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….(continue reading)