Amherst College Makes Sacrifices To Enroll Low-Income Students

AMHERST, Mass. — Many American colleges set aside space for low-income students who can’t attend without significant financial aid. But Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, is going out of its way to recruit these students. One reason: the belief that all students benefit from an economically diverse student body.

But those magnanimous efforts come at a financial cost to Amherst.

Bringing Students To Amherst

“There are 30,000 smart low-income students a year who score over 1300 on the math and verbal part of the SAT and have an A to A- average in school,” said Michael McCullough, who has made it his life’s work to find high-achieving low-income students and connect them to 35 of the most selective colleges and universities in the country.

Thanks in part to QuestBridge, the program McCullough founded, colleges he works with are offering more first-generation and low-income students full financial aid. But it’s one thing to identify these students. It’s another to persuade them to move a world away from home.

Amherst College diversity interns welcome a group of admitted students to campus on April 12. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Amherst College diversity interns welcome a group of admitted students to campus on April 12. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Amherst College makes a strong final pitch to admitted students. Every spring, it pays to bring more than 100 first-generation or low-income students or students of color to campus. (This year it was 175.) They have already been accepted and offered financial aid. Amherst must persuade them to enroll.

“And as you can imagine, it’s expensive,” said Tom Parker, himself a first-generation college student and Amherst’s longtime dean of admission and financial aid. “You’re talking about flying kids in from all over the United States. This is, be on hand to drive to Hartford at 2 o’clock in the morning because the kid missed his connection in Chicago and, what do you next? Well, you get in the car to pick the kid up.”

On a recent weekend, high school senior Denzel Wood was at Amherst after three flights from Fairbanks, Alaska. His father is a carpenter and his mother a stay-at-home mom.

The fact that the college had invited him to visit, Wood said, would weigh heavily in his decision whether to enroll.

“And that they paid for me to come visit,” Wood said. “Otherwise I would not have been able to afford it. It was over $2,000 just to buy a ticket to come here.”

Wood was also considering the University of Alaska and Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Oregon. High-achieving low-income and first-generation college students don’t usually consider leaving their home states for college.

“Many of them worry about leaving home for college even when all expenses are paid because they are accustomed to being contributors to their families’ welfare back home, and if they don’t have enough financial aid to cover their expenses, and also, potentially, to travel, that puts them in a very difficult position,” said Biddy Martin, Amherst’s president.

Adam Vest, from outside Louisville, Kentucky, is about to be a first-generation college student. His parents both work low-end manufacturing jobs.

“Even though we are the best high school in the state of Kentucky, the vast majority of our students go in-state, and the ones that do go out of state go right on the edge of the state to Cincinnati, or something like that,” he said.

Vest said without the financial aid that Amherst is offering him, he could not go to college there. In fact, he never imagined he would find himself at the college.

“I didn’t know if I would be able to go to a school like this even if I got in,” he said. “I had a confidence that I might be able get in through my academics, but I didn’t know if I could pay for it. Even if I did, I didn’t know if it would be worth it. They’ve got a fantastic financial aid program, meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. No loans. It was really great. They made it possible.”

Vest said the financial aid Amherst is offering him is more than any other college.

“Even though Amherst looked to be more expensive, it was actually cheaper,” he said.

Vest said it would even be cheaper for him to attend Amherst than to go to a state school. He said he wanted to use the weekend on campus to figure out if he would fit in as a Southerner.

What Financial Aid Is Crowding Out

Amherst is going out of its way to woo Vest. But that effort comes at a price.

“Amherst has lovely facilities of many kinds, but it doesn’t have the kinds of things that I’m used to seeing at other institutions,” Martin, its president, said. “It has a library that is in serious need of replacement. It needs an additional dining hall, a whole set of things that could have been done but for the amount of funding that’s being committed to financial aid.”

Martin is well-placed to understand first-generation college students. She was one herself. She grew up in rural Virginia, between Lynchburg and Roanoke. Her father was a cookie salesman and sold real estate. Her mother was the secretary at an elementary school.

Martin said she finds herself talking quite a lot with other first-generation students about how educational opportunity also comes with loss.

“When you come from a background where education is not trusted, not relished, there is conflict involved in seeking and getting the advantages of an elite education,” Martin said. “In my case, I think there was just a terror on the part of my parents of the influence, the impact that education would have, that it would change me, that it would mean I would never come back, that it separated me from them in everything from ideology to professional ambitions to the way I talked.”

Vest, from Kentucky, decided in the end not to enroll at Amherst. Wood, from Alaska, did.

So far, about half the students Amherst paid to bring to campus this spring have enrolled.


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  • J__o__h__n

    Surely there are plenty of low income students in MA that don’t need to be flown in from Alaska for $2,000. The schools have no fiscal discipline and instead of trying to keep costs low overall, they overspend on a handful of students to be able to publicize that they are flying poor students in from Alaska and Kentucky.

    And why does the school need an additional dining hall? There are lots of low cost places for students to eat in Amherst. The school just won’t be able to make more money from the students with an overpriced meal plan.

    • formerexpat

      I’d say 175 students is more than a handful. I am sure they are searching for diversity that goes beyond racial and ethnic stereotypes to life experience. Every elite school wants diversity but they also want the best of the best.

      I do find it surprising that she would plead poverty given the size of the Amherst endowment fund, but they do have some expensive renovations ahead – primarily the new science center and the library. The dining hall is at least 50 years old, and its capacity has been stretched as enrollment has increased by at least 25% over the past 40 years. There is no room to build an addition; so they have a dilemma. I would think they would want to retain a “dining commons” and not balkanize their dining halls any further; if it was simple it would have been done years ago.

    • Rich Stenberg

      You realize that Amherst is an expensive private college, where full tuition doesn’t cover the cost of any of the students’ tuition, right? Yet, despite the stratospheric, 228,400 cost of a four-year degree there at full tuition (which 95% percent of matriculants do indeed get in 4 years), payscale.com says that Amherst’s return on investment is 6.2 percent, the 79th highest in the nation, out of all colleges. http://www.payscale.com/college-roi/full-list The only other colleges that do as well or better in Massachusetts are other expensive, private schools. With return on investment being that high, it’s hard to argue that the high costs are a result of money being poorly spent. Amherst is right to take a whatever-it-takes approach to recruiting students from poor backgrounds, because, as has been repeatedly studied by Alan Kreuger at Princeton, among others, the lifetime income return of attending an elite school such as Amherst is far higher for students of poor backgrounds than those of wealthy backgrounds, who are liable to be high-earning regardless of attending an elite school. That suggests pretty strongly that Amherst’s money, which is in any event given in varying amounts to all students, is better spent on the poor ones than the wealthy ones–even if the only relevant consideration were economic return, rather than fairness or justice. If only more colleges did the same–particularly the ones who can most easily afford to.

      • J__o__h__n

        ““There are 30,000 smart low-income students a year who score over 1300 on the math and verbal part of the SAT and have an A to A- average in school,” said Michael McCullough, who has made it his life’s work to find high-achieving low-income students and connect them to 35 of the most selective colleges and universities in the country” — 175 of the 30,000 is 0.58% which is a handful. Lack of access to quality higher education is a systemic problem which won’t be solved by a small number of individual cases.

  • PaulD

    This is certainly a noble thing to do. However, this link shows Amherst’s tuition rising at an average of 5.6% per year since 1988: http://www.collegecalc.org/colleges/massachusetts/amherst-college/

    Certainly the salaries of middle class parents haven’t gone up at the same rate over the same period. I think it would also be noble of all higher education institutions to not turn middle class people into poor people.

  • http://depravda.blogspot.com Paul Zink

    Another reason I can be proud of my Alma Mater. Although as far as Biddy Martin’s assertion that the dining hall needs revamping, I might suggest the school can save some money by feeding students the slop they gave us back in the early 70s.

  • sjw81

    great effort but too little too late. the college debt bubble and excessive cost bubble will soon burst just like housing. we in the middle class can’t afford college

  • George Allegro

    As F.A. Hayek pointed out: Even though Marxism is revolutionary and Fabianism gradualist, the centrally planned and dictated system that each envisions is basically the same.

  • Kathy

    It’s one thing to enroll them, but I’ll be interested in how they fare at the school. As an attendee at Amherst’s larger and better neighbor, the place was a massive snobatorium.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/fthys Fred Thys

      First-generation students at Amherst graduate at the same rate as other students

    • caravan70

      “Amherst’s larger and better neighbor,” Kathy? UMass is an architectural abomination and a wonderful place for all who seek mediocrity. It does have some talented professors and students, but I don’t think you could seriously argue that anyone wouldn’t prefer Amherst College to UMass. That attitude may seem “snobbish,” but I think objectively anyone would prefer a faculty/student ratio of roughly 8:1 and civilized residential buildings to classes filled with hundreds of kids and high-rise warrens for thousands of freshmen and sophomores.

    • RL

      First generation and working class students at Amherst College graduate at the same rate as other students in the college, with some of the highest rates in the country.

  • caravan70

    Since when is the Robert Frost LIbrary “in serious need of replacement”? It works well, and if anything needs to stay open 24/7 to accommodate students cramming for exams or doing other late-night work. It was fine for me when I was at the College in the late 80s – early 90s. (Some old-timers I’ve spoken with would have preferred to rebuild Walker Hall or turn Converse back into a library, but luckily Frost was built – complete with a dedication ceremony at which President Kennedy spoke.) Same for Valentine Hall, the dining commons, which seem more than adequate – when I was back a few years ago it looked like the dining options were five times better than they were when I was a student. Good for the College for its commitment to bringing in a diverse student population and thus enhancing the education and experience of all who choose to enroll.

  • Howard Carter

    I applaud Amherst for matriculating qualified veterans from this generation at war. You ‘beat Williams’ where it matters, not that any Amherst people really care about that rivalry. To those alum ‘here’, thank you for supporting this school’s vision. The books were borrowed for a reason…

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