This op-ed is the second in a four-part series entitled “Amherst for All.” In this series, we examine the inequities within Amherst’s admissions practices, and the ways in which the college can better live up to its mission.
A conversation we both had with a faculty member about the inequities within the admissions system at Amherst laid bare the idea that the nature of injustice is such that those who are the most affected by it do not get to be here. Those students, often already disadvantaged, are preemptively barred from taking advantage of what the college has to offer, when they are, in fact, deserving of admission. This is considered even more appalling when considered against the backdrop of a highly unequal America — one in which fewer and fewer people are able to rise above the circumstances into which they were born. Amherst, it should be said, has a duty to rectify this injustice in admissions practices wherever it occurs.
To further understand the nature of the injustice, we must understand the role of the college’s admissions policies in perpetuating it. Amherst remains a selective institution, and it has a unique responsibility among other schools in that it seeks to educate “students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds.” Ideally, each incoming class is a group of hardworking, curious students from diverse backgrounds who are willing to contribute to a vibrant campus community. The mission of the college, however, runs up against a reality of distinct socioeconomic inequality, as the children of the wealthy are disproportionately represented among our student body.
Critics might observe, however, that wealth and/or legacy status may be correlated with the qualities that the admissions team screens for. For example, if one’s parents are wealthy enough to send their children to well-resourced schools where they can hone their intellectual skills and personal interests, then they will undoubtedly have an admissions advantage over students who were not as well-off. Similarly, if one’s parents attended an elite institution, they will have access to the cultural capital and knowledge that will allow them to educate their children to become the kind of people who are likely to end up at an elite institution, perhaps even regardless of an express preference for legacy students. Thus, to some, it is unsurprising to find a disproportionate percentage of wealthy and/or legacy students at Amherst, even when assuming that the admissions process is fair and holistic.
Even if this is the case, however, it at best means that a slight skew in the student body’s demographics toward the wealthy and legacy seems initially more tolerable. This conclusion assumes, however, that there is no inequity in how applications themselves are processed. And while what counts as a truly gross “disproportionality” may be a subjective matter, we at least think that the statistics cited in our previous article are at least enough to give us pause, to encourage us to reexamine our admissions practices to see if they are, in fact, fair.
The argument above, however, wrongly assumes that unjust disparities do not exist between socioeconomically dissimilar students of similar academic merit — and empirical evidence suggests that this is the case. Opportunity Insights, a group of economists at Harvard, concluded in a study using federal records of college attendance, family tax brackets, and “detailed, anonymized internal admissions assessments” of several elite colleges, that they were “more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family as compared to low- or middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.” While according to the Opportunity Insights data, Amherst specifically does better than many other elite colleges in this regard, attendance rates are still skewed among students with equal test scores, leaving the college’s mission unfulfilled.
The study also posits that this difference in admission even when test scores are held equal (although the SAT is correlated strongly with wealth anyways) is best explained by three factors: “(1) preferences for children of alumni, (2) weight placed on non-academic credentials, which tend to be stronger for students applying from private high schools that have affluent student bodies, and (3) recruitment of athletes, who tend to come from higher-income families.” While the first factor is no longer in play at Amherst, and the disparities within our athletic recruiting policies remain evident, there is still much at stake in examining how college might weigh students’ non-academic credentials. Importantly, referring to the second factor, it is possible that admission teams evaluate applicants in a way that disadvantages academically qualified but underfunded students. For just one example, think of how wealthier students may be able to accrue more experiences that give them an edge in the admissions process by tangibly demonstrating an interest they have. Students without the resources to do these may be just as qualified, but are nonetheless disadvantaged in admissions since they lack the shiny summer experience that the more resourced student could afford.
“The disadvantage of an elite education,” William Deresiewicz, former English professor at Yale, writes, “is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.” Amherst has a unique task ahead of it in that it educates some of the nation’s future leaders. There are other compelling justifications, then, for why Amherst should seek to maintain a diverse student body. As philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues, in order for the graduates of elite colleges — many of whom will go on to hold positions of power — to effectively serve everyone, non-elites included, they must be responsive to the interests of people from all sectors of society. To be responsive to the interests of a wide variety of people requires empathy for those interests. But it can be hard to conjure up empathy for a group of people we don’t know.
Unless given a reason to care, students who, for example, simply take a sociology course on a certain identity group will either a) quickly forget what they learned, or b) fail to properly internalize the gravity of the class material. But sitting next to and interacting with a student of that identity or societal position will get them to truly develop empathy and understanding for the other person by seeing them as another human being. Otherwise, when time comes to make decisions to lead society, our leaders will lack the rigorous, emotional understanding to create productive solutions and lead effectively. Socioeconomic status is just one identity that is important, but it is something that Amherst differentially lacks when compared to, say, racial diversity.
To recap: The first article in our series has focused on the statistics regarding economic class differences in admissions, which may shock and surprise us. In this article, we have examined the nature of the injustice, or what a socioeconomically unfair admissions process looks like, as well as the reasons why Amherst, as an institution which produces elites, benefits from a more diverse student body. In the next part of this series, we will seek to examine how admissions works against qualified but under-resourced students.