Amherst College won the second annual Jack Kent Cooke Foundation prize for commitment to economic diversity.
The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence goes to a private, selective institution that demonstrates a history of not just admitting, but also graduating low-income students. Vassar College took home the inaugural prize last year.
Little more than a decade ago, fewer than one in seven Amherst students received Pell grants. Today, about a quarter do. The school has also upped its number of community college transfer students from zero to 12 to 15 annually.
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The school reached these levels by developing relationships with community-based organizations and schools in low-income areas. Admissions are need-blind—and the school ensures no Pell students need to take out student loans. Fifty-eight percent of students receive financial aid—and all of it is need-based.
Once on campus, students receive study abroad funding, stipends for unpaid internships, and other forms of support.
"Opportunity for people from every conceivable background is essential to a functioning democracy, and in this country we're not proving enough of it," Amherst President Biddy Martin says. "I also think it's a waste not to develop talent in young people wherever it exists, and it exists everywhere."
Amherst officials say they plan to use the $1 million prize money to fund summer programs aimed at low-income students, such as research with faculty members, arts training, and internships.
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Increasing low-income representation on campus is not something the school does as an act of charity, Martin says. "It's a giant benefit to the college," she says, in terms of culture, academics, and enrollment.
The other finalists for the Cook Prize were: Davidson College, Pomona College, Rice University, and Stanford University (Seltzer, Inside Higher Ed, 5/17; Buni, "Sunday Review," New York Times, 5/14).
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