Amherst College Gets $1 Million Cooke Prize for Admitting, Supporting and Graduating Outstanding Low-income Students

Story by
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

hispanic outlook magazine june 2016

LANSDOWNE, Va. – Amherst College in Massachusetts is the 2016 recipient of a $1 million prize awarded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to a selective college or university with an excellent record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low-income students, Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy said recently.
The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is the largest award in the nation given to an elite college for eliminating arbitrary barriers to admission and promoting the success of high-achieving students from low-income families.
Amherst College, a liberal arts college with 1,790 undergraduates, maintains a need-blind admission policy for all students and meets the full demonstrated need of all admitted students without requiring loans. As a result, nearly 25 percent of Amherst students receive federal Pell grants, 58 percent of students receive need-based financial aid and the college provides no merit aid. Amherst began participating in the Cooke Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative in 2006 and increased enrollment of community college transfer students from zero or one annually to 12-15 each year. The initiative also helped Amherst build an infrastructure to better meet the needs of transfer students, military veterans and first-generation and low-income college students. Amherst provides low-income students with funding for educational travel and study abroad; stipends for otherwise unpaid internships and career development mentoring; and is shaping programs to meet the social, psychological and health needs of all students.
“Amherst has shown unwavering resolve to become a national leader in expanding access to college for low-income students by dramatically increasing its financial aid budget, implementing aggressive national recruitment strategies and creating an environment where these students will thrive,” Levy said. “In doing all these things, Amherst has proven that the goal of admitting and graduating increased numbers of low-income students with excellent academic qualifications can be achieved.”
“By awarding Amherst the Cooke Prize we want to call attention to the college’s success in lowering barriers to equal educational opportunity and show other colleges and universities strategies they can pursue and steps they can take to follow Amherst’s example,” Levy said.
“We are honored to have been recognized by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for our efforts to make education accessible to talented students from low-income backgrounds,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin. “Our goal is to identify and nourish talent wherever it exists. It exists everywhere. While building on the remarkable progress Amherst made under President Tony Marx, we are now focused on closing the invisible opportunity gaps that students face once they arrive on campus. This prize will help us in that work.” 
“Amherst’s commitment to support high-achieving students with financial need has a long history, dating to its very inception,” Levy said. “The last two presidents, Tony Marx and Biddy Martin, have made this effort a cornerstone of their presidencies. It is an impressive legacy.”
In contrast to Amherst, a recent study by the Cooke Foundation found that only three percent of students at top colleges across the U.S. come from the poorest 25 percent of families. But 24 times as many – 72 percent – come from the wealthiest quarter of families.
Martin said Amherst will use at least half of the $1 million Cooke Prize to fund summer programs for its low-income students, including research with faculty, field study, arts training and internships. She said the college will also use funds from the Cooke Prize to recruit, train and pay students receiving financial aid to serve as financial aid peer advisers for transfer and first-generation students, supplementing work of its Financial Aid Office.
Because about half the students remaining on the Amherst campus during breaks are from low-income families, Amherst will create more programs during breaks to reduce their sense of isolation, Martin said.
Amherst was selected as the Cooke Prize recipient based on six criteria dealing with outstanding low-income students: outreach to attract such students, admissions, enrollment, financial aid, acceptance of community college transfer students, and degree completion.
“Our finalists have shown great commitment and effectiveness in opening their doors to students with big minds and small wallets,” Levy said. “Many such students have overcome enormous obstacles and proven by their hard work, determination and intelligence that they can succeed at the most academically challenging colleges in our nation – but first they have to be admitted.”
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. It offers the largest scholarships in the U.S., comprehensive counseling and other support services to students from eighth grade to graduate school. Since 2000, it has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 students and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve outstanding low-income students. www.jkcf.org
Other Finalists for the award were Davidson College, Pomona College, Rice University and Stanford University. Here are highlights of actions the other finalists have taken on behalf of low-income students:

DAVIDSON COLLEGE

PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVIDSON COLLEGE

PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVIDSON COLLEGE

Davidson College is a liberal arts college with 1,950 students that created The Davidson Trust in 2007 to raise scholarship funds. It meets 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of accepted students through a combination of grants and campus employment, without relying on loans. Enrollment of low-income students has risen to 14 percent in the current freshman class. About 51 percent of Davidson students receive need-based aid from the college, and 70 percent receive aid in total. Davidson partners with the College Advising Corps, sending recent graduates to serve as full-time college advisers in under-resourced high schools in North Carolina. The college works with nonprofit organizations to recruit low-income students and help them complete their applications and financial aid requests. It also provides academic and social support services for these students. Davidson offers free online Advanced Placement courses to students around the world in calculus, physics and macroeconomics.

POMONA COLLEGE

PHOTO COURTESY OF POMONA COLLEGE

PHOTO COURTESY OF POMONA COLLEGE

Pomona College is a liberal arts college with a little more than 1,600 students that meets the full demonstrated financial need of students (including undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools) with grants, scholarships and a small work stipend, without loans. Fifty-seven percent of students receive need-based financial aid from the college, and 66 percent receive some form of financial aid, including outside loans and scholarships. The college offers a comprehensive range of targeted programs and services designed to ensure that all students thrive and succeed. Pomona College is committed to recruiting low-income, community college, first-generation, immigrant, refugee and undocumented students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The college estimates there are about 62 undocumented students (four percent of the student body) enrolled in the current academic year. The college has also developed recruitment and admissions strategies to address the specific needs of underrepresented students.

RICE UNIVERSITY

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICE UNIVERSITY

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICE UNIVERSITY

Rice University is a research university with more than 3,900 undergraduate students and more than 2,800 graduate students that provides aid to meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Currently, 17 percent of Rice students are from low-income families. Rice created OpenStax, the leading developer of digital free and nominal-cost textbooks for Advanced Placement and college courses. The online textbooks are in use this academic year in 2,500 courses at 1,500 schools, including 800 community colleges. Since 2012, OpenStax has allowed 674,000 students to save $66 million. In addition, Rice’s Center for College Readiness has worked with 65,000 educators and high school students from every state and 53 foreign countries to prepare students for college success. Rice faculty members work with organizations to reduce the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent K-12 students in Houston schools and around the nation.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY

PHOTO COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY

PHOTO COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY

Stanford University is a research university with about 7,000 undergraduate and 9,100 graduate students. The university meets the full demonstrated financial need, without loans, for every admitted undergraduate who qualifies for financial assistance. About 47 percent of students receive need-based financial aid from Stanford, and 70 percent receive some form of aid. Stanford runs a national outreach program to recruit low-income students, including a program that brings high school counselors from disadvantaged communities to the university to learn about opportunities for their students. It operates both a Diversity and First-Gen Office and Transfer Advising Program to provide services that help low-income students acclimate to the university and succeed. Outreach efforts by the university have increased the number of first-generation students applying to Stanford from 12.7 percent in 2007 to 20.2 percent in 2016. In the 2013-14 school year, 15 percent of incoming freshmen received Pell Grants.