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Continuing to Find the Best Students

An overwhelming majority of alumni who responded to my letter have been supportive of our plans to uphold Amherst’s time-honored tradition of continually expanding our efforts to enroll the best students from across the country and around the world:

“The College’s concern for students of meager means…was really appreciated” – Alumnus, Class of1936

“I realize that the direction you have chosen is both difficult and costly. But one thing I have learned in my 75+ years is that there is no such thing as a free lunch…I believe you are doing the right things and going in the right directions.” – Alumnus, Class of 1952

“I was particularly glad to hear of the College’s renewed commitment to finding the best students, including those from working- and middle-class families. I attended Amherst…as a scholarship student from a farm family…it’s the best invitation I’ve ever accepted. Amherst made a tremendously positive difference in my life.” – Alumnus, Class of 1978

What encourages me the most is the strong effort you are making to reach out to more students with substantial financial needs…that is something I fully support, good luck with it.” – Alumnus, Class of 1976

Read what alumni had to say about the following topics:

Strategies for Success

We must continue striving to ensure that an Amherst education is accessible to the best students, whatever their financial circumstances. There are a range of strategies the College is using to achieve this vital goal, from how we recruit students to making sure that Amherst’s financial aid policies meet the needs of middle- and working-class students. Many alumni wrote in strong support of Amherst’s continuing adherence to need-blind admission and need-based financial aid policies:

“I believe two of the greatest assets of Amherst College are the dedication to need-blind admission and the generously funded financial aid office. Without these, I would never have been able to attend Amherst. My parents were gravely concerned about the expense. In the end, I convinced them to allow me to attend—ironically, Amherst ended up costing our family less than the public universities to which I applied, because of the generous financial aid package I received.” – Alumnus, Class of 1995

“Because of the inequitable distribution of wealth in our society, it is very important for the world to know that all applicants for admission to Amherst College have equal opportunity for acceptance regardless of their ability or inability to pay.” – Alumnus, Class of 1960

“I am glad to see the College’s continuing dedication to need-blind admission for students from the middle and working classes…There is no way I could have come to Amherst without a scholarship…” – Alumnus, Class of 1962

Others encouraged Amherst to keep student loans to a minimum in our financial aid packages. Amherst eliminated loans for the neediest students and reduced the loans other students are required in 1999. What the Board of Trustees must now consider is whether we can extend that “no loans” policy to middle-class students as well. Here is what alumni had to say:

“I would have never been able to afford to be a public interest lawyer if it were not for the endowment and the College’s commitment to ensuring that graduates are not saddled with crippling debt.” – Alumna, Class of 1997

“I was only able to attend Amherst thanks to the College’s generous financial aid…The fact that I graduated without huge loans allowed me to pursue numerous public interest jobs including the Peace Corps, working for an environmental NGO, and state government. If I had borrowed $100,000 or more, I would have been off to Wall Street to earn enough to retire my debts and would have missed the opportunity to contribute to society in other ways.” – Alumnus, Class of 1991

“[The College should] lower the price of an Amherst education to a level that allows…[students to]…graduate debt free.” – Alumnus, Class of 1950

Maintaining High Academic Standards

Several alumni, while applauding the strategies we are using to find and recruit bright students with limited financial resources, have encouraged us to do so while maintaining Amherst’s high standards:

“I am particularly encouraged by the effort toward working-class kids…but excellence must be maintained—it is possible to retain high standards while reaching out, I’m convinced of it, but I think it requires discipline in the acceptance process.” – Alumnus, Class of 1969

“The biggest area of question and concern remains student excellence…it is by no means clear how that goal will be best served while simultaneously continuing to serve the exigencies of working-class/ethnically diverse recruitment and (less clearly exigent) the favoring of alumni offspring admissions.” – Alumnus, Class of 1960

“[Based on my experience, when targets for diversity are set]…in order to show progress, the effort quickly moves beyond expanding the applicant pool to producing improved enrollment statistics. The students admitted under the program are not being done any favor. They would do better at a school that is matched to their academic abilities…standards inevitably suffer.” – Alumnus, Class of 1962

The College is firmly committed to sustaining and continuing to improve Amherst’s high academic standards. Extending our admission outreach is one of the most powerful strategies we can use to achieve that goal. It is simple economics—the broader and deeper the pool of applicants from which we draw, the better the students at the top of that pool whom we enroll. This is not just a theory, it is a strategy that has served us well for generations—every time Amherst has expanded its reach to include a broader range of prospective students, the College has become stronger academically as a result.

Expanding Student Body Size

A few alumni have commented on the proposal to expand Amherst’s student body by up to 20 students per entering class, with some in favor of and some opposed to the change:

“It concerns me that you propose to expand the size of the student body. It sounds like an easy decision, and the number seems small, but I would advise going in the opposite direction so that those things that are best about an Amherst education, especially friendship and collegial relationships between faculty and students, avoid the danger of being diluted by the jangle of activity and the trivia that accompanies the care and feeding of a large community.” – Alumnus, Class of 1955

“…try to reach your objectives without further increasing the school’s size. While much can certainly be gained through the initiatives you describe, much has already been lost through growth. Adding another 20 students seems harmless but will surely be followed by 20 more.” – Alumnus, Class of 1959

“For Amherst, small has usually been better…[however]…the admission of women expanded class size with gratifying results. Campus life improved. New courses were developed. More and different professors were employed. Women graduates enriched the reputation of the College…[Twenty additional students per class] will make sure all Amherst’s valued interests and historic ties remain well represented.” – Alumnus, Class of 1945

“Congratulations on expanding the [entering] class size by 20…this could be done each year until the College has 2000 students..[to]…increase the quantity of Amherst’s total production of excellence.” – Alumnus, Class of 1949

The small size of the Amherst student body has been a hallmark of the institution since its founding and makes a vital contribution to the quality of the education we provide because students have direct and immediate interaction with faculty and with each other. In the past, Amherst has expanded the student body periodically for exactly the same reasons we are proposing now—to cast a wider net in search of the most talented students while ensuring that all of the College’s valued constituencies continue to be well represented in the student body.

I believe that a modest expansion in the size of each entering class—from roughly 420 to 440 students—will preserve the educational intimacy that lies at the heart of the Amherst experience, while improving the quality of that experience by bringing an even more diverse range of perspectives to campus each fall. We are also taking additional measures to ensure the immediacy and intensity of the Amherst education—from next fall, all first-year Amherst students will once again be housed together around the College’s main quadrangle.

Early Decision

In light of Harvard’s and Princeton’s recent announcements that they will end their early decision admission programs in years to come, several alumni have asked about Amherst’s early admission policies:

“One concern I have is that by eliminating the early decision program at Amherst, students with a strong interest in attending the school will not have a way of committing to the school. Additionally, the school will not have a way of securing top notch students who are ready to commit to Amherst. Though I understand the argument that early decision systems discriminate against the financially challenged, I believe this fear is overestimated…I am wondering if a compromise might be a non-binding early acceptance program which would give all students a chance to evaluate their financial packages.” – Alumnus, Class of 1984

“I…urge the College to continue its early admissions. There is a lot to be said…for getting the college admission trauma out of the way by December, as well as reducing the amount of money and time spent on applications.” – Alumnus, Class of 1955

We believe that, over the last decade or so, the role of early decision in admission programs at top colleges has evolved from a helpful option that allows the strongest students to signal their interest in a particular institution to a means through which students try to maximize their chances for admission to highly selective colleges and universities. The system disadvantages those students whose economic circumstances force them to wait and compare aid offers before choosing a college. I think we are all worried about any aspect of admission that is not fair, or that encourages students to strategize in a way that distracts them from the best educational decisions. Of course, I also share your interest in finding the best students and having them at Amherst.

In recent years, when Harvard and some other universities have admitted more than half of each entering class through early decision, Amherst has led our peer group by holding early admissions to no more than 30 percent of the first-year class. The appropriate role of early decision in Amherst’s admission program has been a regular topic of discussion for Trustees, faculty and staff for several years, and I have no doubt that recent developments at Harvard and Princeton will only intensify these discussions in coming months. I hope that these institutions’ new policies signal a wider trend in American higher education toward placing the interests of students and their families above the narrow, competitive self-interest of individual institutions.