Amherst Magazine

Out of Debt

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Jessica Mestre ’10 had expected to leave Amherst more than $10,000 in debt—“a lot of money,” she says, “to have to worry about.” Then, in July, she got a phone call from her father, who could hardly believe what he’d just read: that Amherst would replace all student loans with scholarships in its financial aid packages. Mestre, who is from Tallahassee, Fla., was stunned—and considerably relieved. “My mom, dad and I were floating on a cloud for a few days,” she says.

The new policy will go into practice in the 2008-09 academic year. Once implemented, it will affect current students like Mestre as well as new ones. “This should be especially helpful to students from middle-income families,” said President Anthony W. Marx in an e-mail to alumni, “who often have had to take on significant debt in order to ensure access to an outstanding education, and who often graduate feeling that their career choices are constrained by that debt.”

The change will make Amherst only the third college or university in the nation to replace loans with grants for all students. (The others are Princeton University and Davidson College.) In 1999, Amherst be­came the first in the country to replace loans with scholarships for students with family incomes of less than $40,000 a year. A few years ago, the college expanded the policy to include families whose incomes are below $60,000 a year.

The price of tuition, room and board at Amherst this year is $45,000. For all except international students, Amherst is need-blind; admission decisions take no account of a student’s ability to pay tuition, and every admitted student receives a financial aid package that meets the student’s full financial need.

For about a third of the student body, that financial aid package currently includes college or federal loans. At the end of four years, those loans typically amount to more than $10,000. At an interest rate of 6.8 percent, that’s about $100 per month to repay over 10 years.

For Mestre, the change will mean no loans during her junior and senior years. By her tally, she’ll save $7,000 before interest.

The new policy will cost the college roughly $1.6 million a year. “We believe,” says Jide Zeitlin ’85, chairman of the col­lege’s Board of Trustees, “that this new program designed to eliminate barriers
for middle-income families will inspire new levels of commitment from those who know Amherst.”

On his blog (www.mikeoliver.org), Michael Oliver ’97 posted Marx’s e-mail under the headline, “Proud to be a Lord Jeff.” Oliver, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., says he was fortunate to have graduated from Amherst with no loans to repay. “With debt,” Oliver says, “comes lack of options: One more painter goes to law school. One more would-be inner-city teacher opts for consulting. I do not believe that one career option is better than another; I just want students to have the room to make those decisions based on their goals and dreams, not the size of their monthly loan payments.”

Illustration: © 2007 Robert Neubecker c/o theispot.com