Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2005–06
"What are Smith students like now?" "Who goes to Smith?" These are among the most frequent questions I'm asked when on the road speaking with alumnae as part of my "Shaping the Future of Smith" conversations. I could describe dozens of individual students with their extraordinary range of experience, talent, and interest, but the demographics of our student body tell an equally interesting story.
The class of 2009 was selected from 3,408 applicants, the largest group of applicants in Smith's history. The 617 students of the first-year class come from 44 states and 507 different high schools—about two-thirds of them public, and one-third, private. One student in ten in the first-year class has a mother, sister, or grandmother who attended Smith. Eight percent are international students, coming from 26 different countries.
The class of 2009 is the most diverse class that Smith has ever enrolled; 29 percent of the class identify themselves as women of color—6 percent African American, 14 percent Asian American, eight percent Latina, and one percent Native American.
A remarkable characteristic of the first-year class—indeed, the Smith student body as a whole—is its socioeconomic diversity. Nineteen percent of the class of 2009 are the first generation in their families to go to college. Twenty-one percent of the student body as a whole come from families whose incomes are below $30,000. (Neither of these figures includes the Ada population, which has even more economic diversity than our traditional-age undergraduates.) Smith has a larger percentage of students on Pell grants (federal financial aid grants limited to low-income students) than any of its peers. Sixty-four percent of Smith’s student body receive financial aid from the college.
These statistics demonstrate that Smith is succeeding at enrolling an economically diverse student body—succeeding to a greater extent than many of its peers. Recently, William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and now president of the Mellon Foundation, and his research partners, Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, have published an important book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Using new data and fresh research, the book argues that students from less affluent families still have limited access to America's elite colleges and universities and that those institutions have not done as much as they could to recruit them. Women's colleges, Bowen and his colleagues have found, are an exception to this pattern. The women's colleges participating in the study—Barnard, Smith, and Wellesley—have significantly greater representation of students from low-income families than their co-ed peers.
Bowen and his colleagues argue that socioeconomic diversity is a critical measure of excellence. There is broad consensus in the educational community that all students derive important educational benefits from diversity. Moreover, broad economic access to education is critical both to the health of our democracy and to our economic competitiveness as a nation. Many of you, I am sure, have read Tom Friedman's recent book, The World is Flat, with its alarming analysis of our failure to keep pace with other countries in the education of scientists and engineers. The education of women, and their under-representation in the United States, in science and engineering professions, is a critical piece of this story.
Smith currently excels both in recruiting an economically diverse student body and in motivating an unusual proportion of those students to major in science and engineering and to go on to graduate work in those fields. This is much to celebrate.
Our achievement here owes a great deal to the generosity of our alumnae, past and present, who have given gifts to support scholarships. That generosity expresses our historical dedication to access. President Bowen and his colleagues quote Thomas Jefferson's definition of the goal of American education—to nurture the "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue." Sophia Smith would have embraced Jefferson's words, and the college she founded embodies this ideal.