Nearly $2 million in endowment money per student, a sprawling 1,000 acres of land, and minimal money paid in taxes on the college’s property or the endowment. Which of these seems like the odd one out? Amherst College is a financial titan that is under little obligation to contribute its money to the common good. While the college pays a 1.4 percent tax on the gains from its endowment, and on the select minority of its properties which fall within town limits, it gains access to the privilege of tax-exemption beyond these modest concessions in part by virtue of its educational mission: to educate exceptional students from all backgrounds, so that they can then “give light to the world.” But what happens when the college fails to live up to its own ideals? If Amherst cannot live up to its mission — in essence, promoting educational access and public service — it should be made to support its community in other ways, like, for example, contributing more money to the town of Amherst.
Access and Service
Amherst’s tax-exempt status might be justifiable if the college showed its commitment for the common good in other ways — like, for example, building robust career pipelines that send a large number of students into public service jobs, or performing exceedingly well on social mobility metrics. The problem is Amherst does extremely poorly on both of these fronts.
Amherst has many names. Some know it as the “Singing College.” Others, the “Teaching College.” Yet, no one would ever dare call it the “Public Service College.” In fact, the college is one of the worst elite liberal arts colleges in this regard. A study by Washington Monthly ranked Amherst 17th out of the top-20 liberal arts colleges when it comes to sending graduates into social impact careers. This, put frankly, is unacceptable. Instead of committing disproportionate resources to consulting and finance pipelines — hosting weekly workshops for future bankers, for instance — Amherst should fully commit to its educational mission. It should do more than only pay lip service to public service. Amherst has only just begun to recognize its commitment to public service — hosting programs as a part of its new Social Impact Initiative dedicated to encouraging students to go into social impact careers — but these efforts are far from enough. The college should double down on its commitment to educating students for the common good, following in the footsteps of two outstanding institutions in this regard — Harvard, which created a Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship, and Swarthmore, which gives students $27,000 Social Impact Fellowships that provide recent graduates with housing in their first year working at a nonprofit.
Amherst College is far from being known for its social mobility either. In fact, New York Times data shows only 2 percent of Amherst students come from poor families but become rich adults. This places us 58th among Massachusetts colleges alone — and much worse nationally. If Amherst is to live up to its educational mission, it should make itself more accessible. While low-income students do have exceedingly high chances of moving up the socioeconomic ladder upon their arrival at Amherst, it’s important to remember that social mobility is defined by both success and access. If Amherst is faring poorly on social mobility metrics, it is because it is not providing a sufficient number of low-income students with access to such a remarkable institution — and the evidence for this claim is overwhelming. Amherst currently enrolls more students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half combined — a blatant atrocity. Amherst must redouble its efforts to be accessible if it wants to truly live up to its educational mission.
Neither does Amherst live up to its educational mission locally. Pages on pages of research and writing show colleges have extremely detrimental effects on their surrounding communities, and Amherst is no different. If the college is to live up to its mission, it should support the town more. As an article in The Amherst Current states bluntly: “When an Amherst College student goes to Town Hall to register to vote or get a passport, the salaries of the clerks who help her are paid through Amherst property taxes.” Amherst and its students get to avail themselves of all the services of the larger town without the institution itself ever having to adequately contribute. This puts an excessive strain on the town and its finances. To be fair, Amherst does make an annual contribution to local schools — totalling $75,000 in 2021 — and pay $650,000 in property taxes on a select few properties it owns in town. However, it is important to recognize that, as the writers in The Amherst Current argue, “these payments, while welcomed, are not adequate to meet the demand that our academic institutions place on Town services.” Additionally, these figures pale in comparison to the near $10 million Amherst would pay if all of its properties were taxed. The failure to live up to its mission notwithstanding, Amherst should not get to pick and choose how it supports its own locality. The college should contribute more monetarily to the town more in an effort to support the community that gave rise to it and continuously allows it to thrive.
Anyone who’s read the Amherst insignia is familiar with the college’s motto: Terras Irradient, or “Let them give light to the world.” We should take it to mean that Amherst and its students are here to substantially contribute to the common good. In the face of the failure of the college to meet its mission, and the excessive strains it places on the surrounding town, the least the college could do is double down on efforts to promote access, equity, and public service, and contribute more money to the town of Amherst. After all, if Amherst is unwilling to live up to its mission educationally, why shouldn’t it have to commit to it monetarily?