The College of William & Mary: Low Access, But High Taxpayer Support

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

July 19, 2021

By: Katlyn Riggins 

The College of William & Mary (W&M) is a public university in Williamsburg, Virginia, that enrolls some 6,000 undergraduate students. It was founded in 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II, making W&M the second-oldest college in the United States. William & Mary holds another record: when data is averaged over a three year period, it ranks as the second worst public college in the nation on working-class and low-income student access, trailing only Miami University in Ohio. 

It offers a prime example of what’s wrong with the Commonwealth’s general higher education funding system. Despite its poor performance on access, William & Mary receives more in state appropriations per full-time equivalent (FTE) student than many, many two and four-year Virginia colleges that serve higher numbers and percentage of students from working-class and low-income families.

This inequity rises out of the fact Virginia does not really have any funding formula for public institutions of higher education, let alone one linked to an institution’s accessibility for low-income and working-class students. A more equitable and rational funding formula would send fewer taxpayer dollars to wealthy universities like William & Mary and more to the institutions like Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and George Mason University, which enroll student bodies that look much more like the Commonwealth in 2021. 

One of the worst colleges in the country on Pell student enrollment

A close look at the data reveals William & Mary’s Pell Grant student enrollment rate has been flat for the past decade and lags far behind many other public and private universities in Virginia. Pell Grants typically go to students who come from families earning $60,000 per year or less. That is almost half of all households in the nation. But not even 12% of W&M students in 2018 were Pell Grant recipients. That’s way less than half of the national average of 33% at four-year colleges. In fact, William & Mary ranks among the bottom 5% of all colleges nationwide when it comes to Pell Grant student enrollment. And again, it’s a public university with a near $1 billion endowment

While other public universities in Virginia, such as Old Dominion and VCU have been increasing their low-income student enrollment in past years, W&M’s numbers have barely ticked up. From 2009 to 2018, its Pell Grant student enrollment increased by only 1 percentage point. In comparison, Old Dominion increased its Pell Grant student enrollment by 10 percentage points in the last 10 years. Old Dominion’s endowment is one third the size of William & Mary’s.

There are also a number of Virginia public universities that might not seem it at first, but significantly outperform W&M on working class and low-income student enrollment and success. It’s true for example that the graduation rates of students with Pell Grants at George Mason University and VCU are not as high as at William & Mary, but those institutions graduate many, many more students who received a Pell Grant because they enroll many more of them. As a result, those colleges have a much greater impact on social mobility than William & Mary despite the latter’s stated commitment to racial and social justice.

Affordability is Undermined by Enrollment Figures 

W&M prides itself on how affordable it is, how students graduate with relatively low student loan debt. But that’s partly due to the fact W&M accepts very few students who need to borrow large amounts of money for college in the first place. As our recent report notes, it’s true William & Mary is relatively affordable for low-income students, especially compared to the University of Virginia. The problem is very few low-income students are able to take advantage of this affordability, because W&M enrolls so few of them.

And W&M is still more expensive than comparable public universities with similar admissions standards  like UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan that also enroll more working class and low-income students.  

Redirect Funds to Schools Serving Equitably 

William & Mary’s problem with access is a problem for Virginia taxpayers overall, because the university receives more than twice as much in general state funding per FTE student than many community colleges in the Commonwealth, despite the fact most two-year institutions are serving more economically and racially diverse groups.

Likewise, W&M receives more per student from the Commonwealth than four-year colleges like Old Dominion and George Mason that also enroll more diverse student bodies.

Virginia’s funding of higher education does not adequately prioritize access, equity, or accountability for results. At the same time, the federal government makes no demands on the Commonwealth on any of those fronts in exchange for its largesse. And so you see examples like William & Mary.

It’s time for Virginia to direct a much greater share of limited state higher education funds to colleges that are having the most impact on socioeconomic mobility and success, not the least. It’s time for the federal government to demand the same of states. Needy families, the Commonwealth, taxpayers, and the country deserve no less.

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