We like to think of Amherst as a small, sleepy liberal arts college, but that was not always the case. For two years (albeit in the 1800s), our ‘tiny college’ was the second biggest in the country, after Yale. Amherst was never supposed to be a small college; in its early years, it argued that its ability to provide a high-quality and affordable education to large numbers of students gave it “vast public importance.” Today, the best way to continue Amherst’s mission is by admitting more people into our little community on the hill. In short, it’s time for Amherst to grow.
Students who attend Amherst possess enormous advantages. They receive a first-class education from some of the most distinguished academics in the world. While the Amherst financial aid system is not without its issues, it is still one of the best in the nation. Amherst graduates also have access to a lasting support structure and the nation’s fourth most supportive alumni network. It’s no wonder that the latest Wall Street Journal rankings show that Amherst has the 19th best student outcomes of any college or university in the United States. Shouldn’t we extend these benefits to as many people as possible?
Admitting more students would also enable Amherst to further diversify. Today, Amherst has almost as many students from the top one percent of the income scale as it does from the bottom 60 percent. That’s in part because Amherst has to admit roughly 150 varsity athletes each year, students who overwhelmingly come from wealthier backgrounds. Expanding the student population would give an opportunity to reduce the proportion of students from the top income brackets and reflect the socioeconomic diversity of the country.
Despite the benefits to expansion, Amherst remains stubbornly exclusive. Between 2010 and 2019, enrollment increased by just two percent, even as the number of Amherst applicants increased by 30 percent. Many of these applicants, including large numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds, would have thrived at Amherst.
The idea of school expansion isn’t new. In recognition of the growing applicant pool and their own duty to educate, many universities have dramatically increased their enrollment in recent years. Arizona State more than doubled its student body over the past fifteen years, all while increasing its diversity, academic rankings, and graduation rate. The trend even extends to elite private schools. Yale increased its undergraduate enrollment by 15 percent between 2017 and 2020, and Princeton and Rice are enacting similar plans. In recent years, numerous small liberal arts colleges have also expanded their academic offerings and revitalized old departments by increasing enrollment. None of these schools have lost academic rigor or prestige from the change.
So how many more mammoths could we feasibly teach? The answer is hundreds, perhaps thousands. Right now, the two main limitations on Amherst size are physical space and personnel.
Physical space is easy to extend. The Student’s editorial board recently pointed out the need for the college to expand its infrastructure; why not do it with the goal of adding more students? Amherst has a $3.75 billion endowment and owns huge swathes of unused land in town and around campus. The recently finished Science Center and under-construction Student Center represent the scale of Amherst’s abilities. If we chose, we could build enough new dorms and class buildings to accommodate hundreds of new students.
The personnel limitations are also important to consider. What use is a larger campus if we don’t maintain our small classes and academic rigor? Fortunately, the nation has a huge surplus of brilliant academics who can’t land positions on the tiny and insular faculties of top schools. By hiring dozens of new faculty, Amherst could not only bring in gifted young instructors, but it could also address some of its other lingering problems. Amherst has long struggled to create a faculty that represents its diverse student population. Remaking the faculty through a slew of new hires would give Amherst an opportunity to resolve some of that imbalance in one fell swoop.
Staff shortages are another surmountable obstacle. We all know that Amherst has had difficulty recruiting staff, but that is due to low pay, rather than a labor shortage. If Amherst used some of its ample funds to increase staff salaries to well above minimum wage, it could both attract more staffers and give its employees fairer compensation.
The pandemic has demonstrated that if they choose, Amherst administrators and faculty can move heaven and earth to increase capacity, whether by renting out hotel rooms in town or using tents outside Val. Imagine what the college could achieve if it expanded as part of a years-long project instead of scrambling to respond last-minute to a public health and overenrollment crisis.
Some might protest that even if such a program were physically and academically possible, dramatically increasing enrollment would destroy Amherst’s identity. Changing identities, however, isn’t always a bad thing. Look at my co-columnist, who used to reek with theater kid energy, but has over the past few years managed to reduce that stench to the occasional whiff.
Expanding Amherst would change student life, but so did the decision to become co-ed in 1975, to adopt the open curriculum in 1971 or to go secular in the 1900s. In fact, expansion is part of the Amherst identity. In 1825, the college housed just 152 students, but it grew rapidly. Between 1924 and 1938, for example, the campus doubled the area of all its campus buildings. The last few decades of enrollment stagnation are the exception, rather than the norm.
In a world that seems decidedly illiberal and anti-intellectual, it can be tempting to shore ourselves up in our ivory tower and content ourselves with the idea that at least we few Amherst students can weather the storm together. But that mentality ignores Amherst’s duty to serve the public interest. Imagine the countless people just as qualified and capable as us who are barred from Amherst because of an arbitrary and discriminatory admissions system. We can admit them, and we should. That’s why it’s time to think big.