This September marks 25 years since I joined Kenyon’s faculty. As a medieval historian who generally measures time in centuries, I will admit that this particular milestone crept up on me. It has me thinking about our progress, our persistence and our goals for the future, which are sure to be touchstones in a semester of firsts for me as acting president.
It also has me thinking about the pace of institutional change, which is notoriously slow at colleges and universities — until it isn’t. Increasing access has long been a priority for Kenyon, and growing our endowment for financial aid is a central pillar of the Our Path Forward campaign launched in 2018. But a year ago, in partnership with the Schuler Education Foundation, we launched the Kenyon Access Initiative (KAI), an ambitious accelerator program to boost scholarship opportunities by $50 million in five years to bring more exceptional students from families of limited means to the College.
KAI is already having an impact. This year’s set of first-year and transfer students is our most socioeconomically diverse ever, with 34% more Pell-eligible students and students not eligible for government aid than last year (67, compared to 50 in 2021). When all is said and done, this initiative will fully fund 50 additional scholarships for lower income students, every year, in perpetuity.
This pace of growth is unprecedented, but made possible thanks to the enthusiastic response of Kenyon donors, whose gifts for this purpose are matched up to $25 million, dollar for dollar, by the Schuler Education Foundation. In just a year, we are very close to reaching the $25 million match threshold and intend to maintain this as a fundraising and College priority. This partnership with Schuler and the opportunity it represents to make a Kenyon education more accessible to talented students regardless of income has clearly resonated with Kenyon alumni, parents and students.
This is exciting for a number of reasons, not least of which are the many ways that a more diverse student body strengthens our entire campus community. Enriched by a broad expanse of worldviews, greater diversity leads to smarter, more creative and innovative problem solving, which not only enhances our classrooms but also the workplaces our graduates will help shape. It’s no wonder that students consider a diverse campus community to be one of the most important factors in choosing a college.
Kenyon was one of the first five schools selected to join Schuler in expanding college access, and it was in large part because of our success in recruiting, retaining and graduating students from a wide range of backgrounds. They saw in us a shared mission and purpose. Schuler understands the transformative power of liberal arts education and wants it to be a choice at any income level. They also recognize that it is something we do very well at Kenyon. Not only does the College meet 100% of every admitted student’s demonstrated financial need — only 5% of all colleges and universities do this — we provide a number of programs and services to support students while they’re here.
For new students, developing a sense of belonging is key to thriving in college. This is one of the principles behind the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP), which launched 15 years ago and now serves as the cornerstone of a suite of academic and peer mentorship programs. More recently, the Student Success Fund, with generous donor support, has expanded to an impressive $50,000 to help pay for textbooks and course supplies, interview attire or everyday living essentials, alleviating many of the common challenges students may find in feeling safe and secure in their new home away from home.
We know, too, that mental and emotional health are key to success for all students. That’s why Kenyon is partnering with the JED Foundation, which helps colleges develop the strongest possible mental health safety nets for their students. Over the course of four years, a team of students, staff and faculty will collaborate with JED to evaluate and strengthen our systems and programs to help students flourish on campus and for years to come.
Kenyon’s commitment to enrolling the most talented students, regardless of their ability to pay, combined with the collective efforts of other colleges, the Schuler Education Foundation and generous donors, is precisely the catalyst we need to break the economic barriers to higher education facing so many students and families today. It has been remarkable to observe the momentum at which we — together as one college community — have improved access for a more diverse student body. As a historian, to witness such rapid and positive change during a period of intense challenges for higher education is extraordinary. We can look forward to seeing the impact of these changes as the College enters its third century.