Hailing Amherst College as “a national leader in expanding access to college for low-income students,” the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced today that Amherst College is the 2016 recipient of a $1 million prize, which will be used to close what President Biddy Martin has called "invisible opportunity gaps."
“Amherst has proven that the goal of admitting and graduating increased numbers of low-income students with excellent academic qualifications can be achieved,” said Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy in a statement.
“We are honored to have been recognized by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin.
"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 low-income backgrounds," she said. "Our goal is to identify and nourish talent wherever it exists. It exists everywhere.”
The college’s admissions review is a need-blind process, including for transfer applicants and foreign students. A total of 58 percent of Amherst students get need-based financial aid and the college provides no merit aid.
In a column about the award, the New York Times' Frank Bruni noted that recent strides by the college have made it an "exemplar" and put "Amherst way, way ahead of most of its peers" in enrolling low-income students.
He called such efforts a way to embrace "the reality that real learning and a real preparation for citizenship demand the intersection of different life stories and different sensibilities."
Among other milestones, Amherst’s percentage of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants has risen from about 15 percent in 2006-07 to nearly 25 percent in the current academic year. The college has also increased enrollment of community college transfer students—many coming from low-income families—from zero or one annually to 12 to 15 each year.
"We are focused now on sustaining that commitment," Martin said, "and ensuring that all students can take full advantage of the transformative experiences that a liberal arts education offers."
Martin said Amherst will use at least half of the $1 million prize to fund summer programs for its low-income students, including research with faculty, field study, arts training and internships. Funds will also be used to recruit, train and pay students as financial aid peer advisers for their transfer and first-generation peers, supplementing work of its Financial Aid Office.
Because about half the students remaining on the Amherst campus during breaks are from low-income families, Amherst will create more programs to reduce their sense of isolation during those times, Martin said.
The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is awarded to a selective college or university with an excellent record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low-income students.
Other finalists for the 2016 Cooke Prize were: Davidson College in North Carolina; Pomona College in California; Rice University in Texas; and Stanford University in California.