Four years ago, many of you expressed pride when Hamilton announced that it would introduce a need-blind admission policy, while continuing to meet the full demonstrated need of every student who enrolls. Our College, founded as a school of opportunity, took this bold step after years of study but in the midst of an apparently unfavorable economy. That action is the highlight of my career in higher education and a powerful expression of our belief that a college education serves a public good that should be available to all talented and deserving students, regardless of their financial circumstances. Hamilton changes the course of young lives, and in so doing provides leaders for our country and our world. This year’s graduates are making their senior gift in honor of their proud status as the first Hamilton class admitted need-blind.
While that widely noted decision was driven by a fundamental concern about access to higher education, we were also, to be honest, motivated by the desire to make our College stronger – to eliminate an obstacle to enrolling more bright young people who would make our campus community an even more vital and interesting place. And that we have done.
We realize, however, that attracting talented students from across the socioeconomic spectrum and from disadvantaged backgrounds is just the first step, because providing financial aid to ensure access to college guarantees neither the quality of the experience nor a successful outcome. We must also address the hidden needs of these students once they arrive on campus so that they can realize the promise of a Hamilton education.
I took that message a few weeks ago to a summit on expanding college opportunity that was hosted by President and Mrs. Obama. Attendees included college and university presidents and administration officials (such as the secretary of education, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and director of the National Economic Council), along with leaders of nonprofit organizations, foundations, state governments and businesses. The President told us “We are here because we want to make sure more young people can earn a college education,” and he described higher education as “the surest path to the middle class.” Mrs. Obama, who was a first-generation college student, called her life a “story of opportunity through education,” adding that our country “will win by tapping the full potential” of young people.
Their comments resonated with me. In my own life and in the lives of thousands of students with whom I have worked across the decades, I have seen what college makes possible, so I was pleased to represent Hamilton at an event focused on increasing access to higher education. As the daughter of a ship fitter who never went beyond two years of high school and a homemaker whose secondary education was what used to be called “commercial,” I was able to attend college thanks to teachers who encouraged me, a loving family who sacrificed for me, and a New York State Regents Scholarship.
Five of the seven other members of our College’s senior staff were first-generation college students. Working with a resolute Board of Trustees, they help ensure that Hamilton’s long-standing commitment to access and affordability continues to shape our thinking and decision-making. Our College was conceived and established by a missionary who viewed education as part of the solution to the difficulties that confronted the Oneida Indians he served, and it was named for a statesman whose education vaulted him from poverty to prominence in the new republic. Over two centuries later, we are guided by our originating principles.
At the White House summit, Mrs. Obama mentioned that as a student at Princeton, she felt “a little overwhelmed and a little isolated.” Indeed, we know from personal and professional experience that for many students the college experience can be unfamiliar and unsettling. That is why we are determined to make available the resources students need in order to have a successful college experience and to position themselves for a successful career – including not only targeted career counseling, peer mentoring and help with networking and obtaining job-related experiences, but also help with emergency or exceptional financial needs that their families may be unable to cover.
The passion of my fellow college and university presidents at the White House summit was evident, as were the determination and creativity with which they are addressing educational opportunity and success at institutions as diverse as community colleges, research universities and liberal arts colleges. It is, of course, too early to predict the long-term effect of that gathering (and indeed the conveners underscored that it was intended as a launch rather than a destination), but I look forward to seeing the fruits that such collective and innovative commitment will produce.
Hamilton has been the conduit to a life of promise and fulfillment for generations of gifted and deserving students. We will continue to serve in that role, and I thank you for all you do to support your College and its mission.
Joan Hinde Stewart