Getting to Real Diversity at Elite Colleges

In all their efforts to promote diversity, America’s elite colleges seem to have overlooked perhaps the most important subgroup of students: poor people.

That’s what worries political scientist Anthony Marx, who became the president of Amherst College in 2003. According to an article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times:

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.

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.

Amherst College is historically a very elite college. Tuition is $48,400 a year. It’s the alma mater of economist Joseph Stiglitz, President Calvin Coolidge, and Prince Albert II of Monaco.

But Marx, perhaps alone among the presidents of America’s top schools, made a deliberate effort to enroll more students from low income families at Amherst. According to the article, “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.”

Marx emphasizes that enrolling low-income students doesn’t mean lowering standards: “The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home.” There are plenty of bright, hard-working low-income students for elite colleges to enroll.

The college, which ranks fifth among liberal arts colleges in the Washington Monthly best colleges list (which ranks colleges based on their contribution to the public good), also helps bring economic diversity to the school by devoting more of its resources to financial aid (grants not loans) and specifically recruiting students who attend community colleges.

That part is particularly important. According to the article:

This step may be the single easiest way for a college to become more meritocratic. It’s one reason the University of California campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego are so much more diverse than other top colleges. Many community colleges have horrifically high dropout rates, but the students who succeed there are often inspiring. They include war veterans, single parents and immigrants who have managed to overcome the odds.

Amherst, with 1700 students, is a tiny school. Even if it only admitted students from low-income families, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in higher education across the country. Nevertheless, a college like Amherst is important, and could be a leader for other schools looking to make important contributions to education and social change.

Marx, meanwhile, is leaving Amherst. In July he will take over as the president of the New York Public Library.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer