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Speeches & Media

Access Equals Excellence

Smith stays focused on dismantling financial barriers to education.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2019

For weeks this spring, a single story dominated higher education news coverage: the revelation that affluent parents—some of them famous—bribed officials at elite colleges and universities to secure admission for their children. 

At dinner tables, board meetings and in hallway conversations, talk turned to the so-called Varsity Blues scandal. The scope of the payoffs and cheating, as uncovered by federal agents, painted in stark relief the persistent role of privilege in a system supposedly predicated on hard work and merit.

Smith was not implicated in the scandal. All admission decisions are made by the dean of admission based on a prospective student’s application and supporting materials. The integrity of our admission program is of paramount importance to the college, and academic promise is at the center of our selection process. 

Nonetheless, the scandal and its aftermath hit home for me when I read an essay by English professor Jennine CapóCrucet, published in The New York Times, headlined “Wait, How Did You Get Into College? How first-generation students learn about the myth of meritocracy.” The essay recounts Crucet’s transition from “an overcrowded, underperforming Miami public high school” to Cornell University, and her subsequent loss of innocence about how some of her classmates gained an admission advantage.

“I had sincerely believed that when I stepped on campus I was leaving an unfair system behind, going to a place where my mind was valued more than what my parents did for a living,” the writer recounted. “No one in my family had gone to college, so no one could tell me otherwise.”

As I have shared with the Smith community, I am the oldest of five children and the first in my family to attend college. I went on every college tour on my own, only visiting schools I could reach by local public transportation. I sewed my own suit for admission interviews—rust-colored corduroy, but it was the 1970s, so perhaps I can be forgiven for this. Once enrolled at Tufts University, I continued to live at home, unaware that financial aid was available to enable me to live on campus with my college friends.

I received a stellar education at Tufts, for which I am forever grateful, an education that changed my life trajectory. And I am enormously proud to have served as a Tufts trustee. At the same time, I remain acutely aware that it could have been otherwise for me—and remains otherwise for far too many students. As hard as it is to acknowledge, the socioeconomic playing field has never been equal. Education provides access to the American Dream. If you can’t access education, that dream remains out of reach.

Smith College was founded with an access mission. Sophia Smith envisioned a college where women could receive an education equal in rigor to the kind that was available to men. Providing access for all qualified applicants informs every aspect of the college today, particularly admission decisions and scholarship aid. At Smith, 18 percent of students are first-generation. Twenty-two percent of students are eligible for federal Pell grants, awarded to those who demonstrate “exceptional financial need.” And 67 percent of students receive financial aid, ranging from several thousand dollars to the full cost of tuition, room and board. Next year, we will award nearly $80 million in scholarship aid.

Smith’s admission process is need-aware, not need-blind. In plain language: Depending on the college’s available financial aid resources, a small percentage of our admission decisions take into account a family’s ability to pay. I am laser-focused on fundraising for financial aid because I have the audacious goal of lowering—or even eliminating—that small percentage. Access equals excellence. When we open Smith to the best minds, we create opportunities to educate a new generation of leaders who will—with the benefit of their education and the power of their voices—lead the conversations that will lift communities, change policies, disrupt convention and create a more just and equitable world. We must never lose smart, creative and ambitious students to other institutions simply because of cost.

When I went to college, I was carried by the generosity of those who came before me. They didn’t know me, or my family, or my circumstances, but they recognized that resources, both financial and educational, can determine one’s future. In accepting the Smith presidency, I made a promise to the Smithies of today and tomorrow to work to dismantle the financial barriers to education that exist for so many of the world’s best students. Dishonest means should not get a student into college; lack of means should not keep a student out.