Accessing Amherst: Tracing Historical Admissions Changes

In the first of a two-part series exploring Amherst’s initiatives to reach students and communities with less historic access to higher education, The Student examines the historic buildup of Amherst’s efforts to diversify, particularly in the late 1960s.

In 1821, Amherst College was founded with the mission to educate “indigent [poor] young men of piety and talents for the Christian ministry.” In the past 200 years, how has this mission been delivered and how has it evolved?

Today, Amherst is the second most diverse liberal arts college in the nation, according to Niche, which bases its rankings on racial, economic, geographical, and gender diversity among students. At the same time, however, as of 2017, 60 percent of the student body at Amherst came from a family in the nation’s wealthiest 20 percent; 21 percent of the student body came from the top 1 percent, a revealing statistic that The Student covered at the time.

This article is the first installment of a two-part series in which The Student explores the story behind these numbers. Our survey, which includes archival materials, admissions data, student stories, and external studies, is by no means all-encompassing, but we hope to contextualize and illuminate some important questions. What initiative has the college taken to reach more students, communities, and high schools, particularly ones with less historic access to higher education? How do the stories of individual students help highlight the way that these initiatives succeed, and where they fall short? What are the ways in which these changes to admissions policies do and/or do not signify fundamental changes to Amherst’s elitism?

In this week’s installment of the series, we examine the historic buildup of Amherst’s efforts to diversify — particularly in the late 1960s.

A Changing Landscape

In the mid-1960s, the landscape of higher education — which had almost exclusively prioritized alumni-nominated applicants and prep school graduates — appeared to be changing its historic ways.

The G.I. Bill and its successors, laws that provided educational financial aid to veterans of war, had already begun to shift the class demographics of higher education toward being more diverse, allowing certain (mostly white) lower-income people a guaranteed college education.

The 1965 Higher Education Act was a similar game-changer — packaged as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” policies, the act created federal grant and loan programs. Notably, it also created programs that were meant to recruit “promising” low-income students and encourage them to apply to these elite institutions.

All of this, however, was not enough to significantly economically nor racially diversify institutions — according to Professor of Black Studies and History Stefan Bradley, bigger shifts “took intentionality” from individual colleges and universities.

By the late 1960s, schools around the country were beginning to make more specific efforts to diversify their student bodies, Amherst among them. Much of this was due to student activism, which increasingly called upon administrations to make diversification efforts.

Amherst students rally during a 1969 moratorium on classes to discuss issues such as racism and the Vietnam War. There was a strong culture of continuous activism at the college in the late 1960s. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Advocacy around admissions was part of the broader environment of students calling for change in the late 1960s. In an interview with The Student, Dennis Aftergut ’69, who was involved in student activism on a variety of causes at the time, described a national context of “the Vietnam war, the draft, the disproportionate numbers of Blacks conscripted, [and] the slow pace of change for Black Americans,” all of which fueled “the immense disruption of American life, reflected on campuses.” At colleges nationwide, growing critical masses of Black students led to the formations of the first Black Student Unions — Amherst’s BSU, then called the Afro-American Society, was founded in 1968.

Widespread student activism motivated colleges to start taking issues of race and class in higher education more seriously. For one thing, administrations were aware of more intense uprisings occurring nationwide. Aftergut believes that “watching the events, Amherst leadership felt it needed to do something.” The activist climate both encouraged the administration to “address the boiling issues” at hand, as well as act to “preempt occupations and violence,” in Aftergut’s words.

As Bradley put it, “Students are the conscience of colleges and universities.”

In a report on admissions in 1966, then-Dean of Admissions Eugene Wilson wrote about the cultural shifts that he was witnessing in admissions offices. “It is interesting to note the change in status symbols over the years in the fraternity of admission officers,” he began. “Twenty years ago ‘status’ depended on the average CEEB Aptitude scores of an entering class; ten years ago the key was the number of National Merit winners in an entering class; today it is the number of Negroes in a freshman class!” By the numbers, Amherst’s Class of 1968 was 2% Black.

Student activists saw the issue not as a reflection of status, but as a moral imperative for racial equality. As is documented in a 1967 article in The Student, Amherst students had begun to increasingly push for the college to take action in regards to diversity, or, as they called it at the time, “chances for teaching disadvantaged.” Students proposed that the college work with other Pioneer Valley institutions to begin an initiative similar to the A Better Chance (ABC) model, which offered a summer program that prepared economically disadvantaged students for a transition to private boarding schools, or in this case, colleges.

At the time, Wilson, was “pessimistic” about the idea, according to the article, and he wrote in a memo that he instead favored training college students from the Northeast to spend their summers teaching in Southern schools because it would “send the college students back to their privileged environments with a new appreciation of the opportunities they have.”

But Wilson did take note of the community’s passion for the subject. In one 1967 letter to NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director John W. Davis, Wilson discussed the history of the college’s Black student body, including the fact that in 1826, Edward Jones graduated from Amherst and became the second African American to receive a college degree. However, he said, “I shall not give you a full account of what we have done in the recent past to support the education of Negro students … Our faculty feels, and our students do, too, that we aren’t doing enough.”

Wilson’s papers from the era, which are now kept in the college’s archives, show a serious interest in developing strategies to provide more opportunities for marginalized students, particularly Black students, to study at Amherst. He kept hefty stacks of articles and reports from other institutions detailing their initiatives, primarily increased recruitment and summer programming like ABCs; he also reached out to a variety of people for advice about diversifying, including Davis.

The problem remained, though, that Amherst had very few actual initiatives. The college was “working from an attitude and not a program,” wrote Frank Greve ’67 in a report titled “Admission and the Minority Student.” Greve visited 15-20 high schools to try and recruit Black students, and documented his experiences: “We say only (and simply) ‘We have the money and the desire.’ Counselors expect more and … [ask] ‘Do you have a summer program? How long is your orientation period for disadvantaged students? What concessions do you make when you place them against competition from the best public and private schools in the country?’”

During this time period, deeper questions also arose about the philosophy of who “deserved” higher education. In February 1967, eight Amherst professors delivered a letter to the rest of the faculty that interrogated the college’s standards of admissions, and asked whether they may be limiting to the college’s goal of broadening its range of students, due to educational inequities that took root before students even applied to college.

“We are asking ourselves whether our own commitment to narrowly defined conceptions of discipline and excellence hasn’t come to stand as a barrier between … [the college] and [disadvantaged students],” the faculty wrote. They highlighted the SAT metric as an example of one of these potentially limiting  “conceptions of excellence”; standardized testing is a factor in admissions that Amherst made optional 53 years later after the start of the Covid pandemic.

Bradley noted this sentiment as an undercurrent of many conversations about diversity in higher education at the time — many institutions had a tendency to recruit historically under-represented students who were already attending private schools and “leap over” those nearby and/or attending public schools. Even programs such as ABC allowed colleges to avoid changing their admissions criteria by bringing students from under-resourced communities into elite “feeder schools” such as the Northfield Mount Hermon School and Phillips Academy. As extensively researched and documented by Tony Jack ’07, colleges were able to get the “status” that Wilson referred to by admitting these students, without having to fundamentally change their admissions priorities. This tendency was considered by those advising admissions in the 1960s, and has continued to be an aspect of the conversation now, as we will expound upon in next week’s installment.

In response to the clear student and faculty demand for concerted diversification efforts, the administration sought more formal recommendations by the late 1960s. In 1968, Amherst’s then-President Calvin Plimpton formed the Black and White Action Committee (BWAC), which Head of Archives & Special Collections Mike Kelly describes as “one of the first formal efforts to address the lack of racial diversity at Amherst.” The committee was made up of a group of 12 faculty, students, and alumni — only one student, the late Harold Wade ’68, and one faculty member, the late James Q. Denton, were Black.

Aftergut, a student member of the committee, referenced “the faculty membership of the committee” as reflecting “a commitment to actually DO something,” but also emphasized that “it took student leadership” to implement any sort of change.

In the BWAC report, the committee cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s recent assassination as a wake-up call for colleges and universities to respond to “the nation’s grave racial crisis.” “What is needed at once is more and better education for black Americans,” the committee wrote.

BWAC’s task was to receive proposals of various committees, individuals, and groups and develop a plan “that can be acted on immediately” and could begin to root out the white supremacy entrenched in Amherst’s foundations, including in admissions practices, educational standards, and more.

BWAC published its first report in May 1968. The first of their proposals was to develop a Black Culture Center in the Octagon; this was adopted quickly. The second was a call for the admissions office to “continue and extend its commitment to increasing the number of Black students at Amherst College” by hiring a Black dean and encouraging alumni to participate in recruiting Black students.

Students in the Black Cultural Center in 1972. The formation of the Center was one of the Black and White Action Committee’s initial recommendations. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

The committee also called for the development of a “summer enrichment program for underprivileged high school juniors and seniors,” which would provide pre-applicants with information about Amherst, and the admissions office with more ways to connect with students historically underrepresented at Amherst.

In another demand in the report, the committee asked professors and administrators to interrogate “whether [their] teaching assumes an identity between the relatively narrow cultural assumptions typifying white middle class Americans and universally applicable scholarly standards.”

BWAC’s proposals were widely supported by students even amidst apparent rejection from higher-ups: an article in The Student at the time quoted Student Councilmember Fred Hoxie ’69 as saying “in light of the Trustee’s refusal to vote the financial support BWAC needs, the Student Council should contribute what it can.”

The record shows that the Student Council was persistent in its support for BWAC. Their passion can be seen on Frost Library’s A Level, where a note on the first page of the class of 1969’s Olio yearbook reveals that the book was compiled in 1984, fifteen years after the class’ graduation. The delay is because, during their actual senior year, the class of 1969 voted via four students on Council who coined themselves “The Ticket” (Hoxie among them) to reallocate the $7,000 for the yearbook to help fund BWAC programs. In particular, according to the 1984 note, they pledged the money to support the Smith Amherst Tutorial Project, an iteration of the ABC program that still exists today.

Around the same time as BWAC’s formation, Wilson and Plimpton also commissioned and funded a report from Samuel G. Jackson Jr. ’66, a Black alum. Jackson’s report was returned in 1967 with a list of recommendations based on the idea that “Amherst can play a role in redressing the vicious consequences of poverty, discrimination, and separation.”

His recommendations were somewhat similar to BWAC’s — they included hiring a person in the admissions office dedicated to “increasing the college’s role in educating minority youth,” holding conferences and exchange programs, and distributing detailed material to high school students from under-resourced areas. Another recommendation stated that the college should pay members of the Afro-American Society to visit predominantly Black high schools and talk with students about Amherst.

The report interrogated whether Amherst could ever become “relevant” to low-income youth not already planning to attend some type of college. It posed the questions: “Is Amherst willing to permit entry to students who are radically different from its usual academically-oriented middle-class variety? Will Amherst accept the value and validity of the divergent points of view and experiences these students will undoubtedly bring into the college community? Will Amherst initiate a program that will lead to a truly interracial student body? How far will Amherst go to meet and assist these young people?”

In response to these questions, one of the larger arguments the report made is that Amherst must begin exercising its resources and wealth to aid students well before they apply to Amherst by establishing a summer program for high school students, and establishing centers in under-resourced neighborhoods where Amherst students could help tutor high schoolers. Jackson finished his paper with an all-caps declaration: “TERRAS IRRADIENT,” the college’s motto, “Let them give light to the world.”

Parts of the report also reframed the idea that diversification efforts solely served the students being recruited. Jackson quotes another report from around the same time as saying, “the case has got to be made clear to white colleges that if they do the job right [of diversifying their institution], they are the principal gainers from it.”

Along those lines, Aftergut mentioned being proud of a particular line in the BWAC report: “Improved education for blacks is improved education for all.” He reflected to The Student: “It was OUR education that was disadvantaged by the shamefully low Black presence on campus and the failure to represent Black Culture that is so central to America.”

The administration’s approach also relied on the work of Black students and alumni. In an April 1968 meeting, the Board of Trustees “appropriated funds” to specifically finance “student recruitment activities by members of the Amherst Afro-American society, acting under the general direction of the Dean of Admission.”

In a similar vein, Wilson reached out to several Black alumni to solicit their help in deciding how Amherst might improve its efforts to reach more Black students. One such alum, Leon B. Gibbs ’63, wrote about his experience that “although raised in Middletown, Connecticut, a college town, I had never heard of Amherst until the name was brought to my attention during the fall of my senior year.”

He asked, “If this was the pre-college experience and outlook of a Black student who was ‘culturally advantaged’ in attending a predominantly white, Northern, middle-class secondary school, what would (or is) the case of those ‘disadvantaged students’ who were (or are) not quite as lucky?”

One of Gibbs’ many recommendations for improving Amherst’s outreach was to connect with community based organizations preparing students for college, such as “local Urban League and NAACP branch offices … Most of these committees are in dire need of closer contact … with colleges and universities for … weekend trips to campuses, audio visual aids, descriptive booklets and literature, and maybe a guest student speaker.”

Raymond J. Davis ’65, another alum whom Wilson corresponded with, recommended more internal changes to the college’s structure, such as hiring more Black professors, as an impactful means of bringing different students to Amherst.

Initiatives and Impact

Student activism and administrative efforts, some of which are outside the scope of this article, resulted in a swath of new initiatives and programs on the college’s part. One of the most major policies related to inclusion was, of course, the college’s decision to go coed in 1974.

In 1975, Amherst became one of the first schools to pilot the Common Application. In 1987, the college started its first summer program designed for first generation, low-income students (now known as Summer Bridge), which was at the time a three-week summer science program for a small group of incoming students.

According to the admissions office, the college began its first fly-in programs for low-income students and students of color as early as 1994. This program is currently known as Access to Amherst (A2A), and was formerly called the Diversity Open House (DIVOH). In 2014, Amherst made the program Early Opportunity for Native Students (EONS) part of A2A. These programs will be a partial focus of next week’s article, which will look at the effectiveness and reach of current Amherst diversity initiatives.

Students in 1991 voice their support for the expansion of financial aid. Their banner reads “How homogeneous can we get?” Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

In 1999, the college introduced a no-loan financial aid policy for students with the highest need, and in 2007, the college became “no-loan” for all students. Earlier, in 2003, the school had become one of the first four schools to partner with QuestBridge, a program that matches high-achieving low-income students with elite colleges; these colleges commit to paying Questbridge scholars’ full tuition.

Sparked by the Covid pandemic and in further pursuit of a more equitable admissions process, as previously noted, the college became test optional for applicants in 2020 and has continued this policy.

Very notably, in 2021, the school ended its longstanding practice of legacy admissions that favor the children of alumni. Alongside this decision came enhancements to the financial aid program that “provide support for 60 percent of students, among the highest proportion of any need-blind liberal arts college,” as per a press release at the time.

These initiatives have resulted in tangible change to the demographics of the student body at Amherst. These changes can best be seen through looking closely at reports of admissions statistics to secondary schools, which Dean Wilson began sending out in 1947 and are still produced today. In 1956, these reports began disclosing the percentage of the incoming freshman class that would receive financial aid; in the mid-1970s, they began also disclosing the racial demographics of incoming freshman classes.

The Student traced the numbers reported every five years in these documents and found consistent increases in the percentages of students of color and students on financial aid over time. However, one number that decreased was the percentage of incoming freshmen that attended public high school, which peaked at 72 percent in 1961, and landed in the class of 2019 at 55 percent.

Note: In addition to the general statistics of students of color, we show the progression of Black enrollment because that outreach is what much of the early diversification efforts were focused on. All data sourced from the Amherst College archives.

These changes are representative of not only the college’s successful efforts to diversify, but also broader national trends relating to educational equity, including the expansion of financial aid to include more students. The numbers, however, do not tell the full story. The questions that were on the minds of community members in the 1960s remain today: How can Amherst reach not only those historically under-represented and under-resourced students who have already gained access to resources like private high schools, but also include students who might not have had that opportunity? Does doing so require a shift in the way the college thinks about its “ideal candidate”?

In next week’s installment of this series, as The Student investigates modern day changes and student stories, we will build on these questions, asking: How far has Amherst come in reaching the full breadth of students and experiences across America (and the world)? How big of a role does Amherst itself play in helping students outside of the world of elite education find it? What do students believe about the relationship between the college and historically underrepresented students?