Next term, the Supreme Court will hear cases accusing Harvard University and the University of North Carolina of racial discrimination in their affirmative action policies — policies very similar to those employed by Amherst, as well as most of our peer institutions. Despite lower-court decisions in favor of affirmative action in college admissions, the majority-conservative Supreme Court will likely rule against the practice. While the outcome of the case is, of course, not certain, and no one knows just how sweeping the Court’s decision will turn out to be, race-based affirmative action in U.S. college admissions seems to be on the brink of extinction.
The probable loss of affirmative action poses a significant threat to equity in admissions. After the ruling, colleges across the country will likely have to completely rethink their admissions policies. Amherst’s first priority should be to double down on its commitment to build a racially diverse community. Over the last decades, affirmative action has been essential in helping the college transition from an overwhelmingly white campus into one of the most racially diverse campuses in the country. Affirmative action has been central in opening up the closed system of private education to a much wider, more representative, and more equitable system.
The fundamental shift threatened by the Supreme Court case also, however, presents the opportunity for a wide-scale reflection on the shortcomings of existing admissions policies. Beyond fighting to maintain the racial diversity threatened by the Supreme Court case, the college must acknowledge its current failure to promote other meaningful types of diversity.
The college’s extraordinary scores on diversity metrics compared to peer institutions reflect real progress. We have higher percentages of non-white students than almost any of our peer institutions, and the college allocates significant resources towards improving diversity on campus. However, over 20 percent of students at Amherst come from the top one percent of wealthiest families, and nearly 60 percent from the top fifth. Even more strikingly, only 4.7 percent of Amherst college students come from the bottom fifth of families sorted by wealth, demonstrating the college’s struggle to serve lower-class families across racial lines. Over half of the student body comes from only four states, skewing geographic diversity as well as economic.
The decision to apply to Amherst derives from many factors, which are often outside the college’s control. A student’s education is based on luck and privilege in so many ways that creating widespread educational equity from the college’s admissions office is an impossibility. Many students report that outreach to schools outside of the Northeast is disappointingly lacking. Moreover, even with better institutional outreach, just sending mail to places where applications are low won’t solve the problem with applicant numbers. The very reputation of a prestigious institution makes it seem unattainable for a vast number of applicants, regardless of their talent.These large-scale failures point to some basic oversights of the current admissions model: Amherst, for all the diversity it has on paper, does not ensure true equity in its admissions, and encourages students and observers to conflate the appearance of racial diversity with fully equal opportunity in education.
We recognize that the college can’t single-handedly fix educational inequity. But the college can approach admissions more holistically by considering as many factors as possible. For instance, taking socioeconomic diversity more heavily into account would not only improve racial diversity, but reduce the college’s overwhelmingly large proportion of wealthy students and diversify the set of high schools that students hail from. Moreover, admissions should examine factors such as parental occupation, geographic location, schooling, working background, and age. Doing so would be a step toward providing those students who traditionally face massive barriers to attending elite private institutions with fair and equitable access to the resources of one of the wealthiest and most influential undergraduate institutions in the world.
While attempts at doing better may seem fruitless, they are still worthwhile. Although we may incessantly call for more from an administration that isn’t all-powerful, the Editorial Board truly believes in the power of the college to improve the lives of those attending. Maintaining affirmative action — or some proxy for it — is a necessity, but it is not, by itself, enough. Our current admissions model has been unable to create a truly diverse campus — one diverse in race, in income, and in background. It’s time to change that.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 9; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 1).