Today the Class of 2016 begins its formal Cornell journey, but the newly minted freshmen made their first statement on campus well before arriving on East Hill. That statement was made by virtue of their acceptance to the University as part of its most selective class yet.
Statistical profiles of incoming classes increasingly serve as a bellwether of prestige and quality for American universities, and the numbers for Cornell’s newest class are about as impressive as can be. But the recent revelation of false admissions data publicized by Emory highlights the corrupting effect of placing such an emphasis on numbers. Numerical selectivity can be dangerously conflated with the overall mission of our University.
Cornell’s founding purpose, best exemplified by our motto, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” is something I care deeply about. New readers of my column will notice one enduring theme in my pieces — love for and pride in our alma mater. My goal in writing In Focus is to highlight issues relevant to our community Far Above Cayuga’s Waters, whether they are local or global in scale. A student perspective on such topics is second to none in importance, and my hope is that reading this column leads you to develop and voice your own opinion.
The student opinion regarding selectivity is generally one of excitement and pride, which is why the recent scandal at Emory is so disconcerting. Last week, the school disclosed that administrators deliberately misreported data for over a decade. According to Emory’s press release, “…both the University’s Office of Admission serving Emory College, and the University’s Office of Institutional Research, annually reported admitted students’ SAT/ACT scores to external surveys as enrolled student scores, since at least the year 2000.” In addition, class ranks were misreported and data from the bottom ten percent of enrolled students was systematically excluded from reporting.
It’s all too telling that many of the “Questions and Answers About Data Reporting” included with the press release relate to the annual US News & World Report college rankings. It’s arguable that these rankings are the standard by which most Americans judge the quality, rigor and reputation of universities. Since SAT and ACT scores are a large determinant, they by extension define a university’s standing. In other words, Cornell is judged more by how well we did on standardized tests than what we learn, how happy we are or the experience we have as undergraduates. That’s why Emory misreported data. And it represents a failure on our part to appreciate what really matters about the college experience.
Cornell’s data for incoming students is indeed very impressive. The acceptance rate for the Class of 2016, 16.6 percent, is the lowest on record. And the number of applicants was a record high. The Cornell Chronicle noted that “there are also more Cornell freshmen with high SAT scores — 73.4 percent of incoming students scored 650 or higher (out of 800) on the critical reading portion of the test, up from 69.3 percent in 2011; and 84.9 percent scored 650 or higher on the math portion, compared with 83.6 percent of freshmen last year.” In some respects, this means that the newest Cornellians are some of the most capable students to ever grace our campus.
But does this numerical selectivity indicate that Cornell is in any way a “better” institution? In my opinion, what really makes Cornell great is its sense of community and diversity of people, opinions, interests and experiences. The words of Ezra Cornell from 1868 still hold true today, as there is certainly a place for every type of student here. Emphasizing quantifiable qualifications, however, runs the risk of precluding the development of a well-rounded student body. At Cornell, if not Emory, the bottom ten percent of test scorers matter and are as much a part of the community as the top ten percent. Of course, it’s good that the University is in the position of being selective. But it is imperative that incoming classes contribute as much to our clubs, class discussions and community as much as they do to our US News rank.
I have no doubt that the Class of 2016 will make a valuable contribution to our campus. It’s promising that the University has highlighted its racial, economic, geographic and gender diversity. Those are the statistics that matter, much more so than their SAT scores. We should be proud of the fact that “any person” can succeed and contribute at Cornell, and change the national discussion from what US News finds valuable to what we know matters most about college. It’s impossible to quantify the experiences that have defined our time at Cornell, and we all know our SAT scores in no way define us as people. Emory, US News and the American public should take note.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.