Straight Up Conversation: A Tuition-Free, Purpose-Driven, Coat-and-Tie Trade School

Michael Rounds is president of Williamson College of the Trades in Media, Pa. Williamson is a character-driven trade school enrolling 260 students, all of whom graduate debt-free. Before taking on this role at Williamson in 2013, Michael was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and an assistant professor at West Point. I recently chatted with Michael about Williamson’s unique trade school model, and here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: What is Williamson College of the Trades?

Michael Rounds: Near the end of his life, Quaker philanthropist Isaiah Vansant Williamson founded what is today Williamson College of the Trades. Troubled by the number of “ragged and barefooted” boys he saw gathered on Philadelphia street corners, the wealthy dry-goods merchant vowed to help these poor adolescents become useful citizens. He dreamed of building a school where young men could receive training in a trade, an academic education, moral and religious development, and exercise and recreation at no expense. For 131 years, Williamson has remained true to its founders’ vision. Now a postsecondary institution, the college continues to provide a tuition-free, character-driven education in the trades to qualified young men to become respected leaders and productive members of society.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about what makes Williamson distinct from traditional institutions and other trade schools?

Michael: Many things set Williamson apart. First is the fact that Williamson is the only postsecondary school in the country that, with no obligation, provides full scholarships to every enrolled student. Secondly, Williamson is—by design—an all-male institution. In the 1880s, I.V. Williamson believed that economically disadvantaged young men would thrive at an all-male school. Today, sociological research strongly supports the merits of a single-sex education for our population. Williamson is also unusual among associate-degree-granting colleges for its residential requirement; as a condition of enrollment, students must live on campus all three years. The structured and challenging lifestyle—similar to a military academy—is also not the norm for a trade school. Our students have dress and conduct codes that teach discipline and accountability. Finally, Williamson is one of the only colleges anywhere to have a faith-based commitment to teaching character and leadership. A required daily chapel service is part of the program.

Rick: That’s certainly distinctive. Can you tell me a bit about the students you serve—what kinds of students are attracted to Williamson?

Michael: Just as our founder Isaiah Vansant Williamson wished, the college gives admission preference to the most economically challenged students. The young men attending Williamson have great financial need. Typically, over 80 percent of our students are eligible for a federal Pell Grant. Between a quarter and a third of our student body identify as a minority. Beyond their financial challenges, many of our students also come from difficult family situations. Over half are from single-parent households, and some have been in the foster care system, have been homeless, or have an incarcerated parent.

Rick: And what do you teach these young men?

Michael: Williamson offers associate in specialized technology degrees in six programs of study: paint and coatings technology; power plant technology; construction technology—carpentry or masonry; and horticulture, landscaping, and turf management. Just as they have since the school was founded, students spend four hours a day in academic classes and four hours in their trade shop. Class sizes are very small: The largest courses have 19 students. Whether our students are in a traditional academic classroom or learning in their shop, our faculty consistently stress close attention to detail, a commitment to excellence, and the value of hard work.

Rick: Do students have experience in these fields before they come to you? And what do you look for when deciding who to admit?

Michael: Students don’t need to have any prior trades training or experience to attend Williamson, but we do look for financially deserving young men who are interested in working with their hands. To qualify for admission, they need to be a high school graduate, or have earned a GED, and they must be under age 20 with no legal dependents when they enroll. Our admissions process includes the military ASVAB test measuring verbal and math abilities, mechanical aptitude, and other skills as well as a writing sample. We require prospective students to visit campus for a tour and to interview with faculty and staff. Because the college has a strict no-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, all students must pass a drug test prior to enrollment.

Rick: Earlier, you said that all students graduate debt-free, is that right? Do they pay for anything?

Michael: Every student receives a full scholarship that covers his room, board, and tuition. For this academic year, the value of each scholarship is $32,570. Although they don’t pay for their tuition, housing, or food, students do pay Williamson a modest annual fee for student activities and health-center costs. Students also pay a set fee each year for books, school supplies, safety equipment, and shop tools and clothing that they will keep when they leave. Over three years, in total, these costs amount to about $2,000.

Rick: OK. So how does the college make the finances work? And how much do you have to raise each year?

Michael: The college is fortunate to have an endowment that was started by our founder and enlarged by subsequent philanthropists. The revenue from that endowment covers about 70 percent of the school’s annual budget. Every year, we have to raise the remaining 30 percent of the money needed for daily operations. That amounts to over $2 million each year. We also must raise the money needed to maintain our historic campus and make capital improvements. Private philanthropy from individuals, corporations and foundations, and federal and state need-based tuition grants are vital to sustaining Williamson.

Rick: What kind of student outcomes are you seeing?

Michael: We consistently graduate about 75 percent of our students on time. While I’d like that rate to be even higher, that’s a pretty remarkable outcome compared to other two- and four-year colleges in our area and across the country. The average on-time graduation rate at private, not-for-profit four-year colleges in Pennsylvania is 61 percent, and it’s just 6 percent at public two-year colleges in the state. And sadly, completion rates are typically lower for students receiving Pell Grants, so I’m proud of our success. It really is an impressive number given our high standards that include a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol and drug use. It’s also a fact that young men with this kind of financial need are generally the most at risk for completion and graduation.

Rick: That sounds pretty impressive. Given that, how many of your students find good jobs when they graduate?

Michael: Williamson has a 98 percent job-placement rate. We have two career fairs a year where companies can pay to come to campus to interview and hire our graduating seniors. Last year we had 175 companies from 20 states attend and generate $70,000 of revenue for the school. With only about 75 in each graduating class, the vast majority of our graduating seniors had multiple job offers. Many of the recruiters tell us that they are willing to hire a student from any of our six trade programs. These companies feel that they can train for the technical skills they need, but it’s tough to find honest, reliable, careful craftsmen who work hard and can be promoted quickly into leadership positions. It is inspiring and rewarding to see our young graduates leave Williamson with an associate degree, no debt, and multiple employment opportunities with great companies. We think that is exactly what Mr. Williamson had in mind when he wrote the Deed of Trust in 1888.

Rick: Those are some striking figures. How is Williamson able to achieve results like that?

Michael: I believe that our graduation rate is due to the strong sense of community we build on campus. A student’s 1,000-day journey through Williamson is undoubtedly challenging, but every one of our faculty and staff are committed to supporting our young men and teaching them the values and character traits they need to be successful. Our values-based approach to education is also a big reason why our graduates are in high demand. With 100 more companies than graduating seniors at our career fairs, most companies also compete to hire our underclassmen for good-paying internships and summer employment. This provides our students with great work experience and gives companies the opportunity to build a relationship with our underclassmen. Often, those summer jobs lead to full employment with that company when the student graduates.

Rick: I’m struck that student life at Williamson sounds pretty different from what I might expect at a self-professed trade school. You mentioned earlier that you require daily chapel attendance, and I know students have to wear a coat and tie to academic classes. Can you talk a bit about these norms and the underlying logic?

Michael: Williamson student life is definitely not like a typical college. The structure and the mandatory daily chapel service are designed to create a unified culture on campus. We want to immerse young men in the college’s core values of faith, integrity, diligence, excellence, and service. Williamson’s coat-and-tie dress code is a critical part of helping our students build the confidence they need to be successful. Too many of these young men have had a tough home life and have been looked down upon for their desire to work in the skilled trades. Often, high school guidance counselors dismiss students who don’t want to go to a traditional four-year college right after high school as lacking motivation. Williamson celebrates our students’ abilities and desire to work with their hands. We also show them the amazing opportunities for great careers in the trades, construction, and engineering. Many of our graduates do eventually return to college to earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees—even a few Ph.D.s. Feeling valued and building confidence in themselves and their abilities is part of the journey. Taking pride in their work and their appearance is a big part of developing confidence. Wearing a coat and tie every day is part of that. Because our students usually don’t own dress clothes, we have a “Clothes Closet” where they can choose what they need from a large selection of gently used, donated attire completely free of charge.

Rick: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Williamson?

Michael: It’s very challenging to keep a trade school’s curriculum, technology, and equipment current so that students have the best chance for success in the workforce. It requires a lot of financial resources to do that. With no tuition income, the financial challenge is even greater. The college has a strong advancement department, and I spend a lot of my time telling the Williamson story to those individuals and foundations who can assist us with securing those resources. Leveraging and expanding Williamson’s financial resources is critical to accomplishing our long-term goal of growing the school. We turn nearly 300 qualified applicants away each year because we don’t have the capacity in our facilities, programs, and dorms. We could double the enrollment here and still not have enough graduates to fill all the jobs that are being offered by the companies that participate in our career fairs. We have over 200 acres on our campus, so we have plenty of room to expand. We would need a substantial increase in our endowment to make this possible, but that is exactly what the board of trustees and I are trying to accomplish. Our country needs more Williamson men! Maybe by sharing the story of this amazing school with your audience, we can reach those people who would be able to make this a reality!

Rick: You’re obviously passionate about this work. How did you wind up in this role? What took you from the Army and West Point to the presidency of a trade school?

Michael: I graduated from West Point and served 25 years on active duty as an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers. I had the opportunity to teach mechanical engineering at West Point and near the end of my military career, I served as the deputy commandant of the United States Military Academy Prep School [USMAPS]. I enjoyed teaching and my role as an administrator at USMAPS and realized that post-retirement, serving in an educational leadership role was an interesting option. I connected with an educational headhunter who had worked with several of my West Point colleagues, and he informed me about the opening for the presidency of Williamson. I was immediately intrigued with the uniqueness of Williamson as a postsecondary, trade-focused junior college and the similarities I found with the educational model used at West Point and at USMAPS. I felt that Williamson’s mission and values were easy to be passionate about. Knowing that faith was a core value here and that daily chapel was a part of the program was also something that I was excited about. Although I didn’t have specific trade education training or experience, I am a licensed professional engineer, and my experience teaching mechanical engineering and supervising large construction projects during my time in the Army were relevant to the position. Both of the presidents prior to my tenure were retired military officers and had been successful; that probably helped persuade the board that I could do the job.

Rick: Can others replicate the Williamson model around the country? Should they? What would it take for them to do it well?

Michael: Williamson’s mission is to provide a tuition-free education to the neediest students, and that is an expensive thing to do. We estimate that to exactly replicate Williamson’s model somewhere else in the country, it would cost nearly $500 million. But I believe that key components of Williamson that make it successful can and should be adapted to work elsewhere. I think the most critical piece of our success is our faith-based emphasis on teaching character and leadership. Harmel Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich., will welcome their first class next fall. Making the Harmel Academy program men-only, residential, and faith-based were critical components that they took from our model. And we know that these components of our model are effective. In 2016, Tufts University published the findings of their three-year, multimillion-dollar study of Williamson and found that Williamson students scored far higher for their diligence, purpose, faith, and hopeful future expectations than other community college students in the region. Now more than ever, our country needs to help low-income young people find purpose and hope, and a values-based education in the trades is a great way to do that. Our country really needs more Williamson men and more Williamsons—it should not be the only one of its kind in the country!

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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