Williams College becomes nation’s first to eliminate loans and work requirements from student aid

Daniela Corona, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, stands outside the admissions building at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Corona, 18, works as a tour guide in the admissions office. As part of her financial aid package, she also works in the library’s special collections archives and for the college’s after-school program. (Kirk Carapezza / GBH News)

At Williams College in western Massachusetts, first-year student Daniela Corona walked backwards quickly, glancing over her shoulder so as not to trip as she guided a campus tour for interested students and their families.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Corona is the first in her family to go to college–“quite the jump,” she calls it. To land on her feet, and to meet the terms of her generous financial aid package, Corona works as a tour guide and two other jobs on campus.

Last month, Williams announced that beginning next fall, Corona and more than 1,100 other students on financial aid would no longer be required to work, making the selective college in Williamstown, Massachusetts the first in the country to give them a truly free ride – with no obligations to borrow or work.

This move, administrators hope, will help Williams attract and retain those students like Corona who are weighing whether to attend other selective, wealthy colleges like nearby Amherst, which in October eliminated the admission preference for children of alumni and lowered work expectations to roughly four hours per week. Harvard no longer expects financial aid students to work in the summer, but the college doesn’t plan to eliminate the on-campus job requirement.

Financial aid officers across the country are watching to see whether the move at Williams is the beginning of a new trend.

“We celebrate any schools that are changing policies that they think will better meet the needs of their students,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Its member schools serve ninety percent of all students enrolled in higher education.

“Part of our ethical responsibility as financial aid administrators is this commitment to remove financial barriers for all students who want to go to college to the fullest extent that we can at our individual schools,” he said.

Coming out of the pandemic, Draeger predicts a handful of highly selective colleges will re-examine their financial aid policies, but, like Harvard, a majority will hold on to the idea that students should make some contribution to their education because it makes them a more active part of the institution “and it increases their commitment to their educational success.”

Corona has no loans at Williams. Her dad, a landscaper in Norwalk, Connecticut, pays less than $1,000 each year, but she has worked up to eight hours a week on campus.

“When I was looking at colleges, the biggest thing for me was affordability, and the financial aid just made it really accessible for me to enter a space like Williams, or enter, like, a college space in general,” she said.

Liz Creighton, dean of admission and financial aid at Williams, says administrators “felt strongly that getting rid of the requirement to work on campus would give students more flexibility to explore life here.”

A graduate of the college, Creighton received aid and had to work on campus in the dining hall and news service as a student. She said with many college students reporting they’re stressed during the pandemic, removing the work requirement was her team’s idea.

“Our passion for this came from just listening to students talk about the things that they love about Williams and the things that they wish they had more time to pour themselves into,” she said. “And so this is really a reflection of hearing them and wanting to respond to that.”

Williams President Maud Mandel says administrators wanted to make sure that they “opened up the experience of Williams to all students.”

Williams College President Maud Mandel stands in front of her home on the Williamstown campus in western Massachusetts. Mandel says eliminating loans as well as required campus and summer jobs from all of the college’s financial aid packages should simplify student finances for low-income families and move Williams closer to its goal of “true affordability.” (Kirk Carapezza / GBH News)

Sitting on the porch of her Victorian home on campus, Mandel said dropping the work-study requirement will cost the college more than $6 million each year. She says it’s part of a broader investment to achieve “true affordability,” making sure everyone on campus has the same opportunities by covering all hidden costs.

“Things like having textbooks and art supplies. Being able to study away. Storage. There’s just a lot of things that families end up having to pick up, so the true affordability is really about getting those costs manageable in a way that makes it work for all of our families,” she said.

First-year Daniela Corona appreciates being relieved of the work mandate.

“I thought it was amazing,” she said, laughing. “I thought it was just another example of Williams striving to make this an accessible and inclusive space. Some students like me have to worry about making a little bit of extra cash if they want to have something nice or if they want something do something like buy toothpaste on top of all their schoolwork.”

The option to work for extra spending cash will still be there in the fall, and right now Corona plans to continue working on campus at least as a tour guide.

Listen to the audio version of this story at WGBH.org.