Shutting the Opportunity Gap: Not Just Scholarships

Providing greater access to higher education doesn’t just entail the financial assistance to get students here, said Amherst College President Biddy Martin at a Sept. 12 panel hosted by the Ford Foundation. Access also involves maintaining a campus culture open to an increasingly diverse student body, she said.

“What we’re doing at Amherst is reinventing the liberal arts for a new population of students and changing circumstances,” Martin said during the Ford Foundation forum, titled “Funding Futures: Scholarships as Agents of Social Change.”

“That reinvention has to operate at all levels,” Martin added.

The forum examined how increasing access to higher education helps young people meet their potential, and results in the transformation of families, communities and the world.

For an afternoon panel, “Strengthening Institutions,” Martin was joined by moderator Francisco Cigarroa, a Ford Foundation trustee; Nancy Cantor, chancellor at Rutgers University-Newark; and Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The “Strengthening Institutions” panel starts at 5:26:45.

Asked about scholarships, Martin described Amherst’s need-blind admissions policy and robust financial aid.

“We meet full need, we do not package loans, because we want the students who have need to graduate without having debt,” she said. “We are need-blind and meet full need for international students as well as for early-decision applicants, regular-decision applicants, wait-listed students.” She added that more than 80 percent of the College’s international students are on financial aid, and 25 percent of its students are Pell Grant recipients. Overall, close to 60 percent of Amherst College students receive financial aid.

But access doesn’t just involve getting students through the door, she said.

“I think there are opportunity gaps for students who are on aid, and I think that these need to be closed, to the extent that we possibly can,” she said. For example, Amherst forgives summer work-study obligations for these student so they can take paid internships or do research instead, she said.

“At Amherst it’s not just tuition and fees we cover. We cover health insurance; we buy winter clothes for students; we pay international students one trip home a year,” she said.

Access means listening to a diverse community of students and making sure they feel heard and included, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is let the institution be changed, both by the students that we’re bringing to the campus and by the changes in the world,” she said.

“I often say to my colleagues: You have to imagine what the place would feel like, sound like, look like to every student and faculty member who enters here, if it were to feel like home.”

One of the world’s wealthiest charitable foundations, the Ford Foundation has a mission to “reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.”

Created in 1936 and based in New York City, the foundation provides leadership development, scholarships, exchanges and professional training programs. It has created or helped sustain numerous organizations working on a broad range of social change issues, and invests in projects of social good, including public media, microfinance, women’s rights, public interest law, digital human rights and more.