February 4, 2014

EDITORIAL: In Support of Equal Preparation for Students

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After a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month noted that the quality of a student’s high school has ongoing effects on his or her academic success in college, a Cornell administrator said Tuesday that this does not necessarily hold true for students admitted to Cornell. Though A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity, says Cornell does not admit students who are not ready to perform here, there are programs offered by the University that suggest otherwise. We praise the University for making a conscious effort to help promising students from under-resourced high schools succeed in Cornell’s rigorous academic environment. We realize it may be difficult for Cornell, or any university, to acknowledge that some students who matriculate are less than adequately prepared. However, we believe colleges across the country must engage in honest discussion about these issues in order to have a chance at solving them.

In the NBER paper, the authors looked at the performance of students admitted to the University of Texas at Austin under the Top Ten admissions law — where any student who finishes in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class can attend any public university in Texas. Students who graduated from low-performing high schools — despite being in the top 10 percent — did not perform as well as their peers. Miller noted that Cornell might not be able to complete a similar study because of its different admissions processes. But he went further, saying that “because [Cornell is] so selective, we pretty much know that every student we admit can graduate from here.” But is this statement completely true?

The existence of certain programs, coupled with the discrepancies in graduation rates across different demographic groups, demonstrates that Cornell does admit students who require supplemental help before graduation. At Cornell, there are academic support programs in place — required for some students, such as those in the Educational Opportunity Program and Higher Education Opportunity Program — to help underprepared students reach a point where they are able to succeed at the University. One such program is the Prefreshman Summer Program, which brings accepted students to campus during the summer before their freshman year to take enrichment courses and college-achievement seminars before enrolling in the fall. We laud Cornell for taking the appropriate steps to ensure the success of students who were not able to attend high-performing schools.

Universities regularly admit students from different backgrounds to promote a diverse student body. Instead of hiding the fact that students who come to Cornell from low-performing high schools may face an uphill climb to academic success, we think the University should help bring the discussion of these problems and their potential solutions to the forefront. Drawing national attention to these issues may contribute to the conversation on how to ensure that qualified students from under-resourced high schools can succeed at any university.

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