Progress and Hurdles: A Look at Amherst’s Economic Diversity
Issue   |   Tue, 02/28/2017 - 23:35

A New York Times report published on Jan. 18, which found that the median family income of an Amherst College student is $158,200, sparked conversation on campus about the place of socioeconomic diversity in the Amherst community and culture. The piece examined data from anonymous tax records and tuition records to compare economic diversity across national universities and colleges.

The report compared the financial background of students attending the college, their income mobility and their economic conditions later in life compared to students from the college’s peer institutions.

At Amherst, 60 percent of the student body come from families in the country’s top 20 percent for income. 21 percent of the student body are from the top 1 percent — from families who made about $630,000 or more per year. The median individual income at age 34 for students at Amherst is $69,300, and 59 percent of the student body end up in the top 20 percent, which is among the highest of the NESCAC schools. 13 percent of students moved up two or more income quintiles, and of all students, 2 percent moved from the bottom to top income quintile.

Measures of access and economic status were based on students in the class of 2013 born in 1991, while measures of outcomes and mobility were based on students born between 1980 and 1982 who are now around age 35, according to the Times, when “relative income ranks stabilize.”

President Biddy Martin said in an email interview that the report was “a very interesting and important story that shows how far we have to go to address the issue of economic inequality in this country and around the world.”

Higher education, she said, is key for social mobility. Though “we are proud to have made huge progress” in providing access and opportunity for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, she said “we all have much more to do when it comes to providing access for middle class and working class families.”

Martin noted that of Amherst students in the lowest three income quintiles, two-thirds moved up two or more income quintiles as adults. “Among colleges and universities as a whole, that is a very strong record,” she said.

The report, she added, was based on historical data and “limited information that do not convey a full picture of Amherst’s efforts or its progress in furthering social mobility.”

According to Martin, the college has recently put in place more initiatives to increase its socioeconomic diversity, including reaching out to working-class and low-income students and families, providing resources to help students “close any gaps that need to be closed by virtue of the high schools they attended” and improving counseling and networking services focused on post-graduation career and educational opportunities.

An obstacle to economic diversity, Martin said, is the fact that many “high-ability, low-income students” do not consider selective liberal arts colleges like Amherst, believing that the college is an unaffordable option.

This past year, the college joined 52 of the nation’s elite colleges and universities in the new American Talent Initiative, which is “dedicated to increasing dramatically the number of low-income students enrolled at leading schools. One priority of ATI is to recruit excellent students from community colleges,” said Martin.

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones and Dean of Admissions Katie Fretwell ’81 were contacted for the story, and both contributed to Martin’s email response.

The college’s current outreach to low-income students includes yearly trips by admissions staff to school districts with low-income and minority students, participation in QuestBridge which helps connect low-income students with selective colleges, funding that has increased the number of attendees at Diversity Open Houses (DIVOH) and initiatives to recruit Native American students.

Fretwell added that the Office of Admissions collaborates with Five College admissions officers every year to host a three-day program for guidance counselors and community-based leaders to learn about Amherst.

The college hosts two Diversity Open Houses every fall for prospective student. Though DIVOH prioritizes low-income students, all students can apply regardless of racial or ethnic background. If accepted, students travel to the college free of transportation cost and receive “intimate contact with current students” once on campus, said Diversity Intern Elaine Vilorio ’17. Diversity interns, who organize the Open Houses, remain in contact with DIVOH students after the weekend to answer any further questions.

The Office of Admissions also works with community-based organizations year-round, setting up tours for these students and providing special info sessions where students can talk to diversity interns about college. Community-based organizations, which are nonprofit groups and often after-school programs that work to improve the life of their residents, will reach out to the office, and “we take it from there,” said Vilorio.

Vilorio, a low-income, first-generation Dominican-American student, said that attending DIVOH helped her learn more about the college admissions process. Her parents, while supportive, had limited knowledge about the U.S. college admissions process. Amherst didn’t visit her high school college tour, but she found out about DIVOH online. Her experience inspired her to become a diversity intern herself.

“Not having low-income students on campus is a disservice to a diversity of opinions and experiences and ... to having equal access despite your income bracket,” she said. “You lose out by not learning about how poverty affects lives.”

Vilorio struggled in her first year, she said. The transition from her public high school in New Jersey to an elite college was a challenge. “There’s this idea that you had to prove yourself in school — that if I didn’t get it on my own, it was a poor reflection of myself,” she said.

She encourages low-income students to connect with alumni through the Pathways mentoring program, which can “show you different career paths and how to built your own network.”

“Don’t feel like you’re indebted to this place,” she said. “You deserve to be here. Being on financial aid doesn’t mean you’re any less intellectual.”

The student-run First Generation Association offers first-generation first-year students the opportunity to have an upper-class peer mentor. The college is also currently holding a search to fill the position of an associate director of student life working specifically with first-generation and low-income students.

“Also, we instituted an OSA [Office of Student Affairs] case-management system aimed at students who will benefit from one-on-one support from the college staff,” Martin said. “And for later this year, we anticipate launching a new Financial Aid Peer Mentor Program.” The Career Center offers help with business attire, job interviews and conferences, according to Vilorio, and eligible seniors can apply for a $400 grant to travel and apply for grad school.

“Our experience at Amherst shows that … the success of [low-income] students with a rigorous curriculum and in life beyond graduation is consistent with the achievements of those from higher-income backgrounds,” Martin said. “At the same time, on our own and in common cause with colleges and universities throughout the nation, we must work even harder than we have to achieve the level of educational equity and socioeconomic mobility essential to the long-term health of our society.”

Correction: DIVOH is open to all prospective students regardless of racial or ethnic background; low-income students are prioritized. The article previously stated that only students of color are eligible for DIVOH and has been updated to reflect the correct information.