By Caroline Jenkins Hanna

At a White House summit, she said Amherst will undertake four new programs to help low-income students attend and succeed in college.

[Access] At the invitation of the White House, President Biddy Martin traveled to the nation’s capital in January to take part in a summit on higher education access. There she announced four new initiatives that aim to increase the number of low-income students who attend—and succeed in—college, both at Amherst and elsewhere.

The summit—attended by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and college and university presidents, among other leaders—focused on endeavors at various institutions that have the potential to be more widely adopted.

“I am pleased that the White House has recognized Amherst for its success in recruiting low-income and underrepresented students, in making an Amherst education affordable for them, and for retention and graduation rates that equal those of the student body as a whole,” says Martin. “We are eager to take on additional challenges aimed at ensuring that all our students take advantage of high-impact learning opportunities at Amherst, while working with partners to increase the number of low-income students in our region who go to college.”

Biddy Martin

Biddy Martin

The four initiatives aim to:

Boost the number of Native Americans who go to and graduate from college. Amherst has pledged more resources to finding, enrolling and supporting Native students by partnering with College Horizons, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students succeeding in college. Amherst will host a College Horizons summer program—a six-day college admission workshop that will match students with admission officers, college counselors, essay specialists and others. The college will also deploy its student “Telementors”; coming from diverse backgrounds themselves, Telementors guide high schoolers through the college search, application and choice process.

Help low-income and disadvantaged students in and around Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Amherst. Leveraging the existing relationships, community-organizing skills and reputation of its Center for Community Engagement, Amherst will convene community and education leaders to consider how to increase the number of low-income and disadvantaged middle- and high school students in the area who apply to, are admitted to and attend college—any college.

Increase the proportion of low-income and disadvantaged Amherst students who major in science and math fields. Amherst will continue to examine the relative proportions of student groups on campus majoring in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and analyze where there are gaps between low-income/disadvantaged students and the student body as a whole. The college will draw on successful programs in its departments of biology and math, as well as programs at other schools, to close those gaps.

Close the “college experience” gap between low-income Amherst students and the student body as a whole. Research shows that young people who participate in study abroad and internship programs, write honors theses and conduct independent research with faculty supervision are more likely to be  engaged in college life and, as a result, more likely to succeed in college. Amherst will track its students’ involvement in these activities in order to assess and better understand the effects of the programs.

“Our goal with these initiatives,” says Martin, “is to not only provide low-income students better access to higher education but also to offer them the best tools and training to succeed at college and beyond.”

Photo by Rob Mattson

Unparalleled Success

The college’s track record in higher-ed access and affordability is widely recognized as one of the best in the country. Amherst has a need-blind admission policy for both domestic and international students, and it meets the full demonstrated financial need of every admitted student. In 2008 it replaced all loans with grants in its financial aid awards, making Amherst one of just a few colleges and universities in the country that do not require students to go into debt in order to pay for their undergraduate educations.

  • At Amherst about 60 percent of students receive financial aid, and low-income students graduate at about the same rate as other students—95 percent.
  • Of transfer students to Amherst since 2007, 65 percent came from community colleges; of those from community colleges, 85 percent are low-income students.

  • The percentage of low-income Amherst students who graduated with STEM majors increased from 9 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2013.