I am drawn to the article on Amherst President Marx like a rugger to beer.

The centerpiece of Marx’s crusade is to change what happens in the converted 19th century farmhouse where Amherst’s 14 admissions officers work. Marx is convinced that the process is stacked against poor kids. But changing that threatens the entire admissions rationale of elite colleges. The key issue: how much to lower academic credentials. Amherst got to No. 2 in the rankings in part because of its incoming students’ stellar grades and test scores. Those factors are just one part of college rankings, so Amherst might slip only a few spots if other selective colleges don’t follow its lead. Still, that could hurt. “If Marx lets in more low-income kids, he’s going to risk his school’s reputation,” cautions Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education & the Economy.

Letting in smart low-income kids does nothing to Amherst’s reputation (except to improve it). Letting in not-so-smart low-income kids has the potential to be devastating to that reputation.

Bringing in more low-income kids would require added compromise. To meet Marx’s 25% goal, Amherst would have to take more threes [on a 1-7 scale], says Parker, meaning those who may have straight As but SATs as low as 1360. Even though Amherst already does so for minorities, legacies, and athletes, faculty members are worried. “This could be a radical departure that fundamentally changes the character of our institution,” warns physics professor David Hall, who heads the Faculty Committee on Admissions & Financial Aid.

Hall is right to be worried. If you think that, on average students with 1360 SATs do as well as though with 1560s, then you don’t know what you are talking about. People like Marx like to tell stories about specific students who come to Amherst with low scores and then thrive, winning academic awards, writing excellent theses, being named to Phi Beta Kappa. And such stories are certainly true. But they do not represent the average result. In fact, the typical academic performance of 3s is certainly worse than that for 1s, even during senior year (by which time any disadvantage in terms of preparation should have been alleviated).

The only way to meaningfully increase the percentage of students from the bottom quarter of the income distribution is to admit a bunch of applicants that you currently reject, applicants that are not as academically talented/focused as your other students.

Marx hopes to ease such concerns by finding more top-notch low-income applicants. Certainly, many students have never even heard of Amherst. So Marx is asking his admissions officers to visit more low-income high schools. And he’s enlisting Amherst students in a tele-mentoring program in which they walk seniors from those schools through the college application process. Marx also started using QuestBridge, a Palo Alto (Calif.) nonprofit that has enlisted 8,000 high school teachers to identify talented low-income students for elite colleges.

More delusions! But, of course, it depends on what you mean by “top-notch.” There are thousands of low income students with, say, 1250 SATs and high school grades to match who would love to come to Amherst, especially for free. Let them all in and Amherst will be a different place.

Although the competition for talented low income students is not as tough as that for URMs or helmet sport athletes, it is getting there. Does Marx really think that more visits to bad high schools are going to help? Amherst (and Williams) might be able to accomplish something on the margin, convincing a smart low income kid that she is better off at an LAC than at an Ivy. But the tyranny of numbers remains. There are just not enough low income applicants to go around, just as there are not enough URMs and hockey players. Amherst might be able to steal a couple from its competitors, but not enough to meaningfully change the overall distribution.

Unless, that is, Marx succeeds in changing the admissions criteria in use. If I were a Amherst faculty member, I would be worried.

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