Amherst focuses on diversity

Several Yale students and administrators are questioning whether the University is keeping up with the pack after Amherst College announced a new initiative to attract students from low-income backgrounds.

Amherst President Anthony Marx ’81 announced in January that one of the school’s primary long-term goals is to increase the enrollment of students from lower-income families, an objective the school tentatively plans to meet by increasing need-based financial aid awards and reducing the burden of student loans. During the last several years, Yale has enacted similar programs to make the University more accessible to students whose families may not be able to pay the sticker price of a Yale education, but some students argue that the University’s efforts have not gone far enough.

At Amherst, Marx said the college’s goal is to focus on providing more need-based aid while avoiding competition with other schools over a small number of applicants. He said he is concerned that an article published Monday in Business Week magazine may have misrepresented Amherst’s new mission by implying that the school will lower its admissions standards in order to promote diversity.

“Our aim must be to increase the pool of highly qualified students from across the economic spectrum, not to re-shuffle too few students among a few top colleges,” Marx said. “We are all also mindful of not wanting to create an arms race that only a few colleges can compete in, and risk forcing other colleges to resort even more to merit aid to compete. That would end up using resources for students less in economic need, and therefore leave less resources for those in need, which is the opposite of what we are all trying to achieve.”

In Amherst’s January Report to the Faculty, Amherst officials encouraged the university to increase efforts to attract more diverse students, as well as to make accommodations to fit them into the student body without displacing other admits.

“We recommend that talented students from less affluent backgrounds be more vigorously recruited … and that entering classes be increased by 15-25 students to accommodate these changes,” the report said.

Amherst Associate Dean of the Faculty Frederick Griffiths, who also serves on the planning committee that devised the report, stressed that plans are still in the early stages of development, something he said may not be clear in the Business Week article.

“I want to emphasize that this is not fixed yet,” he said. “These are just discussions, so things are still under consideration.”

Griffiths also said Amherst is investigating ways to increase financial incentives for lower-income, high-achieving students, including increased grants, need-based aid and loan reduction.

Yale has also taken recent steps to diversify its student body, enacting a number of new financial aid reforms to attract well-qualified students from lower-income families.

Beginning this academic year, Yale waived the expected family contribution for students on financial aid from families whose annual incomes are $45,000 or less and reduced the contribution for families earning between $45,000 and $60,000. This year, the Admissions Office also launched the Student Ambassadors Program, which sends Yalies to high schools that enroll low-income students to publicize the University’s financial aid programs.

Yale President Richard Levin said he met with Yale College Council officers Wednesday to discuss how Yalies might get more involved with recruiting high school students from low-income areas of the United States.

“The key is how to make students aware of our generous financial aid program,” Levin said. “The Ambassadors program is one vehicle. The Web is another.”

According to Yale’s financial aid Web site, about 40 percent of current undergraduates qualify for financial aid, and the average annual University grant is $22,000.

Despite the changes to financial aid this year, some Yalies said they do not think the University has taken enough steps to effectively attract both low-income students and students from underrepresented high schools. Members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee marched from Beinecke Plaza to the Financial Aid Office Tuesday afternoon to protest for further financial aid reform.

“I think that one of the things that we’re seeing is that Yale is not a leader right now in terms of financial aid,” UOC member Phoebe Rounds ’07 said.

This year, the UOC has called for a reduction of the student self-help and summer contribution portions of financial aid and an elimination of the requirement that students receiving University aid also complete work hours.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said his office is attentive to the University’s desire to enroll students from lower-income families, and that the Amherst announcement did not escape his notice.

“This is an important subject for Yale, and I read [Business Week's] Amherst piece the other day with interest,” Brenzel said. “We are quite interested in diversifying our undergraduate student body further, and we are constantly seeking new and creative ways of doing so, as are many of our peer institutions.”

Griffiths said checking out the competition is also common practice in his office.

“Institutions watch each other’s practices very closely,” Griffiths said. “Admissions is one part of institutional functioning that is cost-competitive, and people watch each others practices to see if things work.”

Yale’s most recent efforts to attract lower-income students include moving from an early decision to an early action program, which Brenzel said enables students to “shop” their financial aid packages.

Marx said he also wants to reach out to qualified high school students who may not have initially considered Amherst. Marx said he recognizes Yale’s similar efforts to expand the application pool, and hopes to contribute to the trend of increasing opportunities, but not inter-university competition.

Griffiths said Amherst is currently in the initial stages of a capital campaign to raise funding for the proposed financial aid reforms.

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