Exit the President: A Commitment to Financial Aid Amidst Recession
Issue   |   Wed, 04/20/2011 - 15:41

The College boasts on the front page of its website that the average financial aid package provided to students is over $37,000. Fully half of the student body benefits from financial aid, and the College’s commitment to its no-loans policy means that students need not worry about being haunted by the cost of an excellent education. Operating on a need-blind philosophy, even during times of economic difficulty, the College’s commitment to financial aid has been a direct investment in a more socioeconomically diverse campus community. This commitment has been especially notable as one of the defining aspects of President Tony Marx’s tenure at the College.

“[Before Marx] there was an assumption that all Amherst students were middle class or above,” said Raquel Cardona ’05E, who was employed by the College as a Special Projects Fellow from 2005 to 2009. “Now it’s well known that approximately 60 percent of students here are on financial aid.”

Marx, Cardona believes, “made it much easier to be a student from a minority or low-income background.”

Under the aggressive recruitment and financial aid policies advocated by Marx and the Admissions Office, the number of students from low-income families has more than doubled during the last eight years. But despite huge strides in recruiting low-income students, Marx felt that still more could be done to diversify the campus.

“Highly-talented, middle-class students who come from great schools … [and] who want to be at Amherst were not coming,” said Marx. “We concluded that required debt was part of the reason.”

It cannot be proven that the no-loans policy was directly responsible for rounding out student demographics, but Marx believes available evidence speaks for itself.

“The representation of the middle three income quintiles at Amherst has gone up every year since this program was put in place,” said Marx. “It’s making a difference, and I know it’s making a difference to those families.”

The cost of an Amherst education remains pricey for many, making financial aid critical in students’ decisions to apply to and receive their education at the Fairest College. This is nothing new, according to Marx, who sees the dollars poured into supporting students’ education as simply another chapter in the College’s history.

“Every student at Amherst is subsidized,” said Marx. “Even those paying full tuition … are being subsidized by generations and endowments collected before.”

Thus, according to Marx, his own aggressive financial aid policies are intimately connected to the College’s long history of providing financial support for its students.

“[The Admissions Office] had always looked for talented, low-income students with potential who might not have had many opportunities,” said Cardona, “but Marx was the first to do this in a massive, systematic, institutional way.”

This commitment to financial aid was put to the test with the global economic downturn of 2008. The College’s endowment had peaked at $1.7 billion in 2007, but this figure would decrease by 25 percent over the next two years.

“It was a very challenging and uncertain time,” said Dean of Faculty Gregory Call. “It was unusual for Amherst to feel affected by the economy.”

In response to the global recession, the Advisory Budget Committee (ABC) was formed to develop a fiscally sustainable plan for the College’s immediate future. Composed of faculty, students, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni and parents, the ABC presented its recommendations for managing a reduced endowment without compromising the College’s tradition of academic excellence.

“The College looked at what its priorities were in the good times, and we did what we could to maintain them,” said Treasurer Peter Shea. In balancing expenditure and quality of teaching, Shea felt that the College minimized its losses by setting priorities and making marginal changes. “For the most part, I think, there was agreement among our constituents that we couldn’t turn our back on what Amherst stood for.”

“[We tried] to be thoughtful about what was important to do and what we could do without,” said Marx. “But at the same time, we didn’t lay off any staff at a time when almost every one of our peers did exactly that. We did not withdraw from our aggressive financial aid policies. And we continued to hire more faculty than we ever had in a generation, because we knew … if we don’t have great faculty for the future, we can’t be a great institution.”

Call praised the President for “committing to increase and maintain resources for financial aid” and, furthermore, for being able to “sustain” such resources. In a concrete example of this commitment to socioeconomic diversity, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tom Parker noted that the College continued to fly low-income students to campus for free.

“That’s pretty rare and pretty amazing,” said Parker. “Very few schools have that luxury.”

Though costly and risk-laden in an unpredictable economic climate, Marx’s commitment to a diverse Amherst reaped its own rewards — both intangible and concrete.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Marx, “in the quality of the students, the feeling of the place, and … the alumni contributions. We announced the largest fundraising campaign in the worst possible economic moment in my lifetime, October 2008. We set a goal. We have almost reached that goal in less than three years for a five-year campaign. We got the two biggest gifts in the history of the College — one, the biggest unrestricted gift in the history of any college.”

Encouraging such gifts are part of a president’s job description, but Marx believes that the generous alumni contributions were inspired rather by the College’s continued work in broadening the student body’s talent and diversity. These gifts were investments in a shared belief of what Amherst means and a vision of what Amherst can be.

“In the end, it’s not about me,” said Marx. “It wasn’t a gift to Tony Marx. It was a gift to what Amherst was doing.”

“Amherst has a message,” said Shea, “and people respond to it.”

“People want to invest in things they believe in and in things they think will make a difference in the world,” said Marx. The generous financial support of alumni stands as a monument to Marx’s theory — and, furthermore, to a vision of a better, more diverse Amherst.

Brianda Reyes ’14 contributed reporting.

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