Join for FREE, and start talking with other members, weighing in on community discussions, and more.
Also, by registering and logging in you'll see fewer ads and pesky welcome messages (like this one!)
Prestigious women's colleges have been at the forefront in attracting low-income students. Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Smith give at least 15% of their highly coveted spots to students poor enough to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. This was in part a response to the challenges all-female schools faced when once all-male colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Yale went coed in the '70s. "It was clear we had to cast a wider net or we wouldn't survive," says Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley.
None of these schools has been more aggressive than Smith College, the largest of the elite women's colleges, where roughly a quarter of the students get Pell Grants, and nearly two-thirds receive need-based financial aid. That doesn't exactly jibe with Smith's traditional image as a school that helped prepare young women for society by serving dinner on white linen tablecloths, and which also claims former First Ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan among its alumnae.
HELPING OLDER WOMEN. But that outdated image conceals a dedication to helping poor women get a top-notch education. "Our admissions office has been targeting inner-city schools for years," says Audrey Yale Smith, the college's dean of enrollment. That effort got a huge boost in the latter half of the '90s, when Ruth J. Simmons was president of Smith. "Simmons was the African-American daughter of sharecroppers, and she made a very compelling case about our commitment to access," says Dean Smith. Simmons is now president of Brown University.
A second factor that sets Smith College apart is its program that helps non-traditional women students -- who must be at least 24 years old -- complete college. Currently, Smith has about 210 of these Ada Comstock Scholars, some 8% of its 2,800 students. Unlike traditional students, who come directly from high school, these women are often already living on their own and are far more likely to be low income.
LOWER AVERAGE SATS. To help attract such students, the school has somewhat altered its admissions criteria. Dean Smith and her colleagues are well aware that SAT scores are highly correlated with income. As a result, "We have de-emphasized SAT scores, and put more weight on teacher recommendations, high-school performance, and other measures," she says.
Smith points out that students with lower SAT scores often end up thriving at the school, where they get a lot of support, which ranges from an individual adviser and help with writing and math to a wardrobe of business suits they can draw from to go on job interviews before graduation.
But trailblazing has a price. "We take a big hit on [average] SAT scores," the dean concedes. "Our SAT scores are about 100 points below those of our peers in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings." And that has hurt Smith in the U.S. News rankings, where it now places 19th among liberal arts colleges. By comparison, Wellesley, where students' SAT scores average 100 points higher, is No. 4. As a result, getting into Smith isn't as competitive as getting into Harvard or Amherst. But Smith still gets plenty of applicants -- 3,400 applied for the 639 slots in last fall's entering class.
AID ECLIPSES TABLECLOTHS. In recent years, Smith College's financial-aid budget grew faster than other parts of the budget, says Dean Smith, swelling to over $40 million, or well over a quarter of the college's operating budget. As a result, the college was forced to cut back its famed dining program. Previously, Smith served students dinner in formal settings -- complete with linen tablecloths -- in the 26 houses where they live on campus. Now Smith has scaled that back to just 16 dining halls, while offering students more flexibility in when and what they can eat.
Dean Smith admits the change caused controversy. It also generated "a huge response from alumnae," many of whom have fond memories of the intimate dinners they enjoyed at the college. But she defends the change as necessary. "At one time, we were preparing women to enter society," says Dean Smith. "But now, we're preparing them to enter leadership positions." That should be food for thought for other schools looking to help low-income students.