Seeing Double: Amherst’s Diversity Mirage

Seeing Double columnist Thomas Brodey ‘22 argues that Amherst’s commitment to diversity is meaningless without the application of a fuller definition of the word.

One of the most noticeable things about Amherst College is its commitment to diversity. We see the word constantly invoked, as though some kind of gospel, in the administration’s emails, speeches, and posters. The problem is that Amherst has about as narrow-minded and superficial a notion of diversity as is possible. At Amherst, diversity pretty much just means racial diversity and gender diversity. These types of diversity are important, but the college’s myopic perspective blinds it to countless other types of diversity that are necessary for a rich college environment.

In its website’s Diversity page, Amherst College promises “A Community that Looks Like the World.” That choice of word “looks” is revealing. It’s great to have a visually diverse school  if your only concern is the student body’s appearance on a brochure. But how about having a student body that thinks like the world, or has the same sets of values as the world? Amherst is a place for deep moral and intellectual growth, not an aesthetic.

What is the point of diversity? For my money, Amherst should pursue diversity for two reasons. Firstly, to ensure that everyone has access to an Amherst education, regardless of historic underrepresentation. Secondly, diversity enriches the liberal arts experience by offering a wide range of perspectives and worldviews.

Amherst’s superficial diversity does little to achieve either of those goals. The school’s impressive racial diversity conceals class homogeneity. Like most elite schools, Amherst students (even non-white ones) are overwhelmingly wealthy. Here, 21 percent of students come from the top 1 percent wealthiest families, and about 60 percent come from the top 20 percent. These numbers have remained almost constant for the past ten years. At Harvard, 71 percent of Black and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds, and there is no reason to think the numbers are very different at Amherst. In overwhelmingly prioritizing race over class in admissions, Amherst is either deliberately ignoring economic diversity, or operating under the ludicrous assumption that all racial minorities come from poor backgrounds.

One of the most important kinds of diversity is geographic diversity. Amherst’s admission, however, tends to recruit from very specific locations. About 53 percent of Amherst students come from just four states: California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Each of these states is significantly more liberal, affluent, and urban than the national average, and they account for less than 23 percent of the country’s population (not even to mention the rest of the world). These geographic divides lead to a skewed student political spectrum, even leaving aside the political leanings of the faculty and staff.

Amherst’s indifference towards diversity even extends to age. Nationally, 29 percent of undergraduate students are 25 or older. At Amherst, that number is just 1 percent. Amherst’s homogeneity in age is unfortunate, because one of the best ways for students to prepare for their life after graduation is to get advice from peers who already have experience facing the adult world.

Of course, Amherst might argue that students who are older, more conservative, or less wealthy apply to Amherst at a lower rate than they do to other schools across the country. But that does not alleviate Amherst’s responsibility to ensure diversity. Application rates by Black students also used to be very low at Amherst, but thanks to a program of affirmative action, application numbers increased. At the moment, however, Amherst says that it puts no weight on either geographic location of applicants or their religious background—two things that obviously shape both students’ perspectives and their historical access to college in the same way that race does.

Of course, it is not possible to completely replicate world averages for everything. I don’t care whether Amherst admits 90 percent right-handed people and 20 percent people who can wiggle their ears. What Amherst should pay attention to is any trait that offers a unique or marginalized perspective. Race is one of these, but so are class, age, politics, and religion. The problem is that Amherst uses its impressive diversity in a few select areas as a mask to hide its hollow homogeneity.