Access and Affordability

April 13, 2022

Last month, I represented Washington and Lee at the American Talent Initiative, an alliance of colleges and universities with high graduation rates dedicated to expanding access and opportunity for low- and moderate-income students. Collectively, the members aim to add 50,000 such students by 2025. This is a challenge of scale no institution can solve on its own. But Washington and Lee is committed to being part of the solution. 

In previous editions of Distinctively W&L, I explained why high-quality liberal arts education is expensive but also a great value. Washington and Lee students earn a huge financial return on their investment, on top of the immeasurable personal benefits they enjoy and the civic contributions they make over their lifetimes.

The market knows a good deal when it sees one. W&L received a record number of applications this year. More than 7,200 high school seniors sought one of 460 spots in the incoming class of ’26. Prospective students are beating down our door, eager for the opportunity to spend four years with each other and with our faculty. We are able to admit fewer than 20% of the students who apply to Washington and Lee.

How do we make these difficult decisions? Who are the students lucky enough to gain access to W&L?

In our recently released President’s Report, Sally Stone Richmond, VP for Admissions and Financial Aid, talks about her approach to the critical work of selecting our students. We seek students who are academically capable, intellectually curious, passionate about their extracurricular interests, and who demonstrate strong personal character and enthusiasm for W&L. Students with these characteristics benefit the most from the educational opportunities we provide and contribute the most to our campus. The students at Washington and Lee help educate each other, and the strengths of each increase the quality of the experience for all.

Talented young people can be found in every community. We work hard to bring W&L to the attention of high-achieving students across the country and around the world. We partner with organizations like QuestBridge, which connect the nation’s strongest low-income students with leading colleges and universities. We are developing relationships with schools where W&L is less well-known, leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to identify exceptional students. 

But if a student is admitted to W&L, especially from a low- or moderate-income family, how do we make it affordable for them to attend?

Most people associate the cost of college with the “sticker price,” which includes full tuition, room, and board. At W&L and similar schools, that number is now around $75,000 per year. Most families cannot even conceive of being able to pay such a sum.

The good news is that 95% of American families receive a discount on the sticker price, scaled to their ability to pay. The W&L Promise guarantees that families earning up to $125,000 with assets typical for their income pay no tuition at all. Many families with significantly higher incomes also receive substantial financial aid. I encourage you to experiment with this simple calculator, which provides a good estimate of the expected cost for any family. The chart below shows the average price charged to families at different points on the income spectrum.

 Average Family Contribution Toward Total Cost of Attendance by income, Class of 2025

Income Range Contribution Receives Award
$0-$29,999 $1,703 100%
$30,000-$59,999 $2,976 100%
$60,000-$89,999 $7,270 100%
$90,000-$119,999 $13,686 100%
$120,000-149,999 $16,593 100%
$150,000-$189,999 $28,439 100%
$190,000-$249,000 $41,584 90%
$250,000-$349,999 $61,536 73%
$350,000-$500,000 $74,615 31%

Another piece of good news is that Washington and Lee does not expect families to borrow to pay for college. Our financial aid packages do not include loans. Students receiving financial aid have modest campus jobs, and the rest of their support comes in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid. 

By meeting 100% of each family’s demonstrated financial need without loans, we ensure that every admitted student can afford to attend W&L. Of course, families at all income levels make meaningful contributions and personal sacrifices, relative to their resources, for the education of their children. But even families paying full tuition, who are in the top 5% of the American income distribution, receive a 20% discount from the true cost of attendance, thanks to the support provided by our endowment and annual giving.

If cost does not preclude admitted students from attending W&L, what work do we have left to do?

Most importantly, we need to raise additional endowment so that every admissions decision can be made purely on the basis of the applicant’s qualifications, without consideration of the family’s financial circumstances. This practice, known as “need-blind admissions,” ensures that an inability to pay full tuition never causes a talented student to be denied admission. When we become need-blind, which is a top strategic priority, W&L will be one of only a dozen schools in the country that admit students without consideration of family finances, meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for all admitted students, and do not expect families to take out loans. That powerful combination will allow us to compete successfully for the very strongest students, which will benefit everyone at Washington and Lee.

We also need to make those strong students, wherever they may live and whatever their background and life experience may be, aware of all that W&L has to offer — and of the fact that if they are admitted, they can afford to attend. Our Admissions team is dedicated to spreading the word about W&L far and wide. And we welcome the help of our alumni, parents, and friends. Together, we can make our great university even better by attracting talented young people from every community. And by joining other colleges and universities in this effort, Washington and Lee helps expand access to top-quality American higher education, which is an important contribution to the public good in which we can all take pride.