Sarah R. Bolton, Dean of the College, Professor of Physics

“The honest answer to the question of [whether the child of poor parents has as much of a chance at a good education as the child of wealthy parents] is no, he does not. There have been very substantial efforts in this direction, and the trend is a favorable one. … The opportunities are opening up all the time. But for children from very poor families, there’s no question there’s a handicap.”

Thirty years ago, only 19 percent of students in the lowest quarter of U.S. family incomes entered college, and
5 percent of those students completed it. Now 29 percent of students in that income quartile start college, and a little less than a third of them complete it. These shifts certainly represent progress. But they also show us a great deal about the work ahead.

Sawyer framed his comments in terms of equity. And in those terms, the U.S. has not gained significant ground over the past 30 years. Students in the top quartile of U.S. family incomes remain almost three times as likely to enter college as students in the lowest quartile. Students from high-income families are more than six times as likely to complete college as their low-income peers. Indeed, a low-income student with above-average test scores is less likely to complete college than a high-income peer with below-average scores.

What does this landscape have to do with Williams? Williams holds a particular, privileged place in higher education. We must constantly improve equity of opportunity on three fronts—access, support for our students and engagement with the national context.

We are a relatively wealthy institution, which allows us to address aggressively equity of access. We meet the full financial need of every student we accept, and we also accept students independent of their financial circumstances. The increase in the number of Williams students receiving financial aid from 25 percent in Sawyer’s time to 53 percent today is in large part due to outreach to high schools serving lower-income students. It’s also due to the exceptional generosity of our alumni, whose donations make it possible for us to maintain our access commitments.

But getting low-income students to college is only half the story. Nationally, fewer than a third of low-income students who start college go on to complete it. At Williams, we must continue to understand and reduce the barriers that affect these students’ thriving and success—whether they arise from financial constraints, under-resourced high schools or the particular challenges of being the first in a family to attend college.

Williams has the opportunity and the obligation to alter the national context through the learning and work of our students. They leave this place with the potential to  change the educational opportunities of individuals and of communities. Indeed, they can change the landscape of educational equity entirely.

Return to full article: What Sawyer Said