The article on Amherst President Marx does a good job of illustrating how radical he really is.

Since Marx, now 46, took over in 2003 as Amherst’s youngest president ever, he has waged a ceaseless crusade to make the college a leader in welcoming more lower-income students.

We are all in favor of making Amherst (and Williams) more welcoming, for rich and poor, dark purple and light purple, foreign and domestic. Yet Marx is after much more.

It’s a formidable goal considering how programmed the place is to seek out the best and the brightest: A record 6,300 students applied for just 431 spots in last fall’s entering class.

Jarring, eh? Why does a commitment for seeking out “the best and the brightest” create problems in creating a “welcoming” environment? If anything, the opposite is the case. If you have clear and objective criteria, applied to all applicants, for academic talent, then everyone should feel equal precisely because everyone is equal. Problems arise, of course, when different standards apply to different groups.

Now, Marx is challenging everything from an admissions process tilted toward affluent students to social customs that divide rich and poor students on campus. Essentially, he has set in motion a new affirmative action initiative, this time based on class rather than race.

Good luck with that! Again, I think that this is the best news for Williams in its competition with Amherst in a generation. Give them the less smart (but “poorer”) applicants. We’ll take the smarter (but “richer”) applicants. No prizes for guessing how this will turn out in a generation or two.

And what does it mean to claim that the admissions process is “tilted toward affluent students?” I don’t think it is. Does Amherst Director of Admissions Tom Parker ’69 discriminate against poor kids? Penalize them if they apply for financial aid? Decrease their academic rank if they go to a lousy public high school?

No! People who see tilts and other injustices in elite admissions have a highly naive view of the possibilities once a student hits 17. These modern day Marxists have a (stupid) a priori belief that the abilities which lead to academic success at Amherst are uniformly distributed across the population. Alas, these abilities — high IQ, a love of learning, disciplined work habits — are very non-uniformly distributed. The children of people in the top half of the income distribution are much more likely to have these abilities than the children of people in the bottom half. This effect is magnified in the top and bottom income deciles.

Smart people have smart children because intelligence like height is largely inherited. People who love learning have children who love learning because they teach them to do the same, both directly and via example. You can bet that children who are read to by their parents each day are much more likely to end up at Amherst than children who are not so fortunate. Hard-working people have hard-working children because these parents make their children work hard, thereby teaching them the value of hard work, of ambition and striving.

Now, it turns out that high IQ, a love of learning and hard work — for shorthand, let’s call these attributes “merit” — are also correlated with wealth. Or, rather, it is unlikely that someone blessed with these three attributes will end up in the bottom 25% of the income distribution.

But people like Marx seem blind to this reality. They really want to believe that there are thousands of undiscovered gems lying in the bottom income quartile, just waiting for open-minded souls (like Marx) to discover them and, Professor Higgins-like, transform them into polished stones.

Marx already has won over many of Amherst’s largely liberal professors to the basic concept. He’s hoping that by the fall, faculty and trustees will approve a formal plan to give more of Amherst’s coveted slots, perhaps as many as 25%, to students poor enough to qualify for a Pell Grant (usually meaning a family income of less than $40,000 a year). Doing so would vault Amherst far ahead of other elite privates such as Harvard University, where 10% of undergrads are low-income. “If we are sufficiently aggressive, we will force the rest of elite higher education to be much more serious about this,” says Marx.

Delusional! There is no way that Amherst, just by letting in a group of students that it used to reject — and who used to, after rejection, go to perfectly nice albeit less competitive colleges — is going to “force” Harvard or Williams to do anything. Newsflash: As long as the students who Harvard and Williams want still go to Harvard and Williams, they won’t care what Amherst does.

Now, Amherst could change the game by being much more generous in terms of financial (read: merit) aid. For example, it could create something like the Tyng and use it to convince 50 poor students who would have gone to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford to choose Amherst instead. (Even though such students get full rides at HYPS, the allure of free graduate school would have an appeal.) If Amherst did that, HYPS might be forced to respond. Yet that is not the (public) plan

Bowen, who now heads the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a big funder of higher-education research, is on a crusade to win over admissions officers with statistics showing that low-income students succeed at elite colleges. “America’s most selective institutions need to put a thumb on the scale” in favor of these students, Bowen argues.

Consider the case of two students, Jane and Sarah, who attend the same high school. Both have fathers that make $40,000 a year. But one (Jane) is smarter, works harder, gets better grades and test scores than the other. Shouldn’t Jane be accepted into Amherst in preference to Sarah? Currently, she presumably is. But what if Jane has a mother who also teaches high school while Sarah’s mother is a home-maker. Since this extra income puts Jane’s family outside of Pell-grant range, should Amherst accept Sarah instead?

The only way to meaningful increase the percentage of students from the bottom 40% of the income distribution is to accept more Sarah’s and reject more Jane’s. I am almost glad that Amherst is apparently about to start doing so. It makes it all the more likely that Jane will become an Eph.

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