schapiro, an economist with expertise in student financial aid who took office three years ago, worries about the social implications of lavishing such outsize resources on some of the nation's most privileged young adults. Increasingly, he says, "affluent families send their kids to really well-endowed schools, while the chance [for poor kids] becomes smaller and smaller." As the cost crunch spreads, the richest colleges like Williams will pull even further away from the pack.

By William C. Symonds in Williamstown, Mass.

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