On the first day of class this fall, this year’s 11 on-campus Davis Scholars (which, even with the additional nine commuter students, is much fewer than the “about 50” number listed on the website) found themselves locked out of Cedar Lodge, the program’s on-campus housing. Contacting Campus Police was no help — when they arrived, they responded with what most Davis Scholars have become used to hearing: simply “Davis Scholar? What’s that?” It took a while, but they eventually got the building unlocked, after finally convincing the on-duty officers they were allowed to be on campus.
This is just one of the experiences that often makes the first few months, if not the entire two years of being at Wellesley difficult for students in the Davis Scholar Program. Wellesley’s Davis Scholar Program, or Davis Degree Program, is “designed to accommodate the needs of women choosing to pursue a traditional liberal arts education at a nontraditional time in their lives.” (Taken from the Wellesley College website.) Established first in 1971 as the Continuing Education Program, and later renamed for Elisabeth Kaiser Davis ’32 on its 20th anniversary, the program includes commuting students and on-campus residents, in the now one available residence hall for the program — not two, as is still described on the college website, and accepts applicants “generally at least 24 years old,” including those mid-career, under 24 but with children, and veterans of the armed services. This fall, the College eliminated the option of part-time enrollment for Davis Scholars, facing criticism from current students and alumni who see this decision as antithetical to the original goal of the program, as reported by The News in May 2021.
In interviews with The News, each of the four responding Davis Scholars cited some incident where they were “made to feel like [they weren’t] a student at Wellesley” and that the problems they face often “feel like an outsider issue.” Davis Scholars over age 30, especially, often encounter professors and staff who assume them to be everything but a student — that’s why, says Green*, she kept her OneCard on-hand at all times during her first year.
These problems extend beyond being recognized on-campus. With the elimination of the part-time enrollment option, participating in the Davis Scholar program has become more financially demanding. For Blue*, this new pay structure was, in fact, a surprise. She signed up for 3.25 units at the start of the fall then went up to four units during the add period and saw the price tag go up on her overall tuition. This was not a surprise — Davis Scholars, as she knew, had always paid per unit for classes. But, she later changed her mind and went back down to 3 credits. Looking at that price tag as someone who was so used to working full time was not super comfortable, she said. But this time, the total bill did not go back down to the original 3 credit charge. After reaching out to Student Financial Services (SFS), she learned that the per-unit pay structure was old — as of this semester, Davis Scholars now paid $30,000 in comprehensive tuition no matter how many credits they took.
“None of this was in the literature online,” she said. Not to mention that, until she had added a fourth class, Workday had somehow still been operating on the old pay structure. In pressing this point, SFS eventually did allow her to continue on the old pay structure for the fall, although, starting in the spring semester, she had to agree to the new pay structure. She cut back her work hours, and this semester is taking five credits, determined, and maybe feeling a bit pressured, to get her money’s worth.
For Red*, being a Davis Scholar means not only working full-time, but extra. She discovered last semester, her first semester on campus, that she will have to take five classes every semester until she graduates in order to double-major in theater and English. Though all of her credits earned from her previous colleges transfer into overall graduation credits, placing her as an incoming 2nd semester sophomore last fall Credits earned from her community college only count for 0.75 of a credit, and some contribute to departments that don’t exist at Wellesley. Her year of ASL, for example, which does not completely fulfill Wellesley’s language requirement, cannot be completed here, but is still being counted towards her overall credits earned. As a result, she has only five semesters to complete at least 25 credits, starting two majors almost completely from scratch.
“It’s common for traditional students here to have two majors, [and] it’s especially common in the theater department to have a second major,” she said, but at every request for even just one extra semester here, she has barely been given a one-word response from the registrar.
Transfer credits were also a complication for Green* during her first semester last fall. She took a Hebrew class at Brandeis — something that is not offered at Wellesley — but was told those credits would not count. Like other Wellesley students who take Brandeis and MIT courses, their credits from those classes are counted as transfer credits — but, as a Davis Scholar, Green* had been told she had already “maxed out” her transfer credits coming into Wellesley.
For Yellow* in the fall of 2021, confusingly, it seems the rules were less rigid. She was able to successfully petition the College last year for recognition of 16 credits, rather than the 12.5 she was initially approved for. But she only found out that petitioning was possible through another student — the previous dean had not informed her of this possibility. Whether because of the elimination of part-time enrollment or staff turnover in the registrar’s office, this year’s incoming Davis Scholars have been denied any of these requests. Red* noted that it feels as though everything about the Davis Scholar program operates on a case-by-case basis. Yellow*, too, said it has often required repeated confrontation with the registrar and SFS to confirm details about financial standing that were already reported in her application.
Thankfully, many of the Davis Scholars have said the new dean is “fantastic” and has fixed a large gap in communication that had been historically common. The problem is, they say, she still has little power against bigger administration departments in the College.
Furthermore, says Blue*, as a commuter student and therefore not on the meal plan, she did not know what to do when her language teacher repeatedly encouraged the whole class to attend weekly immersion lunches held by the department.
“Because I’m not paying the school to eat on campus, … I’m basically cut-off from a lot of the extra curricular activities that go along with my classes,” Blue* said.
Yellow*, too, was simply “sneaking into the dining hall” because the Davis Scholars’ SFS advisor forgot to release grant funds. “I went five days without being able to buy food,” she said.
Green* notes that even just issues in communication like these are threatening the survival of the program. This is why, she says, in the past 5-6 years, the Davis Scholars has seen not only a reduction in application and enrollment, but a huge demographic shift: from mostly working mothers in their 30s, 40s and 50s to a cohort mostly in their late-20s.
“Yes,” said Dean and Director of the Davis Degree Program Kelly Lewis in an email to the News, “the cohort of Davis Scholars has been shrinking for several years, but I do not believe this was a direct result of any administrative changes. Wellesley is committed to the success of the Davis Degree Program and has no plans to eliminate the program as it would be against the College’s commitment to inclusive excellence.”
In an email to the News, Director of Media Relations Stacey Schmeidel, said the “number of part-time Davis Scholars had declined in the years before the change was announced … [In spring of 2021] fewer than 25% of enrolled Davis Scholars were part-time, and none of the admitted students at the time planned to pursue part-time study.” In fact, Schmeidel said the loss of part-time enrollment was a response to “reduced demand” for part-time options, due “largely to the increased availability of part-time options and online courses at community colleges, regional universities and other schools.”
Green* attributes the program “being minimized” — even unintentionally — to a vicious cycle of “less visibility, fewer resources, less engagement.” Even just more awareness of who Davis Scholars are on campus, she said, might begin to turn that around.
Despite its issues, said Green*, “the Davis Scholar program and Wellesley College in general has completely changed my life. … I would hate for that [opportunity] not to be available to other people.”