Our largely affluent student body reflects Mount Holyoke’s privileged roots


When Mount Holyoke College was founded, one of the institution’s goals was to create a place where women would remain “pure,” drawing from Mary Lyon’s strictly Christian values. I might even dare to call early Mount Holyoke conservative. The students came from families that could afford the luxury of a woman’s education — one she would likely put aside after marriage. The student body was mostly homogeneous in the beginning, predominantly made up of cisgender white women who came from evangelical families. Not everyone could afford to pay $125 for tuition during the Civil War. As Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz put it in her book “Alma Mater,” Mary Lyon had wanted to create a place where “daughters of poor New England farmers,” much like herself, could be educated, but this was not possible during the College’s first years.

In the present day, many students pride themselves on being diverse, openminded and politically liberal. The student body today seems drastically different from that of the 1800s. We might, however, be more similar to the early alumnae than we would like to think.

While there has been some increase in diversity in relation to gender, racial and ethnic identity and a shift away from exclusively enforcing Christian values, the student body is still primarily made up of socioeconomically privileged students. According to the New York Times, 48 percent of domestic students in Mount Holyoke’s graduating class in 2013 came from families whose incomes ranked in the top 20 percent of the United States. The median family income of a Mount Holyoke Student is about $110,000, which is significantly higher than the national median: about $61,000. What is even more shocking is that there were more students from the top 20 percent of incomes than the bottom 60 percent.

After looking at the tuition and fees of Mount Holyoke for this year — an insurmountable $66,558 — many low-income students would be discouraged from even applying, were it not for our institution’s policy of meeting 100 percent of every students’ demonstrated financial need. However, this claim does not tell the whole story of the Mount Holyoke admissions process. If the school accepts more students in need of less financial aid, it will be considerably easier for the school to fulfill admitted students’ needs. Mount Holyoke is need-aware, which means that students’ ability to pay tuition is a factor in their acceptance to the college. This fact likely contributes to the College’s lack of economic diversity.

I had thought that because Mount Holyoke is always talking about its dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion, the school would be need-blind. The College’s website talks about its dedication to social justice education, which aims to help students from varying social backgrounds have better opportunities and create a more just academic environment. What I am wondering, however, is this: how can we achieve that goal without socioeconomic diversity?

The student body, and even the faculty, may think that Mount Holyoke is more progressive than most colleges, but is it really that much more diverse? Even our racial and ethnic diversity regarding Black and Hispanic/Latinx students is disproportionately lower than the national population.

I would like to see Mount Holyoke be more honest about its goals regarding diversity — and then actually go through with them, making this education more accessible. Low-income students would benefit from higher education by increasing their chances of experiencing upward social mobility. Students would benefit from having a more economically diverse student body with different opinions and values. With more of this diversity, we could come to better understand where people are coming from, which is especially valuable in this time of extreme polarization.