Venture Capitalists of the Mind

On May 23, 2004, President Anthony W. Marx delivered Amherst's 183rd commencement address, titled “Venture Capitalists of the Mind.” Read the transcript below.

Amherst College 183rd Commencement Address

May 23, 2004

Anthony W. Marx

Welcome parents, family and, most importantly, the great Class of 2004! You are today our joy, and for years to come, our pride. We—your parents, faculty, trustees, staff and fellow alumni—celebrate and wish you success. We trust that we have prepared you to wrestle, as we wrestle, with what the measure of that success should be.

America’s success, the source of our strength and power, is that we keep open the opportunity for advancement and initiative, an opportunity that you have seized. For all our differences in this great country, we remain unified and make progress to the degree that we include and reward broad talents. This ideal, this American dream, is not always realized. But the promise of it has remained our goal and our challenge.

In this country, education has always been the engine of opportunity: As Thomas Jefferson argued, “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” Here in America, our leading investment has been in schools, not in welfare. Compared with Europe, we have been reluctant to provide safety nets or support for those too often seen as “undeserving.” We have instead chosen to invest in providing the wherewithal for success by means of education. As a society, we are venture capitalists of the mind more than custodians of the body.

America’s great colleges and universities—including this college—are the pinnacle of that investment. We set the standard for the inclusion of talent. To keep that standard high, we draw men and women from many states, countries, races, ethnicities, academic interests, athletic talents and artistic gifts, with and without family ties to this or any other college. To ensure this breadth of opportunity, we have expanded enrollments and financial aid. Indeed, in the last 30 years, Amherst College has invested $350 million to ensure access regardless of ability to pay. This college remains proud that fully half of our students receive assistance.

Our prestige—the influence we have in society—is testament not only to our scholarship and teaching, but also to the example we have set for community and opportunity. We continue to live and learn with each other, even as we broaden the base of talent on which we thrive.

But America today—and our great colleges and universities—have hit a wall of blocked opportunity. At our top colleges, only one-tenth of our students are drawn from the poorer half of the population, only 3 percent from the bottom quarter. Three-quarters of top college students come from the wealthiest quarter of society. Shockingly, the ability not only to attend a top college but even to get a bare minimum of an education in this country—to finish high school and learn how to read—also seems tied directly to family income. Children from the bottom quarter of family incomes are six times as likely to drop out of high school as those in the wealthiest fourth. Those in the wealthiest quartile are six times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than those in the poorest fourth.

In our society, economic disparities have been growing, not declining. They have grown also in these educational institutions that are supposed to be a source of redress. The assumptions we all once made of steady progress in this country have proven false: Our nation and our colleges are moving toward an inequality not seen since before the Great Depression. Forty years ago, John F. Kennedy came to Amherst and chided all of us, noting, “There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty.” His rebuke today would be even stronger.

How have we, as a society, fallen off the trajectory of broader opportunity?

America’s ideal of the common school—quality education for all, preparing all for college—was never completely fulfilled. A larger portion of our nation’s children go to high school now, but the quality of the schooling they receive varies widely. Those of lower income are not even offered the education they deserve, much less what is needed for college. Is it any surprise that SAT scores correlate to income?

The link between economic inequality and varied preparation for college is only the beginning of the story. Among those students who are academically strong upon entering high school, the less wealthy among them are two-and-a-half times less likely ever to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Part of the tragedy is that many of these talented teenagers simply assume they cannot afford college. And to a degree, they are correct. Federal support that once covered almost all of typical college costs now covers about half. Qualified poorer students fear debt, see only the tuition price, do not know about private aid, or do not trust such offers. While we know that not going to college is an expensive mistake, that is not how it feels to these poorer families.

The result is an educational distribution that parallels and reinforces our economic disparity at unprecedented levels. As Business Week notes, our “economy is slowly stratifying along class lines.” So is our educational system.

Lines of exclusion are not only financial, but also psychological. Less-wealthy parents of eighth graders expect their children to go to college half as often as the wealthy. And of those who do aspire to college, many either do not know of the top colleges or set their sights lower. Prestige that attracts can also intimidate.

In America today, a guiding belief is that the market works for the rich and the poor: that those among us who are succeeding deserve to, and those among us who don’t make it deserve not to. Inequality thereby justifies itself. But beware of such self-justification. The market now fails to provide the opportunity and mobility that are its greatest strength. Ladies and gentlemen, the passive approach to letting talent rise is not working.

Just as blindness to race in itself could not alone redress the injustice of that discrimination, our blindness to need has not provided the opportunities for those most in need. Race as a proxy for class does not suffice, for injustices of race and of class must both be addressed with open eyes. Biased assumptions to the contrary, not all people of color are poor, and not all poor are people of color. Both kinds of potential disadvantage require an ongoing, targeted effort.

A proactive response to inequality is in our own interests, for any erosion to the base of talent retards education for all. The broader the pool of our applicants, the greater the quality of our students. Outreach has always brought excellence to Amherst, without compromise.

If we believe in diversity of class, ethnicity, origin and interest among our students, then we must also embrace economic diversity. Yet, on the elite campuses of this great nation of opportunity, we are 25 times more likely to get to know and learn with a student from the wealthiest top fourth than from the poorest. How can we then claim to prepare students for a world of astounding, powerfully broad economic disparity?

Only in the experience of getting to know each other can we learn to live together and learn from one another. Good intentions do not substitute for the moral reckoning, humility and, ultimately, the strength that comes from personal contact, example and action.

If we do not now increase the opportunity for the less wealthy to engage the highest level of education, we will neither prepare any of our students for the world, nor will we serve our role in that world.

When the dreamed-of opportunity recedes from the grasp of that deserving student who is of merely modest means, we all lose. All of us. And this eroded base of talent in higher education has begun to show in our economy. In 1972, the sons of the poorest fourth were twice as likely to rise one day to the top income fourth as they were 20 years later. Since college education generally doubles lifetime income, that reduced earning in our economy represents lost productivity and revenues. The current bias of educational opportunity toward those who have already made it means we are all making less.

Though we believe we are a society of educational venture capitalists, instead we are still investing far more in blue chips than in start-ups. We should know better. Where this great diverse world’s young people are concerned, supporting more of the start-ups, as well as the blue chips, will more than enhance our investment.

This country cannot afford to offer education as if it were privileged information. Nor can we afford to allocate education on the basis of information about privilege.

At least in the short term, the country’s economic losses threatened by blocked opportunity will only increase. In 1960, close to one-third of all jobs were in manufacturing; today it is less than 13 percent and falling. We simply do not have jobs for all those less educated. And we who are economically privileged cannot continue to neglect those less fortunate, who will impose their cost, in services or anger. As they lose hope, they no longer see reason to participate. Democracy stagnates. Unity falters.

Allow me to borrow an analogy from one of our distinguished honorees today, Albert Hirschman. Imagine yourself in one of the two lanes of traffic in New York’s Lincoln Tunnel divided by the double yellow line—illegal to cross. Both lanes are stopped. If your lane remains stuck while you see the lane next you start to move, you gain hope that your turn will come shortly. But if the other lane picks up speed and you still do not move, sooner or later you will look for ways to break the rules, to rebel and to cross the double-yellow line.

In the tunnel congested by inequality, the social contract comes apart. The temptation arises, often embraced by cynical politicians, to blame foreigners or anyone who can be identified as “not like us.” As this insidious form of blame manifests itself, we are further diverted from healing the inequality we suffer.

It is the historic mission of education—and, I say to you today, our challenge now—to discard this fate, to clear all the traffic lanes. Only when there is educational opportunity at the very best of our colleges can we claim to lead the expansion of opportunity that is the source of our nation’s strengths.

We often say, proudly, that we are committed to opportunity and diversity. The rhetoric is clear, but the record is mixed.

First, consider where our heritage does us great credit, for Amherst has been a leader. Once before, in the 1880s, this college faced a society struggling with rising inequality, unemployment, immigration, disputes and tensions. In that decade with challenges similar to those we now face, Amherst recommitted its mission and enrolled more than half of our students on aid. Now we have rebuilt to that record, though still we remain below our own high-water mark of assistance a century ago.

Other institutions have faltered more. We all take for granted the permanent lift to our national wealth that was effected by the GI Bill and the opportunity it has provided to veterans to attend college. But it is a part of our history, too, that at the time Congress was considering the bill, the president of Harvard went to Washington to urge the Congress not to enact it, not to allow those assumed to be unqualified into their midst. Surely, my friends, we need not today be prone to such fears, nor hide behind claims to conventional standards to deny access to the broadest inclusion of talent. Our standards are and must be high. But there are more students ready to meet those standards.

The challenge is clear. In our college admissions, we must take measure of the obstacles overcome by the less wealthy, much as we must, and will, continue to credit those obstacles of race. In America we claim to take such measures, but the evidence suggests that we do not much.

Today there remain more than 300,000 highly qualified high school seniors who do not even take the SATs to apply to college. We must find those students who are capable of high academic achievement, to broaden our base and thereby continue to achieve excellence. Graduates, when you leave here, help us find those students. Help us get out the word that Amherst College seeks such students; that we shall prepare to meet another level of need, and will find—must find—the resources to meet that need. That we shall seek not only to be “need-blind,” but to also be economically proactive toward identifying and meeting need.

Amherst has provided leadership on this front. We are called to do so again. We have invested much to achieve excellence and diversity, the foundation on which we now build further. For example, to become also the most economically diverse of the leading private colleges and universities would require only that we add another 30 economically disadvantaged students per year. We can achieve this goal without reducing our high standards and without forgoing any of the other components, diversity and legacies of the college that we so value.

We at Amherst and our peer institutions must take such steps to educate a broader economic base because we cannot afford not to, and because we are uniquely equipped to do it. Informed by our on-going experience at educating an ever greater diversity of students already here, we have established a great capacity, even as we continue to build upon it. In contrast to the disturbing disparities at our nation’s public high schools, at our private colleges the graduation rate among poor and wealthy shows no notable difference. That is more than just a great achievement, it signifies a power and a vision of our community on which we must build.

We should make public the measures of our economic diversity and be held accountable for them. Let the world’s greatest higher education system compete on these noble grounds of opportunity, not on the flash of brand-name obsession. Let our competition drive us to meet social needs, knowing that today this is also how we strengthen our institutions.

We at Amherst College are called back to the mission set out in our charter, to educate the indigent, and by the inclusion of our motto, to enlighten the world. Our mission is both strictly original in our founders’ intent and expansionist in its vision. Meeting that vision is the basis of our history, our prestige and our resources. Generations have invested in us for this reason. Indeed, democracy spreads its ideals through the institutions it creates and through the collective investments in building them. This institution must continue to live up to the expectations of such investment.

Alec Meiklejohn, Amherst’s president in the early 1900s, articulated our mission well: "Each man, each woman, each child shall have a chance at life; they shall not be denied the full and free and rich expression of themselves if we can help them to attain it. Men's lives are thwarted, stunted, twisted, throttled, killed by circumstance of every sort. That is our failure, even more than theirs. We will not have it so. Each life shall be what it might be, what may be made of it, what under favoring circumstances, it may become. Such is our aim."

Members of the Amherst Class of 2004, what is true for the college is true for you. Know that the measure of your success in making value in your life will be in how you help those around you make value in theirs. We depend on one another. We are all in this together. It is as simple as that. It always has been, my friends.

And so, like the college, celebrate what you have achieved. But as you go forward, beware of the temptations of complacency, or even smugness. You and your college face daunting and wonderful challenges. We send you into a society that is struggling anew with severe and costly inequality, but it is our gift and our mission as members of the Amherst community to care about that inequality. I know you will not turn your back. The college has not and will not. You will each make a difference in the arenas you choose. Every career can be a form of public service, if you can be alert enough to see it that way. Keep in mind that, in the end, it will be how you helped make the world fairer, more honest, that will burnish your reputation and give you and us pride.

Class of 2004, we know you are capable of doing great things. You have the knowledge, vision and courage to transform the world into which you now commence. Just as the college has its challenges to meet, so do you. Our work is ahead, and our faith in yours is great. You are ready.