David Leonhardt’s excellent column on Amherst College’s successful efforts to enroll a more economically diverse student body highlights one of the great triumphs of American public relations: the ongoing ability of elite colleges to maintain a high moral standing in society while actively working to sustain the plutocracy. As Leonhardt notes, it is simply a fact that, in the aggregate, elite colleges convey an admissions advantage to the children of rich people, above and beyond considerations of academic merit, whereas they provide no such advantage to the children of poor people. Sometimes this happens through legacy preferences, sometimes by recruiting athletes in niche sports populated by the wealthy (e.g. fencing, crew, polo), sometimes through outright bribery, i.e. “development admits.” (Dan Golden and Rich Kahlenberg‘s books on the subject are essential reading.)
In large part, they get away with this because everyone knows it wasn’t so long ago that the situation was a lot worse–for many years, much of the point of elite colleges was to sustain a religiously, culturally, racially and economically homogeneous male ruling class. Things are a lot better now, but not as good as they could, or need to be.
And if Amherst can do it, other elite colleges can, too. It’s just a matter of whether institutions that enjoy immense financial and social privileges want to use those resources to create opportunity or constrict it. The leaders of those colleges and universities have to decide what kind of people they want to be.