Pennsylvania College Provides a Different Higher Education Model

Published September 18, 2017

Each year, approximately 75 young men graduate from the Williamson College of the Trades, a three-year postsecondary school in Media, Pennsylvania. Each has earned either a diploma for a craft or a specialized associate’s degree in a field such as construction technology or machine tool technology. They graduate without debt, not having had to pay for tuition, room and board, or textbooks.

Preference for the Poor

The all-male school is a rarity in covering nearly all college costs for all students, and its emphasis on trades—at a high-quality, college level—provides an alternative to traditional college.

The school was started in 1888 by a Quaker philanthropist, Isaiah V. Williamson, who named it the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. He wrote in the school’s deed of trust he wanted to give poor boys a chance to learn a rewarding trade. In selecting students for his school, he said, “Preference shall always be given to the poor.”

Today, Williamson emphasizes nondenominational Christian faith, strict morality, and hard work. Daily chapel attendance is required. Williamson’s president is Michael Rounds, a graduate of West Point and a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Corps of Engineering. Before becoming president in 2013, Rounds was deputy commander at the U.S. Military School of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and West Point, New York.

Character Development, Leadership

The goals of the school, Rounds says, are character development and leadership in the context of a practical education. The school’s job placement rate upon graduation has been 98.8 percent during the past five years, and that figure doesn’t include students who go on for additional college degrees. Ninety-five percent of its students are Pell Grant-eligible—meaning their family income is typically less than $60,000—and more than half are eligible for the maximum Pell Grant.

Williamson’s graduation rate is 74 percent, far higher than those of the community colleges to which it is often compared. The college’s acceptance rate is 29.6 percent, and its yield—the measure of how many students accept their offers—is 94 percent. Harvard University’s yield is about 80 percent.

Rounds says the school’s ethics requirements make these numbers even more remarkable.

“This is even more impressive given our strict conduct code,” Rounds said. “One alcohol or drug incident is grounds for immediate expulsion.”

National Plaudits

Williamson has been gaining national recognition.

In Forbes, economist Richard Vedder singled the college out as one of four innovative institutions. Williamson received a first-place award in Ethical Leadership from the Reimagine Education 2016 project sponsored by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Tufts University’s Institute for Youth Development featured Williamson in a study of character development.

Skills Over Paper

George Leef, director of research at the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, says Williamson is filling an underserved niche.

“We keep hearing about how much trouble a wide array of businesses are having in finding capable employees, so it seems that we could use many more schools like Williamson,” Leef said. “Perhaps the stigma of not having a college degree has worn off in America sufficiently that lots of young people would rather have a solid job than a piece of paper on the wall saying ‘College Graduate.'”

‘Showing Promise’

Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says schools in the Williamson mold may experience difficulty overcoming social prejudices.

“Williamson is one of many experimental models that are showing promise,” Hanson said. “Its high job placement rate suggests its programs are high-quality. However, the fact that Williamson serves poor students may be an impediment to erasing the stigma of not having a college degree.

“What’s difficult is that the alternative educational pathways, models, and schools [like Williamson] are presented as the solution only for poor and nonwhite students, which rightly causes advocates to question their value.”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.