Amherst College is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Two hundred years ago, it was founded to educate "indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety."
Along the way, the college began admitting women (1975). But that original goal -- of providing a liberal arts education to those who are disadvantaged -- is very much on the minds of the college's leaders. In fact this year, the class just admitted to enroll in the fall is 50.2 percent domestic nonwhite. (Another 12 percent of students are international.)
Such a statistic wouldn't be shocking for many American colleges -- a public college or university in California almost by definition would be majority nonwhite.
But this is Amherst. It has the reputation for educating New England's elites (who are white). It is among the most expensive colleges (tuition, room and board of $76,800 last year). It is a true liberal arts college at a time when many question their mission. It's a small college (a little over 1,800 students) in a small city in Massachusetts. Minority students can be reluctant to seek out a college in such a location.
Matthew L. McGann, the dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, attributes the increases to sustained activity under two presidents, Anthony W. Marx (from 2003 to 2011) and Biddy Martin (2011 to the present). When Marx took over, the nonwhite enrollment was 34 percent, and when Martin took over it was 43 percent. McGann said that attracting substantial numbers of minority students isn't something that can happen in a single year or two. It requires a real commitment in the long run, because, ultimately, it is the experiences of those minority students that will influence whether more students will come.
At Amherst 18 percent of the new American students are Asian American, 17 percent are Black, 17 percent are Latinx and 3 percent are Native American. Having the Black, Latinx and Asian figures so close is rare among Northeastern colleges, as is 3 percent Native American students. (McGann cautions that with Amherst's relatively small size, a few students can change plans between now and the fall and that will affect the statistics.)
He also noted that 4 percent of Amherst's new students do not identify on the binary gender spectrum. Being committed to diversity means all diversity, he said.
McGann says outreach to students is a key part of Amherst's success. For instance, two professors at Amherst created a Native studies program for the Five Colleges in the surrounding area (also counting Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). Students learn of such developments and respond, he said.
A key mistake of colleges with strong academics is believing that good students will find the college, he said. "It's got to be very intentional," he said.
He said faculty members have played a key role. In the last seven years, he said, half of faculty hired by the college have been members of minority groups. Students see mentors who look like themselves, he said.
Then there's financial aid. All Amherst students (even the international students) are admitted on a need-blind basis and given the funds that will allow them to enroll. Amherst has an endowment in excess of $2 billion. Last year, Amherst spent $61 million on aid (when enrolling a slightly smaller class because of the pandemic -- only about 1,700 students). The average grant was $50,000. McGann said the total spent on aid will go up this year because "we treat aid like an entitlement."
One-quarter of Amherst students are eligible for Pell Grants.
Amherst has also been honest about its failings and those of American higher education.
The college published an antiracism plan last year. The plan mixes calls for Black students to feel safe to share ideas with the college with an apology from Martin, labeled as such, for the way Amherst treated black students in the past:
"To our Black students and alumni, on behalf of the college and in my role as its current president, I offer you an apology for the harm you have experienced here and for having not made more progress. In 2015, in the wake of the Amherst Uprising, you requested that I apologize for the ways the college has fallen short and reproduced the oppressive inequalities of the society as a whole over the course of its history. I explained why I considered an apology of that sort to be a kind of arrogance, an assertion of a degree of control and authority that does not accurately reflect an institutional culture that so highly values shared governance. Amherst has reflected a much larger world of systemic racism, as all institutions have.
"But I have been challenged and have challenged myself to remember, and to comprehend, that too often white people deny responsibility for what they see as the sins of the past without recognizing how those sins live in the present, how systemic they are, and how much we who are white benefit from them, whether consciously and willfully or not. Against that backdrop, I offer you, our Black alumni and students, our recognition that the realities of structural racism in the United States have shaped our educational institutions, including Amherst, and my deep sorrow about the toll your negative experiences at Amherst have taken."
And the college has released two detailed updates about progress made on the plan.
‘I Fell in Love With Amherst’
Bella Edo is an example of the type of student Amherst is getting. She's a Black student (who just graduated) and said she was impressed by the small size of Amherst, which was similar in size to her high school. "I fell in love with Amherst, with the residential experience," she said.
Edo said she got a great education, double majoring in Black studies and law, jurisprudence and social thought.
She had experiences where she wondered if being Black influenced the way people treated her, for example, in her frustrations at the process for declaring a second major. She also is an athlete, playing both lacrosse and field hockey -- two sports, she noted, that have very few nonwhite players.
Edo knelt during the National Anthem of every game and said she had very few other athletes who also took a knee or who even talked to her about why she was kneeling.
"Sometimes I felt unseen," she said.
Sabrina Lin is an Asian American student from California who graduated last week. "Growing up in California, I actually had no idea Amherst College existed until the summer I was applying to college," she said via email. She learned of Amherst from an alumnus who founded a nonprofit organization where she had an internship. "Once I got in, I remember receiving a letter saying that I should come to the diversity open house programming. That was a little jarring to me, funnily enough, because I’d never felt diverse in my life. I grew up in a Bay Area community that was full of Chinese American families like mine."
At Amherst, "I was now in a space that operated on a radically different logic," she said. "Here was a place where classmates’ names could be on buildings, where my peers came from private boarding schools and had been groomed their whole lives to attend a school like Amherst, and where sports teams weren’t just fun extracurricular activities but underground fraternities that remain deeply entrenched in invisible networks of power and influence. I’m not sure if I ever felt as if I belonged to that part of Amherst. You could probably go all four years of your Amherst career without leaving that insular, 'old money' bubble," Lin said.
Then she stumbled on Asian American studies, she said. The course "equipped me with a language to articulate my complicated feelings about identity and belonging in ways that I hadn’t been able to before." As a leader of the Asian Students Association and the Asian Pacific American Action Committee, she grew in "incredibly precious, organic, student-cultivated spaces."
"I think the vibrancy of student activism and community-building at Amherst is what has made my four years at the college so special," she said. "The institution will never be perfect, but I’m consistently inspired by how students continue to reimagine new, exciting forms of community and belonging despite it all. We insist that we're still here."