Illustration by James Yang

Hailing the College as “a national leader in expanding access to college for low­income students,” the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation named Amherst the 2016 recipient of a prize that will be used to close what President Biddy Martin calls “invisible opportunity gaps.” In a New York Times column about the award, Frank Bruni described Amherst as an “exemplar” and “way, way ahead of most of its peers” in enrolling low­income students.

The $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is awarded each year to a selective college or university with a strong record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low­income students.

“The generosity of our alumni, the priorities set by former President Tony Marx and the commitment of every constituency of the College have allowed Amherst to provide opportunity to many more students from low­income backgrounds,” said President Biddy Martin at the time of the May announcement. “Our goal is to identify and nourish talent wherever it exists. It exists everywhere.”

Amherst has a need­blind admission process for all students, including transfer applicants and international students. A total of 58 percent of Amherst students get need­based financial aid.

Among other milestones, Amherst’s percentage of low­income students receiving federal Pell Grants has risen from about 15 percent in 2006–07 to nearly 25 percent in 2015–16.

The College has also increased enrollment of community college transfer students—many coming from low­income families—from zero or one annually to 12 to 15 each year.

“We are focused now on sustaining that commitment,” Martin says, “and ensuring that all students can take full advantage of the transformative experiences that a liberal arts education offers.”

 Where Will the Money Go

At least half of the $1 million will fund summer programs for low­income Amherst students, including research with faculty, field study, arts training and internships, Martin says.

The money will also be used to recruit, train and pay students to serve as financial aid peer advisers for their transfer and first-generation peers, supplementing the work of the financial aid office.

Because about half of the students remaining on campus during school breaks are from low­income families, Martin says, Amherst will also create more programs to reduce their sense of isolation during those times.