This op-ed is the first 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.
Amherst has an equity problem — and it’s not what you think. The college, while having been a major force in the push for equitable admissions practices among the nation’s elite institutions, is simply not doing enough. Issues of socioeconomic diversity among the student body remain deeply entrenched, and if Amherst is to truly live up to its mission, it must do more on its commitment to socioeconomically equitable admissions.
Amherst emerged as a leader among elite colleges in 2021 when it ended its admissions preferences for the children of alumni — more commonly known as legacy admissions — joining a small group of similar schools that have done so prior. In the two years since Amherst ended its preference for legacy students, their representation in Amherst’s admit pool has dropped by nearly half. This drop coincided with a precipitous increase in the admission of students from underrepresented backgrounds. The takeaway, then, is clear: The talented students from underprivileged backgrounds are there, and it is simply a matter of inequity in the college’s preferences that they aren’t represented here in larger numbers. While Amherst’s move to end legacy admissions was met with widespread acclaim, and while Amherst is surely deserving of the praise it received for pushing to ensure greater equity, the work is never done.
Amherst’s worst-performing equity metric by far is socioeconomic diversity. The college does extremely poorly in this regard, taking more students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than any other school in Massachusetts. Over one in five Amherst students come from the top 1 percent. Additionally, Amherst enrolls more students from the top 20 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom 80 percent combined. Many Amherst students, then, would be surprised to learn that the only thing we beat Harvard at is admitting inordinately wealthy students.
This sad reality stands in sharp contrast to Amherst’s mission, to educate students “of exceptional potential from all backgrounds,” to bring together “the most promising students, whatever their financial need.” How is it that we “promote diversity of experience and ideas” when 60 percent of Amherst comes from the top 20 percent?
One contributing factor to this phenomenon is the structure of athletics at Amherst. According to data aggregated from 2011-2015, 6 percent of men’s athletes were low income, and 4 percent were first generation. Even more shockingly, a measly 2 percent of women’s athletes were first generation or low income. When compared to the non-athlete demographics — 31 percent of students as low income, and 20 percent as first generation — it is abundantly clear that athletics is a crucial part of the equation. While diversity outreach measures have surely improved over time, we are left waiting for data that would confirm or deny a recent change in athletics diversity at the college.
Another factor is that Amherst admits a disproportionate number of students from private high schools. While only 10 percent of students in the United States attend such institutions, they make up over 40 percent of the class of 2023. Worse, the average sticker price for private schools lies upwards of $16,000 a year, widely restricting access to those students who already come from privileged backgrounds. If the college is to truly become more inclusive, then it should seek to admit more public school students.
Amherst is certainly a leader in many aspects of admissions equity. We provide a generous need-blind financial aid policy, including international students. We ended legacy admissions. We prize racial diversity. In the wake of the new Supreme Court cases striking down race-conscious admissions, it’s only natural that we turn towards our biggest oversight in admissions equity: class. We must reimagine the way we think about admissions equity in order to make good on the promise of Amherst’s mission.