Amherst College ends legacy admissions practice, expands financial aid

  • Amherst College GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, November 01, 2021

AMHERST — A preference for admission to Amherst College that has historically been given to children of alumni is being eliminated.

The college announced Oct. 20 that, as it also enhances financial aid for future students, so-called legacy admission preference will no longer be a factor in how students are selected for enrollment.

“It is time to end this historic practice of giving a preference on the basis of heredity,” college president Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to the community. “Making this change will help us work against the perception that ‘having a connection’ is the best or the only way to get into elite colleges. It will also ensure that the children of alumni parents know they were admitted on the basis of their talent and achievements.”

According to the college, about 11% of each class are legacy students, who are considered to be academically well-qualified children of alumni. But Martin said in a statement that legacy admissions, even when used as part of the holistic admissions process, “inadvertently limits educational opportunity.”

“We want to create as much opportunity for as many academically talented young people as possible, regardless of financial background or legacy status,” Martin said. “There should be no doubt that a world-class education is within reach for students from all income groups.”

The decision to eliminate preference for children of alumni comes three years after student activists involved with Amherst College’s First Generation Association signed an open letter, along with 12 other organizations at elite colleges across the country, calling on their schools to re-evaluate legacy admissions and to make data and policies about those admissions public.

“Today, the lasting impact of these practices reaches far beyond higher education, helping to reinforce cycles of class inequity and hampering economic mobility in America,” the students wrote at the time.

Amherst College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said the college’s decision to eliminate legacy admissions is not a response to that appeal. “This has been in discussion for several years now,” Hanna said.

At nearby Smith College in Northampton, there has been no separate admission process or consideration for legacy students, said spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel. Schmeidel adds that legacy information is one of many factors considered as part of an holistic application review, along with other factors such as artistic or athletic talent, and first-generation college status.

“We evaluate legacy candidates in the same way we evaluate non-legacy candidates,” Schmeidel said.

Financial aid boost

At the same time, Amherst College, which has an endowment valued at $3.7 billion, will be increasing expenditures on financial aid to $71 million to benefit current as well as entering students from lower- and middle-income families. The idea is to have the financial aid program expand the number of students and families who can afford an Amherst education, and help students, once admitted, take full advantage of their educational experience without financial pressure.

Already, the college has a need-blind admission process, for both international and domestic students, which offers substantial loan-free scholarship support for the vast majority of families.

The college estimates that it will be providing support for 60% of its students, what it calls among the highest proportion of any need-blind liberal arts colleges, and the additional investment will save low- and middle-income families thousands of dollars every year.

With this enhancement, students from 80% of U.S. households would typically receive a scholarship that covers full tuition, if enrolled at Amherst. Students from families earning less than the median U.S. household income will typically receive a scholarship that covers not only their full tuition but also housing and meals expenses.

The average aid package is expected to increase to $63,570, and one in six students will see their grants jump by more than $5,000 when the new policies go into effect in 2022.

Matthew L. McGann, dean of admissions and financial aid, explained in a statement that the policy change reflects how the college calculates the income families can contribute.

“Our new data show families have less available income for education than we previously understood,” McGann wrote. “The change we have made benefits those students who come from low-income households, as well as those from middle-income families earning between $100,000 and $200,000.”

The college also announced enhanced grant programs that better support high-need students by providing them annual access grants so they can buy items like laptops and winter coats, or cover job search expenses; reduce the work-study expectation from six hours to four hours per week; and formalize the availability of a Student Emergency Fund to cover unforeseen medical costs, financial stress around housing and emergency travel.

Since 2008, the college has had a no-loan aid program for all students, meaning they can graduate with little or no debt.

“Our admission team is confident that by both ending legacy preference and clearly showing that most students can experience an Amherst education with significant scholarship support, we will see a further increase in both the diversity and excellence of our extraordinary applicant pool and, ultimately, in the enrolled student community on campus,” McGann said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.