Amherst College is one of the oldest, most selective, and most prestigious liberal-arts colleges in the country. It has also made a huge commitment to recruiting talented students from all backgrounds, regardless of their ability to pay tuition. Today, nonwhite students outnumber white students on Amherst's central Massachusetts campus, and 23 percent of students qualify for federal Pell Grants.
President Obama wants more selective colleges to act like Amherst. "We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America," he told college presidents, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists at the White House last week. A college degree is the surest path to a middle-class life, he said.
Yet elite colleges face powerful incentives to enroll disproportionate numbers of wealthy students. Low-income students cost institutions money, rather than bringing in revenue; they don't tend to boost a college's ranking; and they can lack the resumes some admission offices look for.
Today, two-thirds of students at the nation's 193 most selective colleges come from the top income quartile and just 6 percent from the bottom quartile, according to the College Board. The White House has been taken with research that shows many high-achieving, low-income students are not heading to elite schools. Between 2008 and 2011, at least half of low-income students with high SAT scores didn't apply to a single selective institution that matched their ability, according to the College Board. Such students often head to nonselective community colleges and four-year schools, from which they're less likely to graduate.
Increasing access to top colleges isn't just a question of encouraging more students to apply, said Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College. "Right now in the United States, there are not all that many schools that are need-blind and committed to meeting full need. So many schools are already rejecting talented low-income students because they can't make the commitment and don't want to make the commitment to pay the financial aid," she said.
Making a commitment to a financial-aid student not only requires committing a greater proportion of endowment dollars to grants; it also means forgoing the revenue that a full-paying student would bring in. Vassar reinstated need-blind admissions in 2007. After the financial crisis diminished colleges' financial assets, it became more difficult for many colleges to make that kind of commitment, Hill said.
Amherst's experience shows that recruiting students from all walks of life is, in and of itself, expensive. To meet its diversity commitments, Amherst has expanded its admissions staff, introduced a scholarship fund for veterans, set money aside to support community-college transfers, and essentially given the admissions office an unlimited budget to fly in prospective low-income students for campus visits.
With an endowment of more than $1.6 billion, Amherst can afford these investments. Yet it still has to make hard decisions: postponing a facilities upgrade, say, in order to maintain financial aid and recruitment programs. About 60 percent of Amherst students receive grants-only financial aid packages. For those who don't qualify for aid, a year at Amherst currently costs about $64,000 in tuition, room and board, fees, and expenses.