Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite

Kudos to Anthony Marx, the departing president of Amherst College, who made a huge push toward greater socioeconomic diversity on his campus (I blogged about him many years ago:,, and

More than seven years ago, a 44-year-old political scientist named Anthony Marx became the president of Amherst College, in western Massachusetts, and set out to change its admissions policies. Mr. Marx argued that elite colleges were neither as good nor as meritocratic as they could be, because they mostly overlooked lower-income students.

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme.

In his 2003 inaugural address, Mr. Marx — quoting from a speech President John F. Kennedy had given at Amherst — asked, "What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?"

On Sunday, Mr. Marx presided over his final Amherst graduation. This summer, he will become head of the New York Public Library. And he can point to some impressive successes at Amherst.

More than 22 percent of students now receive federal Pell Grants (a rough approximation of how many are in the bottom half of the nation's income distribution). In 2005, only 13 percent did. Over the same period, other elite colleges have also been doing more to recruit low- and middle-income students, and they have made some progress.

It is tempting, then, to point to all these changes and proclaim that elite higher education is at long last a meritocracy. But Mr. Marx doesn't buy it. If anything, he worries, the progress has the potential to distract people from how troubling the situation remains.

When we spoke recently, he mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country's 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.

"We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent," Mr. Marx says. "Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution."

I think Amherst has created a model for attracting talented low- and middle-income students that other colleges can copy. It borrows, in part, from the University of California, which is by far the most economically diverse top university system in the country.


Economic Scene

Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite

Published: May 24, 2011

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