Amherst arose out of a spirit of generosity. In the years before its founding, local residents pledged donations to a Charity Fund to support the fledgling College. The pledges came in many forms—from watermelons and turnips, to pennies a week for life, to half a yearly salary—as Amherst’s early patrons gave what they could to make the College a reality. Amherst’s mission may have moved beyond “the education of indigent young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry,” as it was in 1821, but the College has continued to uphold that spirit of generosity throughout its history. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Amherst’s decision to replace all loans in financial aid packages with grants and scholarships, allowing students to graduate with little to no debt.

Peter Mack ’15; photo by Jimell Greene
For Peter Mack ’15, Amherst’s diverse student body was a draw and an advantage, because he could hear points of view far different from his own. Photo by Jimell Greene.

The policy is only the most recent step taken to make Amherst affordable for a wider range of students. In 1965, the College adopted a need-blind admission policy. Twenty years later, “Amherst was among the first colleges and universities in the country to reduce the loans for low-income students,” says Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Katharine Fretwell ’81. In 1999, the College eliminated loans for students with family incomes below $40,000 a year. In 2007, the trustees voted to eliminate them for everyone. 

Amherst now meets 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need without the use of loans. Some students still choose to borrow to fund other expenses or as part of their family’s share of tuition.

Today, 55 percent of Amherst students receive College financial aid. Perhaps most important, the policy has been a rousing success in what it has given the College: every marker of student excellence has risen in the past decade.

While Amherst is one of 16 U.S. institutions with such a policy, it is one of only four—and the only small liberal arts college—that is need-blind, that has eliminated loans and that meets the full demonstrated need for not only U.S. students but international ones as well. One key reason the College is able to do this is the extraordinary generosity of its alumni: as of 2016–17, there were 618 dedicated scholarship funds for 839 students. 

Silvia Wu ’11; photo by Jimell Greene
Silvia Wu ’11 says Amherst gave her the opportunity to take classes and pursue careers that fit her particular interests. Photo by Jimell Greene.

The impetus for the policy came in 2006, when the Committee on Academic Priorities recommended extending outreach to lower-income students, eliminating loans and becoming need-blind for international students. In “an expensive decision to be made at a critical time,” as Fretwell puts it, the faculty approved all of these initiatives, and the College decided to increase enrollment to help achieve them. 

Those decisions have paid off. Last year, 55 percent of Amherst students received College financial aid. The policy has allowed admission officers to reach populations who would not otherwise have had Amherst in their sights. “When you can wave a financial aid flag with that kind of generosity, people pay attention, and I think that’s made a big difference in the kind of students now considering Amherst,” Fretwell says. 

Perhaps most important, the policy has been a rousing success in what it has given the College: every marker of student excellence has risen in the past decade.

Ten years in, it’s clear that Amherst’s more diverse student body is a draw and an advantage. This was certainly true for Peter Mack ’15. A Cape Cod native who came from Tabor Academy, Mack learned about Amherst “accidentally,” and it was love at first sight. He made friends quickly, and they made his experience. “The opportunity to hear points of view that are so drastically different from mine, whether it’s because the person came from Asia or Africa, or California or Florida, or because their families are made up differently, was invaluable,” says Mack, a member of the squash team who wrote a history thesis on desegregation and urban planning. 

Now a consultant with Censeo in Washington, D.C., Mack wishes he had more opportunities in his day-to-day life to engage with others the way he did at Amherst.

Silvia Wu ’11 came from a large high school in San Francisco. Her two priorities for college were that it be far from home and small. Wu calls her experience at Amherst “eye-opening,” and the opportunity to freely explore her academic interests was paramount. 

“I am thankful for the financial aid package,” Wu says. “It gives students across different backgrounds—whether you’re middle-class or from a working-class background like I was—the opportunity to experience a liberal arts education.” This opportunity otherwise might have been unaffordable. 

“So I’m grateful,” she says. “I could take classes that were interesting to me and pursue careers and professions that fit my interests.” A recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Wu is currently a law clerk at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C.*

For Mari Crook ’13, Amherst was an option only because of the financial aid package, which made the College more affordable than the University of Illinois, where she would have been an in-state student. She was impressed with the interest Amherst took in her, beginning with flying her to see the campus once she’d been accepted. That sense of care continued throughout her time at Amherst: the College funded her internships in India and Costa Rica and her semester abroad in Paris. That Amherst subsidized more than just her tuition allowed Crook to think more globally. 

Mari Crook ’13; photo by Paul Elledge
Amherst was an option for Mari Crook ’13 only because of the financial aid. Her ability to graduate without loans had a major impact on her career choice. Photo by Paul Elledge.

Now, Crook is in her third year of teaching math at a bilingual school in southern Thailand. While she originally considered teaching as a temporary occupation, she is now pursuing certification, with the goal of eventually working in an international school abroad. 

“Because I was able to leave college basically completely debt-free, I don’t feel as much pressure to make money right away,” she says, “The fact that I don’t have loans made a big impact on what I thought I could do after college.” 

Crook plans to stay longer in Thailand, where she now teaches all of the math classes at her little school. “I really love it here,” she says, “and I don’t think my work is done yet.” 


*This article has been revised from the original to include Wu's correct job title.