Abounced check: That’s the spark here. It was a spring day in the early 2000s, and psychology professor Elizabeth “Buffy” Aries was meeting with one of her thesis advisees. The student, a Black woman from a lower-income background, had come by Aries’ office with her finished thesis. That should have been a grand, culminating moment. “She’d accomplished more than she had ever imagined possible,” as Aries wrote later. The student presented three copies of her work, each bound into a thick binder, as was the Amherst custom.

But her first words to Aries weren’t about her pleasure, her pride. Instead, she said this: “Wow, those black binders are really expensive.”

Startled, Aries asked how she’d paid for them. The student answered that she unintentionally bounced a check to A.J. Hastings, the stationer and college merchandise store. Right then, another grand, culminating moment took place—but now for Aries. She realized that this buy-your-own-binder protocol, and many other practices and policies at the College, blithely presumed an affluent student body. Wrote the professor, who had done much research on the effects of class, “This needed to change.”

That one bounced check inspired a 15-year study that has thrown an arc light on the recent history of class and race at the College. In so doing, it has offered up broader truths about the higher aims of higher education: namely, its ability to impel society forward.

Professor Elizabeth Aries in her office
Elizabeth Aries is the Clarence Francis 1910 Professor in Social Sciences

Aries is the Clarence Francis 1910 Professor in Social Sciences, and I’ve been quoting from her introduction to her as-yet unpublished work from 2020, Race and Class at Age 30. (She sidelined the publishing process during the pandemic, in order to learn to teach remotely, but hopes to release the work later in the form of a book or series of articles.) It’s the third installment in a study that kicked off during orientation in 2005, then resumed four years later when the class of 2009 hit senior year, and checked in with the class again in 2017, when most had turned 30. Aries shared interview duties with her husband—independent scholar Richard Berman—and Senior Associate Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East.

Aries posed dozens of questions to 58 members of the incoming class of 2009, both in an online survey and by personal interview. She recruited subjects from four groups: affluent white, affluent Black, lower-income white and lower-income Black, evenly split between men and women. (Other races were not included because, in 2005, the sample size for Latinx students was too small for the study, and the Asian population too multivariate.)

two book covers by Professor Aries, Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, and Speaking of Race and Class

The results from those first-year interviews were interpreted in Aries’ book Race and Class Matters at an Elite College (Temple University Press, 2008). Her interviews with the graduating seniors informed her second book, Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College (Temple, 2012).

Here’s a tiny sample of the queries: “Has there ever been an incident here on campus where you felt your class position/race caused you to be left out, put down or dismissed?” Or this: “How important is forming a close relationship with someone from a very different race/class background to you personally?” Other questions probed at everything from whether a student changed their way of dressing or speaking at Amherst (one lower-income white male switched to collared shirts; one lower-income Black woman tried to lose her Southern accent) to whether classroom discussions upended their way of thinking on race and class (they did, but not as much as some may expect).

There were manifold intriguing findings over these 15 years (see sidebar), but here are some topline points: By senior year, affluent students gained insight into their privilege, while lower-income students gained social capital from interacting with high-income students. From the start, affluent students were much better at networking and accessing professors’ office hours. But by age 30, lower-income students made twice as many connections with alumni for career advice as affluent students did (45 percent versus 24 percent), perhaps because affluent students already had their own networks. For many lower-income students, the alumni network “was a life-changer,” says Aries.

She also found that students learned most about race and class by mingling with one another, rather than learning from professors. “There were just hundreds of conversations” about racism with peers, said one lower-income white woman: “That was the special thing at Amherst. I was learning from others, but they were learning about themselves. And being part of somebody’s thinking out loud, I think that was the most informative.” From Aries’ perspective, this peer learning proves the benefits of a diverse student body. However, she adds, in an open curriculum without a required course on race, a big part of the student body will encounter no coursework or class discussions on race.

9 Takeaways from 3 Studies

By the End of Their First Year…

70 percent of all participants had had “meaningful, honest discussions” about race with another student.

80 percent of Black students had taken a class that covered issues of race, versus 46 percent of white students. Without taking coursework on race, white students did not learn about systemic racism.

93 percent of lower-income white students (versus 54 percent of affluent white students) had gotten to know two or more Black students well.

By Senior Year…

96 percent of all participants reported making friends with someone of another socioeconomic class.

80 percent of all participants had heard negative comments about wealthy people, versus only 30 percent about lower-income people.

75 percent of lower-income students reported that an affluent friend had offered to pay for their meal at a group dinner in town.

By Age 30…

44 percent said they thought of racial inequalities at a systemic level (nearly all thought of racial issues sometimes).

25 percent had gone into careers that involved social justice.

63 percent of the lower-income white and 50 percent of the lower-income Black participants who’d said they were struggling to bridge two worlds (college and back home) in 2009 said they did not experience that struggle at age 30. They had established a new home base for themselves.

I asked Aries what findings grabbed her the most with the first-year study. “The thing that stays with me is realizing, through the lens of interviewing these students, that the College had not understood at that point that we couldn’t just bring them to the College without other supports,” she says. “If students weren’t going to feel included and be able to succeed academically and socially, we had to change.”

For the second study, the most notable part for Aries was parsing the nuances in Amherst’s Black community based on factors such as country of identity (U.S or international), skin tone and socioeconomic class. Affluent Black students, who had mostly arrived from white-majority prep schools, found the transition easier than lower-income Black students. Aries quotes one affluent Black man in the third study: “I feel like I came pre-assimilated.”

As seniors, 75 percent of Black students perceived racism on campus, with 92 percent of low-income Black students finding offense versus 64 percent of higher-income Black students. Often white students framed racist comments as “jokes,” reported 89 percent of Black students. Indeed, one chapter in the senior study is simply titled “Racial Insults.” One overheard a white student with mussy hair joking it was nappy. White students quipped that Black students would be happy when Val was serving fried chicken or watermelon. There were also double standards. If a Black student missed class, one Black woman noted, “people would assume, ‘Oh, they’re lazy; they’re just getting by.’ And then there’s a white student who’s slacking; they’d be like, ‘Oh, I hope everything’s OK. Are they sick?’”

Even though Black students struggled with racism at the College, they nonetheless were more satisfied with their friendships and social life than lower-income white students. In the last study, Aries learned that, on average, 77 percent of all the Black students and affluent white students retained close relationships with Amherst friends as they neared age 30—but only 31 percent of the lower-income white participants had done so. She speculated that Black students, affluent or not, fared better in this area because the Black Student Union reached out to them immediately upon arrival, providing a social haven, and Black students found it easier than the low-income cohort, for example, to recognize one another on campus. 

“It’s kind of understanding that there’s so few of us that we should stick together,” said Sara Ruddock-Walker ’09 (then Ruddock-Harris) to me. She was one of the students in the study and is now a pediatrician practicing in Chicago, and said that she had little awareness of lower-income whites at Amherst, much less their plight. “I guess when you grow up poor and Black in this country, you just think all white people are rich.”

One of those lower-income white students in the study was Samantha Ellingson ’09. Now a lawyer in Minneapolis, she grew up in South Dakota, where her family had a small farm. Before Amherst, Ellingson had rarely met a Black person or a wealthy person. Those first months at college were a shock, she told me. “There’s this whole other planet of people existing and experiences that I only knew from TV. There was no one who had a very similar background to me at Amherst. And so, to be friends with anyone required some jump, some leap.” Many of her best friends from college were of a different race, however, and she told me that hearing about their lives, along with majoring in law, jurisprudence and social thought and noting, in her own career, how Black and white plaintiffs are treated differently, have opened her eyes to systemic racism.

Ellingson’s profound evolution played out with other white participants in the study. In 2005, only 10 percent of white students were highly aware of white privilege, while 30 percent were against affirmative action and believed their lives had become more difficult because they were white. By 2017, 80 percent reported having gained some awareness of white privilege during college.

Such changes in thought and lifestyle came at a cost for lower-income students especially, as became clear in the 2009 study. They reported much higher rates of dislocation from the value systems of their families of origin than did affluent students (86 percent for lower-income white students and 82 percent for lower-income Black students—rates that are three or four times as high as those of the affluent student groups). Aries told me, “There was a huge culture gap because some of these students have become more liberal than their families.” Lower-income white students were also the least likely to return to work in their hometowns since rural areas offered fewer job opportunities.

Will the study keep going? Aries won’t continue it herself, in the manner of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, though she’d be happy if someone else took up the reins (she is nearing retirement). In the meantime, the findings have enlightened the participants themselves: “It’s pretty rare to have a time capsule of your words,” as Ellingson says. Plus, there are a number of younger alumni who worked with Aries as student research assistants on Race and Class at Age 30.

Yet Aries hopes the study’s bigger picture is what matters most. What does she hope for its legacy? “My study documented the lived experiences of students as the College transitioned from a predominantly affluent, white student body to one that was much more racially and socioeconomically diverse,” she says. Increasing understanding of the race- and class-based challenges on campus helped move the College toward the creation of new structures, policies and practices to help ensure success for all students. The study also illuminated the crucial learning that comes from students’ interacting with peers who have very different experiences and perspectives—and these positive outcomes by race and class were found for graduates at age 30 across all four groups.

In the end, said Aries, “the three studies are a testament to what Amherst has worked so hard to accomplish.”

2009 commencement procession
Psychology professor Elizabeth Aries surveyed members of the class of 2009, pictured above at their graduation, when writing her latest book exploring diversity at Amherst.