W&M has the lowest number of students with ‘exceptional’ financial need in the state. Here’s why

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The James Monroe statue on William & Mary's campus. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)
The James Monroe statue on William & Mary’s campus. (WYDaily/Andrew Harris)

At nearly 326 years old, William & Mary carries a strong reputation as the second-oldest higher education institution in the United States.

But what does it take to get into the school?

More than a decade ago, William & Mary had the lowest statewide percentage — 9.4 percent — of undergraduate students receiving Pell Grants, a form of federal financial aid given only to students who “display exceptional financial need.”

Out of all Virginia public four-year institutions, William & Mary still holds the smallest percentage of students who receive Pell Grants — 11.7 percent of undergraduate students in the 2016-2017 school year, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Making room for socioeconomic diversity on campus is something the school is still working on, spokeswoman Suzanne Clavet said.

“William & Mary is absolutely committed to improving socioeconomic diversity in its student body,” Clavet said. “We have made some progress in recent years but this is an area in which we understand we must do better.”

Similar to William & Mary, the University of Virginia and Virginia Military Institute also have 12.8 percent and 13 percent undergraduate Pell students, respectively.

So, what does having a low percentage of Pell students mean?

Tod Massa, SCHEV’s policy analytics director, said many college admission offices use admissions and enrollment processes that have historically lent themselves to institution success.

“Elite” institutions often attract a large number of student applications, giving them the first pick at the most qualified and high-achieving applicants, Massa said.

While Virginia institutions are need-blind during the application process — meaning the admissions offices do not factor in a student’s financial need or amount of financial aid received into the admission decision — a student’s access to resources and opportunity throughout their lower education can impact their ability to be considered “high-achieving” later, Massa said.

“Intelligence is not a facet of money or wealth, or race or ethnicity, but it is influenced and more obvious to others in the presence of opportunity and access,” Massa said.

For some Pell students, “extraneous” costs such as room and board and student fees can also end up being a deterrent if financial aid cannot cover them, Massa said.

Trending up

The amount of Pell students at Virginia higher education institutions has gradually risen in recent decades.

Statewide since the 1992-1993 school year, the percentage of Virginia students receiving Pell Grants at four-year public institutions has increased. The percentage took a noticeable upswing in the 2008-2009 school year.

William & Mary has also followed that trend, gradually increasing its percentage of Pell students — it has risen from 9.4 percent in 2007-2008 to 14 percent for the class of 2023.

SCHEV data also shows the average Pell award also increased at William & Mary during the same time period, from $2,887 in 2007-2008 to $4,244 in 2016-2017.

“William & Mary is aware of the way it looks and that it doesn’t have a large population of Pell students,” Massa said. “But William & Mary is not going to change overnight. William & Mary is doing a fine job as a public ivy, and it would be ill-advised to try to change overnight.”

Clavet said Pell students who do attend William & Mary do well and graduate. William & Mary has the fifth-highest graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients in the nation.

Cost deterrents

Some students with higher needs may cross off attending schools such as William & Mary because of the “sticker shock” at the cost of education.

Massa said William & Mary is one of the more expensive public schools in Virginia.

The state encourages students to wait until they see their full financial aid breakdown before getting a “sticker shock” about the total tuition and fees, Massa said.

Massa said many institutions are working to make college more feasible for needier students, including giving students “gift aid” or giving merit-based scholarships.

Clavet said it’s important to understand the difference between the net price — the cost students need to pay out-of-pocket after receiving financial aid — and the advertised price of education.

Today, William & Mary typically meets the entire financial need of Virginia students,” Clavet said. “Over the past six years, the university has increased its financial aid budget for undergraduates by more than 150 percent. W&M is the only public university in Virginia that has replaced all loans with grants for in-state students with family incomes under $40,000.”

The institution sees the largest gap in available aid for Pell students from out-of-state. Clavet said the university’s For the Bold campaign aims to address that gap.

Clavet said William & Mary will need stronger financial aid resources to allow the institution to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the student body.

This will take time, but it is something that we are committed to doing,” Clavet said.

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