Hannah Strong ’17 loves this story, and little wonder. It’s dramatic, inspiring, sometimes tear-inducing (ask Strong), and grows more impressive with each successive class of Hamilton students. Ten years ago, in the midst of the Great Recession, the Board of Trustees decided to admit students without first considering their ability to pay for their education.
The College was already meeting the full demonstrated need of every student it accepted but sometimes had to consider applicants’ financial circumstances when making admission decisions. The pivotal need-blind admission policy allows Hamilton to evaluate students based solely on their accomplishments and potential. It means that everything the College has to offer it makes available to the best students, even if they lack sufficient financial means. Students like Strong.
She was a top student at her Elmira, N.Y., high school, yet she was discouraged from applying to Hamilton and other private colleges because of the price tag. “I think they thought it was really out of my reach and out of the reach of students like me at my high school,” says Strong, who reached all the same.
At Hamilton, Strong, a sociology major who was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her senior year, worked as a senior intern in Hamilton’s Admission Office, which is how she first heard the story of the need-blind decision. Monica Inzer, vice president for enrollment management, often shares that history with her interns. Inzer was a strong voice in the College’s long march to need-blind admission, but when the moment arrived, it was a surprise.
“As a college administrator, or as a leadership team, rarely do you get to single out one priority because you’re always moving lots of things forward in incremental ways,” Inzer says. “However, once in a while, you get to say, ‘This thing is most important.’ And I think it was the financial crisis that forced us to think about where we would spend our next dollar.”
... to limit students’ opportunity to go to Hamilton based on finance just felt inherently wrong to me, and I felt that we couldn’t allow that to be the case going forward.
A BOLD MOVE, A TOP PRIORITY
At a December 2009 planning meeting, the Board of Trustees asked senior administrators to present ideas about how to move Hamilton forward at a time when the national economic crisis had brought many colleges to a standstill. Among multiple topics brought up that day was Inzer’s presentation on need-blind admission, which was hardly a new idea for the board. A year or so earlier, the trustees adopted a College strategic plan that included need-blind admission as a long-term goal, albeit an expensive one.
Her presentation complete, Inzer thought the planning meeting was wrapping up when Trustee David Blood ’81 surprised her with a pointed question: How much it would cost to launch need-blind admission? The answer was $500,000 — per class. It was a lot of money, Blood recalls thinking, but doable, and he acted, pushing the long-term goal into immediate territory. He pledged $500,000 on the spot.
WHAT IS NEED-BLIND ADMISSION?
Hamilton does not consider a student’s financial circumstances in its admission decisions for U.S. citizens and meets full demonstrated financial need. This means the College can invite the most talented and deserving students to join its community and award them the financial resources they need to attend. Hamilton is one of five NESCAC colleges and fewer than four dozen U.S. colleges and universities that provide this extraordinary access.
For reasons both profound and practical, Blood had long advocated for need-blind admission. Hamilton has always been a school of opportunity, he observes. “It’s also an extraordinary place, and to limit students’ opportunity to go to Hamilton based on finance just felt inherently wrong to me, and I felt that we couldn’t allow that to be the case going forward,” he says. Also, the need-blind policy distinguishes Hamilton from its competitors, he points out.
His pledge was quickly matched by a second trustee, and then a third, as a riveted Inzer thought, “The College is going to do this right now.” Also part of the moment was then College President Joan Hinde Stewart, a steadfast champion of college access and opportunity. Without Stewart’s push for need-blind admission, it wouldn’t have happened, Inzer says.
By the end of the meeting, five trustees had pledged $500,000 each, and within days, a sixth had committed to the same amount for a total of $3 million. For Blood, the board’s discussion that day was one of the most satisfying moments of his life. It was also the best day of Inzer’s career. “It was a transformative day and momentous decision for Hamilton,” Inzer says. “The move to need-blind admission was aligned with the College’s long-standing commitment to access and made clear that providing opportunity to a Hamilton education was important and would continue to remain a top priority.”
The decision drew national media attention. “At a time when some colleges are favoring applicants who do not require financial aid, Hamilton College in Upstate New York has decided to swim against that tide,” began a March 2010 story in The New York Times.
A few years later, as David Wippman was considering the prospect of becoming Hamilton’s president to replace the retiring Stewart, he thought about how need-blind was a bold move, guided by principle, and the right one for a College that was so committed to access. “I was attracted to Hamilton in part because it has long been willing to take risks in its efforts to offer students the best liberal arts education possible. Need-blind is the perfect example,” Wippman says.
If need-blind admission allows more students of a diverse background to participate in the conversation at Hamilton, it’s going to be helpful to everyone, whether you are on financial aid or not.
In the fall of 2010, the first need-blind class began its Hamilton career. In the subsequent decade, the College set records for admission, while becoming more selective and more racially and economically diverse.
“The funny thing about intelligence is you can’t really determine where it comes from. Intelligence can come from a bunch of different places, right?” asks Jeffery Clarke ’20, who couldn’t have afforded Hamilton without financial aid. “It’s not based on socioeconomic background, either. Essentially not allowing students to attend college based on how much money their parents earn or how much money their household earns would be essentially limiting the possibilities that Hamilton can achieve. Because, as an institution, we have a lot of great minds here working for a lot of different changes.”
Clarke entered College thinking he would study computer science, then decided to fashion his own interdisciplinary major focused on technology and digital media. He was motivated in part by what he considers to be a pressing need — addressing the tide of digital information and misinformation that targets his generation.
If the numbers show how much Hamilton has changed in the last decade, change has reached the classrooms, too. In some senses, observes Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, students in the last few years have been the best he’s had in his 38-year tenure at the College. “Honestly, I’d say the proportion of serious students — really hardworking, deeply engaged — has noticeably improved over the past 10 years or so,” Chambliss says. “We’ve always had good students generally, and the top has always been very strong, but in recent years the proportion of the most committed students has definitely risen quite a bit. I now see most of the students in any class are really interested, trying very hard, want to improve.”
Katheryn Doran, associate professor of philosophy and department chair, agrees. She too has seen a dramatic change in the intellectual engagement of the student body during her years at Hamilton, in particular the last 10.
In November, the College held its most ambitious give-day to support student financial aid. Because Hamilton Day had $1 million goal to be matched by trustee and campaign co-chair David Solomon ’84, P’16. But when gifts topped the $1 million mark by 5 p.m. EST, another donor stepped forward to match an additional $500,000. By midnight on the West Coast it was official, both challenges had been met. Hamilton had secured, in total, $3,092,733 from 3,658 alumni, parents, students, and friends. Half of the funds generated during Because Hamilton Day are supporting financial aid in 2019-20 through this year’s Hamilton Fund, while the other $1.5 million will be used to create two endowed scholarships.
“I can definitely say the students we now teach are extraordinary. If you talk to anybody, they’re going to say that,” she says. “The group of students is more diverse in most ways, from different family and geographical backgrounds, to work histories, to races and ethnicities, to gender identities. And more. Students — and faculty — have so much to learn from each other.”
One of the top students in the Class of 2017, Kateri Boucher says the need-blind policy was part of what compelled her to apply to Hamilton because it would help her attend — she couldn’t have afforded it without financial aid — and because of students she would find there. “When I saw that a school was need-blind, it was assuring that there would be greater class diversity, and that is, I think, what I found at Hamilton. I don’t know what other schools are like exactly, but I think that it measured up to what I had been hoping,” Boucher says. She now works for a small print magazine in Detroit, where she also manages a community house for people who are homeless.
Her twin brother, Jonah Boucher ’17, was co-valedictorian of their class. One of the things he liked about Hamilton was how it wasn’t always apparent who received financial aid and who paid full tuition. “But it was -apparent that there were students from all sorts of different backgrounds and a lot of backgrounds that certainly wouldn’t have traditionally led people to an elite, expensive liberal arts school, so I think we were all reaping the benefit of our peers who could be there because Hamilton is need-blind,” he says. A math and environmental studies major, he now teaches math at a Boston-area high school.
As a vice president at Goldman Sachs and as Goldman’s recruiting captain for Hamilton, Joe Simmel ’95 sees institutional value in a more diverse student body. All graduates will be working in a diverse world. “If need-blind admission allows more students of a diverse background to participate in the conversation at Hamilton, it’s going to be helpful to everyone, whether you are on financial aid or not,” he says.
A POINT OF PRIDE
When the first need-blind class graduated in 2014, its members left a message to all who would follow. The class gift was money toward the construction of a terrace outside Siuda House, home of the Admission and Financial Aid Office, to commemorate the milestone. A record number of seniors pitched in — 98.1%. Bolstered by a $10,000 match from President Stewart, the class raised $26,890. The terrace was dedicated in June 2016 with a plaque that proclaims: “This terrace was made possible by the members of the Class of 2014, in grateful recognition to the College for its commitment to access and opportunity, and in honor of graduating as Hamilton’s first need-blind class.”
Pride endures in Hamilton’s stake-in-the-ground for opportunity. A few years after he graduated, Jeremy Brendle ’14 was conversing with a neighbor, a reporter who writes about higher education, and as their talk turned to the admission process at various universities and colleges, Brendle spoke up on behalf of his alma mater. He recounted what Hamilton had done to increase access, recession notwithstanding. The upshot was a December 2015 story in Huffpost with the headline, “How One Top College Ended A Policy That Weeded Out Poor Students.”
Need-blind admission is an expensive proposition, and Will Robertson ’14 sometimes wonders whether it is too good to be true and how long it can continue. Hamilton offered him his best financial aid package, allowing him to pursue everything he loved: music, cross-country skiing, outdoor adventuring. He met the woman he would marry. He’s now a freelance composer and a recruiter for an outdoor adventure company for teenagers.
Hamilton’s move to go need-blind when it did, what Robertson calls a “values-based decision,” has always stuck with him.
“It points to thinking about the good of the College and the values of the College and not necessarily about money and the red and the black and all that. It’s thinking about, ‘We’re going to make it work because it aligns with our values and who we want to be as an institution,’” Robertson says.
Ten years on, Hamilton remains committed to providing access, opportunity, and the financial aid it takes to make that happen. Without donor support, need-blind admission would still be an aspiration, and maintaining the promise will require an ongoing investment from alumni, parents, and friends of the College. In December 2018, the College launched Because Hamilton, a $400 million capital campaign, its most ambitious ever, and student financial aid is the top priority.
“The decision to go need-blind has proven transformative, and it is, rightly, a point of pride for Hamilton and its alumni,” Wippman says. “It has helped the College become stronger, better, and more enriching for all, whether one receives financial aid or not.”