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Courtesy of Williams College

Williams College is reducing the cost of attendance by 15 percent compared to the cost approved in December for the upcoming academic year "in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances and of this academic year and the uncertainty we face in the year ahead."

The move by Williams -- the wealthiest liberal arts college in the U.S., with a $2.89 billion endowment as of last year -- stands to put pressure on other colleges to discount tuition to account for a reduced student experience caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Williams announced that while students will have the option to study remotely or in person this fall, even those students who choose to come to the campus in Massachusetts may have to take some of their classes remotely to manage class sizes, ensure social distancing and accommodate faculty for whom it’s not safe to return.

Among other changes to campus and academic life, Williams will not allow intercollegiate academic competition in the fall. Dining services will be takeout only. And the four-week January term has been canceled.

“We really went at the problem from the perspective of students and their families and recognized a few things,” Dukes Love, Williams’ provost, said of the decision to reduce the cost of attendance. “One is that this year for those students and their families was going to be difficult -- difficult because of financial conditions, economic conditions and health conditions, and also difficult because the academic year would be different in so many fundamental ways.”

“Big pieces of the actual experience really changed fundamentally, and the question we kept asking is how could we smooth the impact of the COVID-19 year in a way that made sense for our students and families and our staff and faculty,” Love said.

Even with the 15 percent reduction, the cost of attendance for the 2020-21 academic year will still be a hefty $63,200. Family contributions for students receiving financial aid will be reduced by 15 percent, and Williams has also eliminated the earnings contribution for this summer and waived work-study contributions for students receiving aid for the coming academic year. Williams is among a very small group of colleges that is need blind and committed to meeting full demonstrated need for domestic students.

Williams is eliminating for all students its activities and residential house fees, which were set at $310 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition will be $50,450, an 11.4 percent reduction from the 2019-20 rate of $56,970. Room and board costs, set at $6,481 and $6,269, respectively, will also be lower than in 2019-20. Students studying remotely will not be charged room and board.

Williams president Maud S. Mandel said in a letter to the campus that tuition costs will be the same for students whether they study remotely or in person.

Love, the provost, said that while Williams wanted to reduce costs for students and families, administrators worried about pressure their action would put on other colleges that are already facing a bleak financial picture next year. “One of our biggest worries was there are so many institutions that will be unable to make a similar decision for completely understandable financial reasons,” he said.

Lucie Lapovsky, an economist and consultant on higher education finance and former president of Mercy College, in New York, said Williams is being up front that the experience it will offer this fall will be different -- and changing the price to reflect that. “Clearly, students at other schools can use this as a pressure point to say we should reduce what we’re paying because we’re not getting the same experience,” she said.

“The dilemma for the schools is for the most part they’re not able to reduce their costs because the costs are going up, not down,” Lapovsky continued. “Schools that are trying to do a hybrid” -- a mix of in-person and remote learning options -- “are having to make facility alterations, having to plan on testing. Plus to be able to offer their courses hybrid, they need some technology upgrades. They’ve had to do faculty development over the summer because some of the courses, especially larger ones, are going to be entirely online. You have increased costs on both sides of the experience.”

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said the most direct impact will be on Williams’ competitor institutions. “If a student has an offer from Williams and, say, Amherst, Amherst is going to feel the pressure to match,” he said. “But for most of higher ed, they can’t afford to give that kind of a discount. Other colleges will have students ask, ‘If Williams did it, why can’t you,’ and the honest answer is that many of these colleges just can’t afford to.”

Some students have sued colleges seeking tuition discounts for this spring, and many students and parents are deeply unhappy about the idea of paying regular tuition costs this fall for remote learning or a reduced campus experience. Some colleges have frozen tuition rates or are allowing students to defer tuition payments beyond the fall semester.

Bill Burger, a consultant on higher education marketing and communications (and an opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed), expects to see renewed calls for tuition reductions for the coming year.

“I think that the vast majority of schools will resist those as much as they possibly can,” he said. “Not many schools are in the same position that Williams is, to be able to afford this, and it would really be devastating for many schools to have to give up 10 or 15 percent of their anticipated tuition revenue, especially because some schools are anticipating fewer students than in previous years.”

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