April 2, 2013

WEINBERG: Quantifying a Cornell Education

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Last week, the University completed reviewing applications for the Class of 2017. A record-low 15.2 percent of students were accepted, and news of Cornell’s increased selectivity inspired much joy, pride and validation across campus. Such sentiments are derived from a seemingly national consensus that the selectivity of an institution of higher education directly reflects its prestige, quality and character.

However, instead of overvaluing selectivity and lay prestige, Cornellians should take pride in the historic accessibility of a Cornell education to “any person” to pursue “any study.” In light of both empirical and anecdotal evidence that elite universities are still inaccessible to many poor and minority students, Cornell must act proactively to ensure that increased selectivity does not come at the expense of reduced accessibility.

The Sun’s coverage of last week’s regular decision admission results noted the increased competitiveness for admission into Cornell. A record high 40,006 people applied this year, a 9.9 percent increase since 2011. The median SAT scores of accepted students increased, as did the representation of international students. The Class of 2017 was said to be our brightest, one that would improve our reputation and improve our US News rank.

Yet the comments on The Sun article also expose a campus inferiority complex inherent in Cornell’s higher acceptance rate relative to our Ivy peers. Our reputation as “the easiest Ivy to get in and the hardest to stay in” predicates the validity of our Ivy status on the rigor of our academics compared to our entrance standards. The other Ivy League schools also reported lower acceptance rates this year, and Cornell still emerged as the least selective – only Penn and Dartmouth reported acceptance rates over 10 percent. Commenters lamented that Cornell is less prestigious than our peers and that a Cornell education is thus less desirable. In particular, commenters targeted the ILR School and Hotel School for having what they see as laxer admissions standards.

Both those celebrating the difficulty of gaining admission to Cornell and those dissatisfied with our admissions standards must remind themselves of Cornell’s unique mission and founding principles. The Ivy League is an athletics conference first and foremost, like the Big Ten or Big East. The other seven members of the “ancient eight” were Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution to train ministers and other elite leaders. Many of these universities were bound by traditional curriculums designed to train wealthy white men for traditionally elite careers.

Cornell, on the other hand, was founded as an “institution where any person [could] find instruction in any study.” From its earliest days, the University admitted students of different genders, races, locations, classes and religions to pursue various courses of study ranging from classical to technical. Our unique relationship with New York State was born out of both our land grant status and our commitment to meet certain needs of the state through contract colleges. Our mission is different from the other Ivy schools, and should be celebrated. Cornell has historically committed itself to educating more students in unique disciplines. Cornell has a distinct purpose that necessitates a larger undergraduate population, and thus has a higher acceptance rate than its peers. The colleges aforementioned by commenters aren’t laxer; their uniqueness leads to fewer applicants who are qualified and identify with their purposes.

Of course, I will be the first to rejoice if Cornell is finding more applicants that represent “any person” and who want to pursue “any study.” Recent evidence, however, suggests that accessibility to a Cornell education could be called into question. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Bucknell professor Claire Vaye Watkins shared her powerful story in describing the profound difficulties rural and poor students face applying to top colleges.

Professor Watkins cited a study released last week by professors at Harvard and Stanford, which found “only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges. … Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.” With Cornell’s tuition increasing $1,945 next year and the University eliminating loan-free financial aid for students whose families make under $75,000 a year, it remains to be seen how this clear gap can be overcome.

Cornell would be best heeded by following an approach suggested by David Leonhardt in this past Sunday’s New York Times and directly providing low-income and minority students with information about standards and financial aid policies. The University must make it abundantly clear that financial aid policies exist to substantially lower cost of attendance, and that Cornell offers unique academic programs.

Cornell students, for our part, should recognize that our acceptance rate will never rival those of the other Ivy League peers — nor should it. We shouldn’t define ourselves by a metric that fails to account for what makes Cornell special. Members of the Class of 2017 should absolutely be congratulated, but not merely for being the most selective class of applicants. Instead, they should be congratulated on having the unique opportunity to study at the best Ivy League school, for reasons not revealed by numbers alone.

Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg