Amherst College is routinely ranked the number-one or number-two private, four-year school in the country. For nearly two centuries, it has filled its classrooms with the children of America’s blue-blooded families. But today, Amherst is leading the way among elite colleges in serving a much more diverse group of students.
Amherst is reaching out to people like Lilly Mommens. She’s one of the best students at her high school in rural Wisconsin. But when she thought about applying to Amherst, there was one thing standing in her way.
“Um, well, we’re poor,” Mommens said in a recent interview on Amherst’s campus. “We’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices and we’ve been on food stamps before and things like that. So for a long time I didn’t even think I could go to college because I’d have to be home working to help pay for things.”
But Mommens actually can afford to go to Amherst. Although the sticker price for Amherst — including tuition, room and board — is $64,000, most students don’t pay that much, and Mommens won’t pay nearly that much. The school offered her a financial aid package that means she’ll only have to pay $7,000 out of pocket per year — a number she and her family can handle — and she won’t have to take out any loans.
Amherst has adopted a need-blind policy in admissions. It admits students regardless of how much they can pay, and provides as much financial support as necessary for them to attend.
Amherst’s commitment to social uplift goes way back. When the college was founded in 1821, it was meant to educate “indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry.” It graduated its first African-American student in 1826. But over time, Amherst grew to become a school primarily for young men from privileged families.
Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst, remembers arriving on campus 40 years ago.
“The thing that struck me was the privilege of the place,” he says. “I remember walking through the student parking lot and seeing the cars that students brought to campus, which were much nicer than anything I was driving or could imagine driving.”
Amherst College was still all male then. In 1975, it began admitting women. And then in the early 2000s, it made another big change, driven in part by the vision of a new president, Anthony Marx.
Psychology professor Elizabeth Aries remembers that in one of his first faculty meetings, Marx declared, “We need to think about who our students should be,” instead of who they typically were.
Marx had a history of working for social equality. During South Africa’s apartheid era, Marx helped set up a school for black students. When he came to Amherst, he says, “We thought we could be a better college if we had a larger mix of students.”
Marx is now president of the New York Public Library. While he was at Amherst, he launched a campaign that ultimately raised half a billion dollars for the school. That meant a lot more money for scholarships.
Amherst has put an enormous effort into enrolling talented students of color. It sends recruiters to high schools it never visited before. It helped found QuestBridge, a nonprofit that matches high-performing, low-income students with 30 top-tier schools.
Today, the college is 50 percent non-white. A fifth of the student body is poor enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants.
It’s rare for colleges to put so much scholarship money into supporting low-income students. In fact, most scholarship money in America doesn’t go to low-income people. It goes to students who could afford to go to college without it. It’s called merit aid.
“Merit aid is loose term,” says Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “The way most people think about it is giving money to top students.”
Burd says families like to think merit aid is a reward for children who excel in school. But a lot of this money “isn’t going to the best and brightest students, but just going to students who are wealthy enough to come in,” Burd says. In other words, colleges know that if they lure in wealthy students by promising at least partial scholarship money, those students will be able to pay most of the cost out of pocket.
There’s no financial incentive for colleges to go the opposite direction — to meet full need of their students, Burd says. The only schools that are able to do it are schools with large endowments, like Amherst, Harvard and Vassar. The only reason to do it is to make good on a school’s mission to be socially and economically diverse.
When Amherst began its campaign to diversify its student body, some people worried the college might lose prestige. But today Amherst sits atop Washington Monthly’s “Best Bang for the Buck” list. It ranks second on U.S. News’s “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” list. (Amherst and Williams College typically battle for first place.) The Chronicle of Higher Education called Amherst “the best of the best” at serving low-income students. The graduation rate remains high – 96 percent of Amherst students graduate within six years. Amherst surveys its students after they graduate, and it has found that its students who received aid report the same standard of living as its students who didn’t.
Still, some “new” students say they struggle to fit in at Amherst.
“There are many more challenges that the lower-income and black students faced on this campus than the affluent white students,” Aries says. She wrote a book that looked at the student experience of race and class at Amherst.
“As far as some of them were concerned, they’d been dropped on Mars,” Aries said. “Whereas this is a continuation of a world that the affluent students had already known.”
Roshard Bryant felt out of place when he first arrived at Amherst. He knew he’d stand out — he’s a 6’8″ African-American senior from the Bronx. Still, Bryant figured the other black students at Amherst would be much like him: top students from urban high schools. But when he got to Amherst, “I met a lot of black students who were wealthy,” he says with a chuckle. “And that was a first for me.”
Bryant worried that he was less academically prepared than some of his more well-off peers.
“I think one of the hardest things for a person of color here is going to any professor — but especially going to a white professor who may not know where you’re coming from — and having to say, ‘I need an extension,'” Bryant said.
Bryant got through his first year with all A’s. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I finished with this sense of not doing it the way everyone else is doing it,” Bryant says. “You always need an exception. You’re not at the level that everyone else is.”
Brooke Brownell also felt out of place at Amherst, at least initially. She grew up in a working-class family in western Massachusetts. She was a community college student when she transferred to Amherst.
“I just remember almost being afraid to touch things,” Brownell says. “I was like, ‘How could I even stay here?’ Like it just felt out of my league, I guess.”
At 29, Brownell is much older than some of her classmates, but these days she is thriving at Amherst. Her grades are good. And one wall of her dorm room is covered with ribbons she’s won riding horses for the Amherst equestrian team, a sport she never could have afforded on her own.
Amherst is trying to try to level the playing field for students who come from a variety of backgrounds. It offers:
- Summer programs in the sciences and humanities for students who need help making the transition to college.
- Professionally staffed writing and quantitative skills centers.
- Diversity interns in the admissions office who help develop inclusive programming for students and prospective students.
- A multicultural resource center.
- A First Generation Association for students who are the first in their families to go to college.
Psychology professor Elizabeth Aries says that as these initiatives emerged, the college realized that just admitting low-income students wasn’t enough. The school’s culture had to change, too.
“We hadn’t thought through completely [issues] that were based on assumptions of wealth,” Aries says. “But now we had many students here who didn’t have that kind of wealth.”
The 10-day Thanksgiving break was one example. Aries says the campus used to shut down during break. “The students who are still on campus are the ones who can’t afford to go home for that 10-day period,” she says. “These students are left without dining facilities and are basically going to have to pay money, which they don’t have, to go eat out in town for 10 days.”
Now, the school stays open during break. It also buys two round-trip airline tickets each year for students from needy families.
Amherst no longer takes it for granted that students will arrive with enough money to buy bedding for their dorm rooms, or winter coats. If a family’s contribution to tuition is less than $5,000, Amherst’s financial aid office will now provide what they call a “start-up grant” of $400 to get things that more well-off students have money to buy. The college will also pay for them to buy clothes for job interviews.
Professors at Amherst say the influx of new students has changed things in the classroom, too. Sarat says teaching methods he used to use with more privileged students didn’t work as well with his new students. He had to revisit what he was doing, and he says that’s made his classes better for all of his students.
“It’s given me a second wind,” Sarat says. “It’s given me a new purpose. Another gear to go to. What I think is that I’m a livelier, better, more-engaged teacher than I might have otherwise been had the student body not changed.”
The college is still figuring out how to serve its new students, and still making changes to try to ensure that they feel welcome.
This year, for example. Amherst paid for a graduation party for first-generation students.
Every year at graduation, Amherst parents rent tents on campus for private, catered parties, with white linens and fancy hors d’oeuvres. These tent parties are expensive. Some students felt this was a tangible example of a class division: The haves could afford to celebrate their graduates in style, while the have-nots couldn’t. A student asked the college to sponsor a tent for first-generation students, and the college did. The total cost for tent, tables, chairs, dance floor, music and catered food was $11,700.
The next day, at graduation, the main quad looked a bit like the United Nations. Parents in colorful caftans and headscarves pulled up chairs next to parents wearing seersucker suits and pearls. Roshard Bryant’s family drove up from the Bronx and D.C. to cheer wildly as he crossed the stage.
Bryant says graduating from Amherst has given him new faith in his own abilities.
“If I can get through these five years of Amherst, which has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” he says, “I think I can do anything.”