Area colleges pledge funds to make higher education more affordable during White House summit Thursday

Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — As their presidents joined a White House summit on affordability of higher education, three local colleges pledged Thursday to increase scholarship and other aid to students.

Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella called the gathering, which drew leaders of the nation’s elite colleges and public universities as well as business and nonprofit leaders, “a very valuable opportunity.

“What was interesting was the commitment on the part of all those constituents — private industry leaders, college presents and others — to take education reform seriously,” Pasquerella said, in a phone interview just after the meeting ended Thursday afternoon.

“People were very optimistic and enthusiastic about sharing best practices,” she said, when asked to describe the main impact of the summit. “We have all of the commitments to action from each of the other institutions. I’m definitely going to look at those and see what we can adopt.”

Pasquerella, as well as Smith College President Kathleen McCartney and Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin were among more than 100 U.S. college and university presidents invited to the day-long event in Washington, D.C., organized around the theme of expanding educational opportunity.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took part in the summit, which sought to showcase efforts by colleges to make their programs more affordable.

Studies show the cost of college is a problem for a growing number of families. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the cost of tuition, room and board has risen 42 percent at U.S. public colleges and 31 percent at private colleges in the last decade.

National studies have shown also that many high-achieving low-income students do not apply to top colleges — a problem all three local college presidents pledged Thursday to address.

Participants in Thursday’s meeting were asked to make specific, new commitments to help students through financial aid or other assistance.

To that end, Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke each announced new scholarship programs, efforts to recruit more low-income students from western Massachusetts and strategies aimed at boosting the number of low-income students who major in science, technology, engineering and math at their schools.

Among the specific new initiatives unveiled Thursday:

∎ Amherst pledged to recruit and graduate larger numbers of Native American students through a new summer program in partnership with College Horizons, a nonprofit that helps Native American and native Alaskan and Hawaiian students succeed in college.

The college, which has a needs-blind admissions policy, will also launch new outreach efforts to middle and high schools in the region to “create a pipeline” to college for more low-income and disadvantaged students.

∎ Mount Holyoke announced it will give full tuition to all new Frances Perkins Scholars, a program for women 25 or older that enrolls about 25 to 30 students annually. That represent a commitment of an additional $1 million in scholarship aid each year.

The college will also expand recruitment efforts among low-income students in western Massachusetts through visits by Mount Holyoke students and faculty to K-12 schools in the region.

∎ Smith College will give full tuition to 10 low-income students annually drawn from high schools in New York City who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math. The program, launched in collaboration with the Posse Foundation, will enroll its first group of students in 2015.

The scholarship program is modeled on a successful effort by Smith’s biology and chemistry departments to recruit more low-income students to be majors in those fields. While the new posse program is initially designed for five years, the college expects it could continue beyond that.

A spokesman for the University of Massachusetts said President Robert L. Caret had planned to attend the summit when it was originally scheduled for last month. Caret was at a board retreat Thursday and could not be in Washington, D.C.

Leaders of the three area colleges who did take part in the event, also used it as a chance to highlight ways they are already working to make college affordable to more students.

At Amherst College, for example, 60 percent of students receive grants-only financial aid packages and 23 percent are federal Pell grant recipients. Since 2008, students admitted to the college have not been required to take out loans as part of their financial aid awards.

At Mount Holyoke, 68 percent of students received need-based aid this year and more than 25 percent of U.S. students receive Pell grants. The college reported 30 percent of its graduates leave college with no student debt. Mount Holyoke also has a paid internship program for all students and an existing Posse Program, which college leaders pledged to expand.

At Smith, 64 percent of students receive financial aid and 22 percent receive Pell grants. The college recently launched a $450 million fundraising campaign, of which $200 million will be targeted to student financial aid.

Obama critics at the table

National media coverage of the summit noted that many of the college leaders invited to the White House have been vocal critics of the Obama Administration’s proposals for a college ratings system based partly on cost.

Ryan Wells, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy at UMass said Thursday’s event might have been organized partly as a “peace meeting” with college leaders. But he added it was also designed to address “a genuine issue.”

“The focus on access for low-income students is an important one,” Wells said. “Having the meeting and raising that issue are good things in and of themselves.”

McCartney, of Smith College, said her institution’s new Posse Program will help Smith attract and retain students who have historically been underrepresented in science and technology fields.

“As a first-generation college student and a social scientist, I am delighted to join forces and be part of an innovative program that supports access to higher education for underserved populations,” McCartney said, in a press release announcing the initiative.

Amherst College President Biddy Martin stressed that the programs unveiled at the summit aim to make college more valuable, as well as more affordable.

“Our goal with these initiatives is to not only provide low-income students better access to higher education but to also offer them the best tools and training to succeed at college and beyond,” she said in a press statement Thursday. For example, Amherst plans to track involvement by its low-income students in study abroad and internship programs that are shown to improve academic success.

Amherst College President Biddy Martin stressed that programs unveiled at the summit will have an impact on the nation’s economy as well as on individual students.

“It struck me as positive that increasing numbers of people see increased access and success for low-income and disadvantaged youth as essential to the success of the country as a whole,” she said in an email message sent as she was traveling back to Amherst from Washington, D.C. Thursday.

Martin said Amherst “has become a model of successful strategies in the recruitment, enrollment and successful graduation of a socio-economically diverse student body.

“We aim to have more students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds take advantage of the curriculum,” she added. “Today’s summit provided some interesting ideas for how we might achieve that goal.”

Further details about the initiatives local colleges announced at Thursday’s Summit are available on their websites: www.smith.edu; www.amherst.edu; and www.mtholyoke.edu.