Amherst wins economic diversity award—and reveals how it shaped its population

Diversity 'a giant benefit to the college'

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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