Katie Fretwell smiling and sitting in a chair

Dean of Admission Katie Fretwell ’81

The legendary, indefatigable Katie Fretwell ’81 has never coasted on anything, but she sure likes to offer you coasters. This Dean of Admission gives guests five choices. When I arrived at her office with my travel mug of tea, I slid them around like a three-card Monte game. The Amherst coaster felt too obvious, while that one with grinning trolls felt too unnerving. (It’s a gift from Tom Parker, her predecessor, from a trip to the United World College in Norway). I went, early decision, for the old black-and-silver number stamped “Nichols School.”

That’s Fretwell’s high school alma mater. Maybe it completes the circle: After all, Admission is the irreplaceable hinge between high school and college. And so our conversation coasted here and there, from how it felt to be a small part of Amherst’s second coeducational class, to how it felt to play a big part in the groundbreaking changes in Admission across her 30 years here. You can gain admittance to the rest of our talk now: 

Whittemore: What do you remember about your own college admission process when you were in high school?

Fretwell: Well there you are, Kathy, using my high school coaster, quite ironically. Nichols was a small private high school, and I knew I would continue my education. That was a certainty in my family. My dad was a college president. I was the youngest of four. I grew up in a home where education was what it was all about. For college, I wanted to replicate some of the intimacy of a small learning environment.  

The irony is that the way I went about it is exactly not how I advise young people today: I began by ruling out all the colleges where my siblings went. Several of those schools would have been great matches for me. But because my sister went to Smith, I felt comfortable looking at Amherst. I visited and was smitten—right away.

Whittemore: What college was your father president of?

Katie Fretwell in her 1981 yearbook photo

Katie Fretwell in her 1981 yearbook photo.
Katie Fretwell and two classmates in lacrosse uniforms standing in front of a goal post

Katie Fretwell (right) in 1981.

Fretwell: Buffalo State College. He’d been a high school teacher and then an administrator in higher education, mostly in the SUNY system, did his dissertation on community colleges. Beyond raising us, my mom had three careers: opera singer, then college president’s spouse (a full-time job at the time!), then a psychologist.

Whittemore: Can I draw a line between your father’s interest in community colleges and your own move towards community-college student recruiting at Amherst?

Fretwell:  No, because when I came to Amherst, I was unfamiliar with the concept of community colleges. It was through my work here that I became sensitive to the absolute and critical role that they play in educating the United States of America and how they fit into the incredible diversity of higher education in our country.

Whittemore: What were you like as a high school student?

Fretwell: I was a pretty good scholar, but I think I was a pretty great kid, and my school supported my individual development. I was a three-sport varsity athlete in high school: volleyball, soccer, lacrosse. I was very involved in theater and outing club. Those things propelled me forward. I ended up applying to Amherst early decision.

Whittemore: Had you visited other schools and Amherst rose to the top?

Fretwell: I probably visited 10 to 15, mostly small liberal arts colleges in the northeast. Amherst was my first trip. I got on a bus from Buffalo with a friend. We visited all five colleges in the area. Stayed in a hotel. It was very exciting. It was in the summer, and I remember the Amherst tour guide. I appreciated the range of things that he was able to talk about, and to this day, when we bring in a new cohort of tour guides, I say ‘Do you remember your tour guide at Amherst? And do you remember that person because he or she was good or bad?’ Because I think people do remember.

Whittemore: OK, you get in early decision. You arrive at Amherst in 1977. Were you tuned in to the fact that it was the early coed era, or not so much?

Newspaper cover with giant headline, We're Coed!

On November 2, 1974, the Trustees of Amherst
College voted in favor of coeducation.

Fretwell: I knew Amherst was still in the early stages of becoming coeducational. But that was neither a deterrent nor a lure for me. Interestingly, Nichols became coeducational when I began in ninth grade, having been an all-male high school. My middle school had also recently become coeducational, having been all-male. So this wasn’t a big deal for me. But it was an interesting time at Amherst. My class came in enthusiastically as the second coed class to arrive on campus. But the juniors and seniors had chosen Amherst as an all-male institution.

 Whittemore: Were there moments when you really felt like an outlier?

Fretwell: I think of a moment when I was at a party, and I meet a guy, and he goes, ‘So do you go to Smith or Mount Holyoke?’ The fact that he didn’t consider that I could possibly be an Amherst student bothered me. Back then, it was an irritant that there were urinals in the women’s bathroom still. At the gym, the equipment room didn’t issue bras to the women, and there was no gynecologist in health services. And we didn’t have a history. Every time a woman did something for the first time, it was this monumental moment. Whether it was chair of the student newspaper or president of the student body, it was a first.

Whittemore: What did you major in?

Fretwell: I was a double major in English and theater, then called dramatic arts, and was involved in eight or nine shows, onstage and backstage. I was also a course or two short of a geology major. But in my application to Amherst, I indicated I wanted to be an architect. I had no experience whatsoever as an architect, but I suppose we can look to my career in admission as having something to do with architecture.

Whittemore: You’re building a class.

Fretwell: Exactly.

Whittemore: Let’s move on to post-college. How did you end up being in admissions as a career?

Fretwell: I challenge you, Kathy, to find anyone who you ask that question to say anything other than, “It was an accident.” It is an accidental career. You won’t find “admission officer” on any of those career-pondering checklists.

Whittemore: But so many futures depend on the admission process!

Fretwell: I think few people going through the process of applying to college think “I want to do that for a career,” because it can be very stressful. But I worked in this very admission office as a green dean. At that point, I was hoping to do work in secondary school education as a teacher, coach, administrator. And I thought, wow, what a great way to learn about different secondary schools across the country. I’ll be traveling. I’ll be reading applications from different schools. And that will help me identify what kind of school setting I want to work in.

Which indeed, it allowed me to do. But as I was doing this work, I loved it. I loved meeting and talking with young people about their future and aspirations and joys. It’s a very positive thing. And it’s fun.   

Whittemore: It sounds inspiring.

Katie Fretwell speaking at a podium at Amherst College Orientation 2017

Katie Fretwell welcomes incoming students at Orientation 2017. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Fretwell: It was inspiring, humbling, still to this day. And I thought, huh, maybe I stick with this. In fact, my next job was working at a secondary school, teaching and coaching and being a college counselor at the Brooks School. It’s a small independent boarding school outside of Boston.

I moved from the receiving end to the shipping end of the process of working with students in transition to college. I did that for two years and then went to graduate school and got an administrative degree. I decided to make admission work a commitment. Then, perhaps surprisingly, I found myself applying for a job at Williams where, perhaps surprisingly, I was hired. I might have been the first Amherst graduate to work in the Williams College admission office.

Whittemore: Katie, where’d you get your master’s?

Fretwell: Harvard University. It is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Whittemore: Yes, I’ve heard of it.

Fretwell: Yes, H-A-R-V ...

Whittemore: Hah! OK, I want to zero back to what you said about it being humbling, this job. Why is it humbling?

Fretwell: Because when you are exposed to 17- and 18-year-olds from across the country and around the world, who aspire to an Amherst education, they are bright and ambitious people who, because of their curiosity, their passions, have pursued fascinating paths, and made things happen, whether it’s by leading others or creating things, or overcoming things in order to reach those goals. It is absolutely fascinating to see what challenges students have been able to overcome to be successful. And that is humbling.

Whittemore: Let’s move onto recruiting trips. Did you have particular areas you went to?   

Fretwell: On one long plane trip, I looked in the back of the airline magazine where they have the map where the flights go. I wondered how many states I’ve actually been in, and I marked them off. I think I’ve been in 39 states on behalf of college admission, and probably seven or eight countries. I went to Singapore, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and more.

Whittemore: What would you call one of your biggest highlights during your tenure here?  

Fretwell: No doubt, Amherst being named as recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence in 2016. I am so proud of the recognition Amherst received for its commitment to identifying, attracting, enrolling and supporting talented low-income students. I am exceedingly proud of the College’s collaboration across departments, and the financial support the board has lent to this effort. We are a stronger institution for this work, and the prize put a spotlight on Amherst’s ambition and success.

Amherst College Awarded $1M Cooke Prize

July 20, 2018

Amherst College was the 2016 recipient of the Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence. The award is given to a college or university with an excellent record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low-income students.

Whittemore: What are some of your highlights and lowlights in recruiting?

Fretwell: I’m going to start with highlights: GPS! When I started in admission, you were using a map, and the hand-scrawled notes from last year’s traveler on how to get from one high school to another. And inevitably, you would get lost and have to find a pay phone. You’d have to have the right change, and say, “I’m going to be running a little late, and I’m lost.”   

Oh, the adventures of luggage getting lost, going into a school and realizing my shoes didn’t match! Going to school visits, getting halfway through a presentation and realizing the people in the room think I’m representing UMass Amherst and not Amherst College.

Whittemore: All those things happened?

Fretwell: All those things happened, and will happen to most people in time who work at Amherst. The real change is the capacity we have to research schools online with a database. Thirty years ago, there was not a computer in the Office of Admission or Financial Aid. Now if you wandered into our offices, there are probably 80 monitors. It takes three monitors to read an application. I don’t get paper cuts anymore.

Whittemore: Were paper cuts once an occupational hazard?

Fretwell: The folders were the main culprit. We would have paper cut contests: Who’s got the worst paper cut.

Whittemore: That’s hilarious. Can you give a snapshot of the admission cycle?

Fretwell: A cycle is 18 months. And that’s changed since I started doing this work; students and families are starting their college research earlier. They start to visit colleges in February. One of our busiest months of visitors is in April. It slows down in May, picks up in June, July, August, and continues through November.

Our staff are on the road recruiting in September, October and into early November. And there are actually several times when we’re reading applications. For our diversity open houses, we get 1,000 applications for the 200 spots, reading those applications in August. Then we have the QuestBridge review process, and we may get 1,000 applications to review in October for that. Then we have early decision, which has a Nov. 1st deadline. And then we might get 500 applications to review for that. Notification is in December. Then Jan.1 is our application deadline for regular admission, 9,000-plus applications for that.

Meanwhile, we have transfer candidates for the spring semester applying in November, and then transfer applications for the fall applying in March. So we might have in combination 600 transfer candidates to review over those two cycles.

Whittemore: Wow, that sounds relentless. Like the Office of Admission, the Office of Financial Aid has changed a great deal too. Can you speak to that?

Fretwell: The financial aid staff has perhaps doubled since my time working at the College. Amherst did not even have an Office of Financial Aid until around the late 1960s. And all three of Amherst’s deans of financial aid are still alive and well! The admission and financial aid offices, of course, coordinate their work in enrolling our new students each year.

Whittemore: Obviously, college admission is a career field you’d recommend?

Fretwell: I’m very proud of the fact that, when we were participating in the development of the coalition application a few years ago, I’ve now included on the dropdown career menu, “college admission officer.” We’re going to plant that seed for those young people.

Whittemore: A scenario: You are at a cocktail party out of town, and somebody says “What do you do, Katie?”   

Fretwell: The first thing one must do is assess the audience. How old is this person? Are they likely to have a college-aged child? If I say I’m in college admission, people usually want to know more, or ask me to meet their child or read an essay. I cannot tell a lie, but I have sometimes withheld telling them exactly what I do. I have a friend who is a dean of admission elsewhere. When he was asked what he did, he would say he was a soap salesman. That sort of stopped the conversation.

Whittemore: Love it! So how has the admission process changed over time in terms of the students you see?

Fretwell: Amherst has worked hard to recruit previously untapped populations. These students have been out there to some degree, but they’re now applying to Amherst, and we have always believed that excellence and talent exist everywhere, and it’s our job to find it and to attract it and to matriculate it. We are in a constant state of discovering or identifying new ways to reach talent.

And some of that talent can’t come to us. So either we have to go to them, or we have to find virtual ways to reach them. Technology helps with our international populations. Our staff has grown, probably by a factor of four, since I was a green dean here. So we have more human resources and financial resources to bring students to Amherst. But there’s still more we can do.

Whittemore: I expect you mean about getting the word out about Amherst’s affordability.

Fretwell: There has been a communication gap here. They have looked at that tuition, like “No, I can’t do it.” But if we can better communicate, which we are doing, that we are affordable—and Amherst is so fortunate to have the generous financial aid policies that we do—we can reach those students. We’ve got a net price calculator that a student can do in two languages in three minutes, and get a good estimate for what it would cost for them to be at Amherst, if they put the right information in. And that helps them realize Amherst is affordable.

Whittemore: How has Amherst’s international student population changed since you’ve worked here?

Fretwell: When I enrolled at Amherst, my class was a bit under 400 at the time, and maybe five students were non-U.S. citizens. And now, a quarter of our applicant pool are non-U.S. citizens. When you add in the dual citizens and the permanent residents, it’s probably closer to 35 percent of the pool. In the current class, 9 percent of the student body is international.

Whittemore: Can you also speak to the impact of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings list?

Fretwell: I can’t advocate for these rankings, but they are a tool that families use, whether we tell them to or not. Internationally, U.S. News has drawn attention to Amherst because we are at the top among the top ranked schools in pretty much any ranking. But these third-party endorsers are muddling information, and sometimes it’s not accurate. And can a ranking actually tell you what is a good match for you? Probably not.

Whittemore: Let’s talk about the deepening of racial diversity in the student body.

Fretwell: Certainly, we’ve seen tremendous shifts in the racial composition of our applicant pool in our enrolling student body, as we should, because that is a reflection of the demographic changes happening in the country. As we move ahead further into the 21st century, we’re going to see continuing growth among Asian American students in particular and Latinx students, multi-racial students. So we would hope to have the talent from those populations represented at the College.

We moved toward a need-blind admission policy for international students in 2007, which was a pretty aggressive thing to do in 2007 when the economy was tanking. We are the only undergraduate college that is need-blind and meets full need for international students. This puts us in a wonderful position—there are only four institutions in the country that can do that. What a luxury.  

Whittemore: When you were an undergrad, Amherst was adjusting to meet the needs of a new  population, in this case women. How has the College adjusted to welcoming other populations here since then?

Fretwell: Sometimes the cart was ahead of the horse, in that we would make these ambitious plans, but not always prepare. Like with coeducation, not having gynecologists on the health staff. In my undergraduate years, there was a takeover of Converse by predominantly black students who had a set of demands, and also a takeover of Fayerweather by Latinx students about their interest in having space.

And now you look around campus, and we have multiple spaces for people of different affinity groups. So, we have evolved. But there will be always the changing needs of a changing student body. We have students coming from farther away, and we don’t have kids coming from 10 schools anymore. So people don’t know one another when they arrive on campus.

Whittemore: That’s true. Decades ago, you would have ten kids each from certain prep schools, or groups from certain public high schools.  

Fretwell: A member of the class of ’57 told me they had just 30 schools represented in his class. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but the point is that there were feeder schools, and now we are bringing together students, and they don’t know one another, and the schools are different from one another. So students’ preparation is varied. That creates a set of different challenges for our faculty, when there is this changing student population.

We’re going to hold true all our values, and our mission as a liberal arts college, and we are Amherst. But sometimes we have to do things a little differently to be successful.

Whittemore: What is the hardest thing about your job?

Fretwell: Thank you for asking that question—because the answer has never changed. And that is disappointing truly deserving students who have applied, who do not have the option of choosing Amherst, and working with their families to help them understand their parenting has not failed in any way and it is not a shortcoming of their child that they have not been offered admission into the College. That does not get any easier.

Just think of the college admission process for parents and family members. Parents are talking about their most prized possessions: their children and their money. It all comes together when applying to college. And it is really difficult to explain what a 13 percent acceptance rate means. Because that also means an 87 percent rejection rate. I live in a profession where one metric of my success correlates with the number of people I disappointment. It’s a very strange field to be in.

Whittemore: I never thought of it that way. As a writer, my teenaged kids really don’t want too much help from me when they write. It’s too much. During the admission process, did that dynamic happen with you and your kids too?

Fretwell: Yes, I had to be reminded that it’s not actually so great to have a mom who does college admission, because I know everything. And who wants a mom who knows everything? So we created some boundaries. I could only ask my kids questions on Sundays about their college applications. And then they didn’t fear me coming every other day. They could ask me questions any time, of course. Then we had a chart where we noted the things that they were doing, and that needed to be done, so I could see but didn’t have to ask.   

Whittemore: Smart. So what’s next for you and your family?

Fretwell: Number one on my agenda is to slow it all down. I am excited about nurturing a creative side that has remained dormant. I want to take taiko drumming classes, paint watercolors. I also plan to continue my volunteer work on a number of scholarship committees and, having lost both of my parents over the last several years, hope to become trained in providing hospice care support.

Whittemore: That all sounds wonderful and meaningful. And I heard you will be spending a lot of time north of the border.

Fretwell: My husband [Robert Saul ’80] has been working in Montreal for just about a year, and we’re going to have a little base up there, maintaining our presence here in Amherst in some capacity. I am going to need to learn French. And I’m going to travel to places I want to go.

Whittemore: Without having to visit a bunch of high schools on the way.

Fretwell: A different kind of travel, yeah. I am not saying goodbye to Amherst. It is a place where I came into my own, where I came of age, where the most important part of my professional development happened. I met my husband here. This is a kind of home for me. And while I will leave my professional role, I know I will still be connected to the College. Also, I’ve known Matt McGann [Fretwell’s successor as Dean of Admission] for more than a decade and am excited about the energy, intelligence, innovation and experience he will bring to Amherst.

Whittemore: I’ll end with another big question: What legacy do you hope to leave to Amherst?

Fretwell: Well, that remains to be seen. Because, of course, those students where I played a role in their admission to Amherst over the last 30 years? Their work is not done in the world. I hope they do tremendous things with their Amherst education and their lives. And I will be following them. 

Wilson Admission Center