A Matter of National Interest

Ten Student Profiles

Read student profiles.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

It’s hard to imagine a less likely Amherst student than Ruben Sepulveda ’13. He was a homeless pool hustler in New York City, a high school dropout who’d lost the right to see his toddler daughter. For five years he lived in a pool hall boiler room. His path to a better future began when he moved in with relatives in Holyoke, Mass., where he took up writing and made his way to Holyoke Community College.

He studied hard, attending classes every day after working at a hotel from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night. He met some Amherst undergrads; he made it his goal to become one. “I carried a poster of Amherst in my book bag,” he says, “and I hung another one in my closet.”

Now he is a community college graduate and an Amherst psychology major. At age 36, he lives in a dorm. “I walk around the campus, look around, take it all in,” he says. “I get food every day—as much as I want—versus having $2 in my pocket and having to decide whether to spend it on bread or tuna, or buying the bread and stealing the tuna. Sometimes I question why I’m here. There are plenty of Rubens out there. Why me?”

Sepulveda’s admission to Amherst is part of a deliberate effort to accept—and, in many cases, find and recruit—low-income high school seniors, international students and community-college transfers (including military veterans) with demonstrated academic promise. The effort has required money, time and creative thinking. During the eight years of Anthony W. Marx’s presidency, it noticeably changed the makeup of the student body—and it was a central reason why his successor, Biddy Martin, became interested in the job (see “A Conversation with the 19th President”).

Marx took office in 2003 declaring socioeconomic diversification his goal, and he resolutely pursued it in the years that followed. When he arrived, Amherst was already “need-blind,” meaning that financial need does not count against an applicant in the admission process. Amherst had also become, in 1999, the first U.S. college in the country to replace loans with grants for the lowest-income students. But to Marx, the admission office and the board of trustees, those policies were not enough. They wanted to attract larger numbers of very bright students who’d never thought of Amherst, or even of higher education. “When I came to the college, we knew this would be a pressing issue, but we did not have an exact plan,” says Marx, who left Amherst on June 30 to head the New York Public Library.

A broad strategy slowly emerged, a crucial piece of which was the 2008 decision to replace loans with grants for every undergraduate, making it possible for all Amherst students to graduate without debt. “Amherst paid about 90 percent of my tuition, and I couldn’t have come without that,” says Gregory Campeau ’11, who went on to major in history, study at Oxford and deliver the student address at his Commencement. Also in 2008, Amherst became one of only eight U.S. colleges and universities to extend need-blind admission to international students.

But what about students who have not heard of Amherst, or who don’t think they can afford it? Among other things, the admission office has joined a College Board pilot project that uses ZIP codes to identify low-income kids with high SAT scores. But especially fruitful are relationships with some 160 nonprofits—including the Ventures Scholars Program and the National Hispanic Institute—that help talented, disadvantaged kids get into college. The most productive of these partnerships is with QuestBridge, an organization that matches high-achieving, low-income students with colleges that want them. Through the QuestBridge National College Match, students use a single form to apply to all of the group’s partner schools. The program started in 2003 with only five partners—Amherst, Rice, Grinnell, Wheaton and Trinity. Now there are 30, several of which were introduced to the program through Marx, says QuestBridge founder Michael McCullough. QuestBridge also helps students navigate the complicated process of applying for federal financial aid. “I’ve been long frustrated by the complexity and forbidding nature of financial aid in this country,” says Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tom Parker. “QuestBridge has been a godsend.” Over eight years, Amherst has enrolled 241 QuestBridge students.

To further broaden the college’s reach, Arthur W. Koenig ’66 started a scholarship fund that brings talented low-income students to Amherst from Latin America and Africa. In addition to tuition money, the Koenig Scholarship Fund provides money for on-campus academic support, as well as for annual recruiting trips to those regions: Koenig Scholar Edward Muguza’11 remembers Amherst admission officers visiting his Zimbabwe high school twice during his years there. There are other new scholarship funds, too, including one for U.S. military veterans who earn admission and enroll. Three veterans are now students at Amherst; they are the first American vets at the college in decades.

When it’s time to make admission decisions, the college takes an approach that Parker characterizes as “high-need affirmative,” which means, he says, that “in an all-things-being-equal situation, we will give preference to first-generation students [meaning, the first in their families to go to college] coming from low-income backgrounds.”

Taken together, these efforts have produced striking results: In 2003, 15.3 percent of Amherst students qualified for Pell Grants, the need-based federal scholarships generally for undergraduates whose families earn less than $40,000 per year. Today that number is 22.7 percent. Last year 15 community college transfers matriculated at Amherst, up from six in 2006. Today, more than half of new transfer students come from community colleges. Students of color increased from 36 percent of the first-year class to 43 percent during Marx’s presidency. When Marx became president there were 27 international students in the first-year class; last year there were 44. Combined, students of color and non-U.S. citizens now compose about 50 percent of each first-year class.

While those numbers say a lot, they don’t explain why access is such a priority. “It is a global society,” Parker says. “I want to prepare kids to live in that world. It’s not only philosophical. It’s not only moral. It’s a simple reality.”

Also, diversity is essential to Amherst’s ability to attract all students: “It would be poison to be a homogenous college,” Parker says. Or, in the words of Brandon Quinn ’11, who came to Amherst from a military academy in Georgia, “I didn’t want to meet just one kind of person.”

In fact, diversity drives selectivity at Amherst, and vice versa. The statistics bear this out. There were 8,461 applicants in 2011, compared to 5,631 in 2003. Of those, the college accepted 13 percent in 2011, compared to 18 percent in 2003. Among small liberal arts colleges, Amherst has the largest number of applicants—and it accepts the smallest percentage of them, Parker says. “If we were a fabulous academic school but were homogenous, the brightest kids would not be interested,” Parker says. “If we were incredibly diverse but of mediocre academic quality, the brightest kids would not be interested. You don’t choose one or the other. You choose both.”

That’s what Mike Belkin ’11 did. The son of two doctors, both 1978 Amherst alumni, Belkin says  he transferred to Amherst from Trinity because he wanted to learn from classmates who were both bright and diverse. His closest friends became Matt Brewster ’11 and Isaac Cameron ’11, both community college transfers from low-income backgrounds (see profiles). 

Applications are up across the board—among athletes, among children of alumni, among every racial and ethnic group. “This simply allows us to be more selective for all groups,” Parker says—“to raise the floor” in the admission process. For example, 2,720 students of color applied for admission to this year’s incoming class, more than double the 1,304 who applied to enter in 2003. The number of non-U.S. citizens applying to Amherst also more than doubled during this time frame, from 678 to 1,706.

Moreover, diversity benefits not only the college and its students. As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Leonhardt noted in The New York Times in May, the past four U.S. presidents each attended a highly selective college. Arguing that admission policies at these schools are “a matter of national interest,” Leonhardt singled out Amherst and its “much higher share of low-income students than almost any other elite college.” He wrote, “I think Amherst has created a model for attracting talented low- and middle-income students that other colleges can copy.”

Indeed, the percentage of Amherst students on Pell Grants is well above the national average of 15 percent for 2008 (the most recent year for which this statistic is available). While most schools don’t have the money to increase financial aid, Amherst also has a higher percentage of Pell-eligible students than very wealthy schools such as Harvard, where Pell Grant recipients made up 17 percent of the student body last year. After the economy went south in 2008, Amherst maintained its efforts; Williams, in contrast, rescinded its no-loans policy in 2010, reintroducing modest loans for some, and also dropped need-blind admission for international students.

Leonhardt especially praised efforts to enroll community college transfers, calling them “the single easiest way for a college to become more meritocratic.” At Amherst, such programs have led to the admission of students as varied as Devon Geary ’13e, whose daunting illnesses kept her from finishing high school (see profile, page 21), and Mark Hellmer ’13, who was previously a U.S. Army Ranger. A married 25-year-old, Hellmer did a year of community college after high school, but his efforts fizzled, he says, because “I wasn’t especially interested.” Fizzling, too, was his desire to be a physician’s assistant: “Joining the army, I figured, would give me a bullet point on my resume and also time to think about my future.” He liked the Army, but after four years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I felt I was not in control of my life.”

Hellmer went back to community college in California and applied to Amherst after a friend heard about the college’s desire to recruit veterans. “The whole experience at first was a culture shock,” Hellmer says of his arrival in Western Massachusetts, “but I jumped into it: rowed crew, TA’ed a class, took Calculus II, Russian, introduction to physics; I’d gotten a D in beginning algebra but knew I’d need math to be a scientist.” He initially struggled in Calculus II. “I felt I had to step it up academically,” he says. “I kept my extracurricular activities; I just studied more.”

The Amherst administration works hard to ensure that students in this situation do not struggle alone. After urging them to seek help from their professors, the dean of students’ office encourages students to take advantage of the Peer Tutoring Program; the Writing Center, which offers professional help in academic writing; and the Moss Quantitative Center, which provides walk-in tutoring in math, science and economics. “The students who come here have the potential,” says community college transfer Geary. “It just may take a while for that to become evident. The intellectual capacity is so high here. We just need guidance to realize it.” As a last resort, each first-year student and first-semester transfer can apply to drop one course without penalty midway through the semester.

Pat O’Hara, a chemistry professor who serves as dean of new students, says Amherst staffers work hard to ease the social transition, too. They’ve created programs for students with nowhere to go during Thanksgiving, winter and spring breaks; found coats and sweaters for those who’ve never needed them before; bought a plane ticket home for a student who’d had a family emergency; and informed students that the college can provide their health care. “They do what needs to be done,” O’Hara says of her colleagues. “I can’t overexpress what a heroic job the dean of students’ office does.”
Hellmer is now a geology major who did field work this summer and hopes to attend graduate school. He has been “generally impressed” with the way diversity is championed and carried off at Amherst. “I’ve met people from every continent,” he says, “including two geology majors from South America, a woman from Africa, a student from London.”

To Parker, this increased diversity is “a dream come true.” He’s quick to point out its historical roots: that the college was founded in 1821 to educate “indigent young men of piety and talents”; that, in the 1960s, Amherst became one of the first U.S. colleges or universities to adopt need-blind admission; that Marx’s predecessor, Tom Gerety, increased spending substantially to bring more talented, low-income prospective students to visit campus.

Just as these efforts did not begin with Tony Marx, they won’t end with him either. “Diversity has never been more important on our college campuses,” says 19th President Biddy Martin, who attended college with the help of a scholarship. “Our students have got to have the chance to live, to work, to study and to build networks with their peers from every conceivable background and from all over the world.” Martin will “absolutely sustain that commitment,” she insists, “and expand our success where possible.”

Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine. Roger M. Williams ’56, in addition to writing the student profiles, contributed to this article.