Amherst College wins $1M prize for helping low-income students

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AMHERST – Amherst College received a $1 million award that recognizes its programs that help “high achieving students from low-income families” succeed, including underwriting study abroad and internships.

The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is the most substantial award given to a selective U.S. college or university in recognition of admissions and support of students from low-income backgrounds, according to a statement from the Lansdowne, Virginia-based foundation. The award was announced Sunday.

Research by the foundation shows that just 3 percent of students at the top U.S. colleges come from families in the lowest quarter of household income, while 72 percent come from the quarter at the top of the income scale, according to the organization. The first Cooke Prize, awarded last year, went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“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,” Harold Levy, the foundation’s executive director, said in the statement.

“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.”

The school with 1,790 undergraduates provides financial aid to any admitted student with demonstrated need, without requiring loans. More than half – 58 percent – of those who attend the liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, receive need-based aid.

Students from low-income homes are also provided funding for educational travel and study abroad opportunities, stipends for typically unpaid internships, and career development mentoring, according to the foundation. The percentage of its students receiving federal need-based Pell Grants has climbed to almost 25 percent this year from 15 percent in 2007.

The school will use about half of the money to fund summer programs for low-income students, including research with faculty, field study, arts training and internships, President Biddy Martin said.

“Our goal is to identify and nourish talent wherever it exists,” Martin said. “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.”

Some of the funds will also help recruit, train and pay aid recipients to serve as peer advisers for transfer and other new students. The school is also planning more programs for students who stay on campus over holiday breaks, Martin said. About half come from low-income families.

The Cooke Prize is awarded based on six criteria: outreach to attract low-income students; admissions; enrollment; financial aid; acceptance of community college transfer students; and graduation rates. Finalists for this year’s prize included Davidson College in North Carolina, Pomona College and Stanford University in California and Rice University in Texas.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.