The College of William and Mary routinely boasts about the academic rigor of its student body. Every admissions season we’re bombarded with statistics about the average SAT score, GPA and various improbable extracurricular involvements of the incoming class. Given the high level of achievement that every individual here has, it seems nearly impossible to assign merit-based scholarships: if everyone is smart, who decides who is the “best of the best?” And if we were to do so, why? What would be the purpose of such a silly system? Yet, the 1693 scholars program does just this, defying both basic economic and logical principles.
If you’re unfamiliar with the 1693 scholars program, let me lay the groundwork for you. It is a merit-based scholarship given to a handful of students annually — 8 out of the class of about 1,600 for the Class of 2025, or .5% of the class. Each 1693 scholar receives either a full-ride scholarship (for in-state students) or in-state tuition (for out-of-state students). They also receive priority course registration every semester, an exclusive on-campus space with free laundry facilities, and special trips only for 1693 scholars, among other perks.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of scholarships. I think need-based scholarships and grants are critically important to ensure equal access to affordable education, and I even concede that there is room for merit-based scholarships. Colleges want to attract good students, who then become famous alumni, therefore channeling money back to the college. To all the administrators reading this: yes, I know, I know. Please don’t email me.
But at an academically-rigorous institution like the College, arbitrarily picking .5% of the student body to give full-ride scholarships is simply asinine. It neither increases the prestige of this institution nor expands the diversity of its student body. The majority of 1693 scholars received this honor due to their academic and extracurricular achievements in high school. Many went to elite schools in well-funded districts. They authored research papers, became club presidents and varsity athletes because their school districts had the money to do so. Their scholarships are not in spite of their privilege, but directly because of it.
I do not blame the scholars themselves for the stupidity of the program; I know many 1693 scholars, all of whom are lovely, smart, talented people. But they are no smarter or more talented than the rest of the student body here. The title of “1693 Scholar” is a meaningless distinction when you realize the majority of the student body are overachieving nerds. The qualitative difference between the average student here and a 1693 scholar comes down to a few questions on the SAT, or a slightly higher position in one of their many extracurriculars, yet the monetary difference comes down to $37,000 per year.
I would be remiss, too, if I did not point out the College’s startling lack of socioeconomic diversity. The College recently boasted about its record level of enrollees who received Pell grants: an 18.6% increase in freshmen recipients from the previous year. This sounds nice, until you realize that just two years ago, the College was ranked last in percentage of Pell grant recipients for all four-year public colleges in Virginia. These abysmally low numbers will not shock anyone familiar with the College’s median family income for students — a whopping $176,400 in 2017. The College is an elite school, not just academically, but economically.
The tides are shifting, ever so slowly, on the College’s socioeconomic makeup. New awards like the Posse Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship for high-achieving students who are also low-income or first-generation, are being implemented every year. And although our Pell grant percentage remains abysmally low, it is indeed increasing.
So we return to our problem: why does the 1693 scholars program exist? In a socioeconomically elite college ostensibly trying to be more inclusive, it seems counterintuitive to provide an enormous scholarship largely to hyper-privileged students. The 1693 scholars program is funded by private donors, many of whom have likely earmarked the funds specifically for that program. But funding priorities change, and donors should realize that. Wouldn’t funds be better used for need-based scholarships? Or providing smaller grants to a higher number of students? Surely providing a full ride to a tiny group of students, some of whom can afford to pay their way through, is, in a word, silly.
As much as the College loves to tout the benefits of the program, to parade the scholars around like trophies, it may be time to let go of these ill-begotten laurels. The 1693 scholars program is a vestige of an old system, and it’s time to retire it once and for all.
Claire Hogan ‘22 is a CAMS major and religious studies minor. Outside of her role as Editor-in-Chief of The Flat Hat, she is in Tribe Scribes, Tribe Guard and The Botetourt Squat, and she works for the Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation. Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was updated 10/28 to replace a link representing statistics about the 1693 scholars program.