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Open Campus

Amherst College President Anthony Marx, 48, is commanding attention by making the $45,000-a-year school affordable to more students.

You vowed not to be a caretaker president. After four years on the job, do you consider yourself a radical?
The high end of higher education is about as conservative an industry as America has. In the context of this incredibly conservative industry, even small changes look radical.

Amherst recently decided to replace all loans in financial aid packages with grants, beginning next year. Why?
We worry about the "barbell" of high-income students and low-income students, and the best of middle-class students being scared away by the sticker price. Getting rid of loans makes it easier to see how you might afford to come to Amherst without incurring huge debt.

What else are you doing to open up access?
We've asked our students who are on work study, who come from less privileged backgrounds, to help mentor high school students from similar backgrounds. Instead of using work study money to have them work in the cafeteria or library, they're helping us in being proactive in finding great students.

Some faculty worried your focus on access would make Amherst less rigorous. But you say it's making the college more selective and rigorous. How?
If we can ensure that poor or middle-class students who are not currently applying to Amherst become part of our mix, then we can be more selective, because we'll have a wider pool.

Why has diversity on campus usually been cast in terms of race rather than class?
America, through a terrible history, has a fascination for race and tends to be in denial about economic differences, or assumes that people are at the economic levels that they deserve. Yet it's impossible to argue that a really smart poor kid deserves to be poor because they were born poor.

What role does the SAT play in this unfairness?
There is a terrible irony that the SAT, which was created to help ensure access based on merit, has in many ways become a barrier to access based on merit.

What effect do you hope to have on the biggest names in higher education, like Harvard?
We can create pressure on the larger Ivy institutions with tremendous resources to take this issue more seriously. Harvard's level of economic diversity is roughly half that of Amherst's.

So should well-heeled colleges get rid of tuition altogether?
That's a powerful model to help you think about where you'd like to be if money wasn't a factor. But money is a factor. If we were free to everyone, then Bill Gates's kid would get a complete subsidy.

Well, maybe you could be free to everyone except Bill Gates's kid, and charge him a whole lot of money.
[Laughs.] I have thought about auctioning off a few spots.
– Neil Swidey

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