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Luis Torres ‘17 at Williamson’s graduation.

I met Luis Torres in 2013 when he enrolled as a freshman. Before he arrived at Williamson, he spent nearly a decade living with various relatives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia because his parents were financially unable to take care of him. Ultimately, he became a discipline problem and had a difficult time in high school, narrowly earning enough credit to receive a high school diploma. Luis was not what anyone would consider a candidate for higher education.

Fast-forward almost three years to June 2, 2017, when Luis was awarded an Associate in Specialized Technology Degree in Construction Technology from Williamson College of the Trades. Luis is already employed full time in construction management and ultimately wants to start and run his own construction company, following the example of many very successful graduates who came before him. Most of them also started at Williamson with no other hope for higher education.

For Luis and so many young men like him, this small college just 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia offered hope – to say the least. Williamson’s tuition-free, fully residential men’s college uses an inclusive support system that enables each student to develop the character traits that position him toward success in life.

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Founded in 1888, by Isaiah Vansant Williamson, a Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist, Williamson College of the Trades strives to improve U.S. postsecondary attainment for students from low-income households, minorities and other underrepresented groups. Over more than 128 years, Williamson has gained a national reputation for producing graduates who are expert craftsmen, successful businessmen, respected citizens and leaders in their fields.

“For more than a century, the college has relied on income from its endowment to provide 75 percent of annual operations costs.”

Like Luis, every student receives a quality education in a skilled trade that leads to graduation, employment and success.  With a job placement record of 98.8 percent, Williamson has the education goal of enabling a student to become highly proficient in his trade and obtain a well-paying job upon graduation.

The program concentrates on every detail that positively affects the outcome of each deserving student. Most importantly, experienced, dedicated faculty not only share their trade, technical and academic expertise, but also mentor students throughout their three-year tenure.

Related: Five things American colleges need to do to help black and Latino students

Enrollment is limited to approximately 100 new students each year to maintain a student-faculty ratio of about 13 to 1.  Williamson also implements a conduct code designed to assure a well-ordered environment conducive to education and to help students develop responsibility, self-discipline, resilience, diligence and other good character traits.

Luis Torres ‘17 and Mike Neville ‘00, Director of Williamson’s carpentry program.

While the rest of the country faces a student debt crisis, the affordability of college is not an issue for Williamson students. With tuition, room and board included in each scholarship, Williamson also helps students to manage ancillary expenses that could be distracting. For example, a clothes closet helps students meet classroom dress codes, offering everything from suits and sports coats to socks and shoes at no charge. In addition, because Williamson students are highly sought-after for career-related summer jobs or internships, they can earn wages that help pay for the modest fees that cover tools and work clothes. While students at other colleges incur significant student debt, Williamson students avoid that burden entirely.

“Debt is often the only option for low- and middle-income students who want to attend college full time,” University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education Professor Joni Finney observed in a discussion last year of the Institute for Research in Higher Education’s “College Affordability Diagnosis.”

The Institute’s Pennsylvania report estimated 38 percent of the family’s income would be needed to attend full time for students from families with family income of $30,000 or less who attend public two-year colleges, even after taking into account all financial aid.  In Williamson’s freshman class, 48 percent of the students come from families where the family income is less than $30,000.

Related: New programs use data to steer poor kids into college

This year, for the first time, Williamson’s admissions program employed College Cost Estimators, an income verification tool offered by The National Center on College Costs. It demonstrated that 93 percent of the incoming class of 2020 are Pell grant-eligible and more than half qualify for the maximum Pell grant available. Even though Williamson does not accept federal funding, these statistics paint a clear picture of the college’s student body.

So, how does Williamson manage to provide full scholarships to its entire student body without tuition or federal funding? For more than a century, the college has relied on income from its endowment, which was established by the founder and has grown over time with the support of benefactors, to provide 75 percent of annual operations costs.

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The remainder, $2 million, is raised each year through private philanthropy from alumni, trustees, corporations, foundations and generous friends. This level of commitment is an integral component to Williamson’s extraordinary success.

One might say that Williamson offers the ultimate support system for its economically challenged student body. The college relies on an enrollments process that strives to accept the most deserving applicants and a network of benefactors who help to fund these efforts.

Combine these with values-based programs designed to foster growth in each student to create an environment for students like Luis to realize their true potential. Williamson’s model addresses the problem of college affordability and ensures career opportunities for its alumni.

As Luis graduates, we at Williamson continue to move forward to build on the values-driven mission the college has followed for nearly 130 years. I am confident that he will be successful in his endeavors, while I remain dedicated to furthering this extraordinary, time-honored model designed to address the critical need for access to higher education for economically challenged students.

A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, Michael J. Rounds, P.E., became Williamson College of the Trades’ 13th president in 2013. His previous educational assignments include two tours as assistant professor and executive officer in the Department of Civil & Mechanical Engineering at West Point and service as the Deputy Commandant of the United States Military Academy.

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