Legacy students — defined as have parents, grandparents or older ancestors who hold a Cornell degree — are often stereotyped as being under-qualified or having been accepted primarily on the basis of their legacy status. If legacy were a primary criteria for admission, the fact that these students apparently constitute 15 percent of Cornell’s undergraduate population would be cause for alarm. But if, as the University contends, legacy is limited to consideration in candidates who already qualify on merit, we do not find it particularly objectionable. We of course expect that, first and foremost, all Cornell students will be academically qualified. But once this threshold has been met, it seems reasonable when comparing two genuinely equal applicants to choose the one who can confer the greatest benefit to the institution.
There are numerous competing criteria that universities will introduce into the decision-making process when weighing two similarly qualified candidates against one another. Theoretically, no discernible indicators of individual merit that would convince an admissions committee that one of the prospective students would fare better academically than the other. At that point, should employing tiebreakers that serve the interests of the University itself be considered invalid? Many such criteria are non-meritocratic in nature, but would further some goal of the institution: to increase racial diversity, cast a wider net of geographic distribution or otherwise craft a class that can improve the school’s national rankings in some way.
Cornell has an obvious interest in admitting legacy students. They come from households with parents who hold prestigious degrees, perhaps leading admissions officers to gamble that such students will be more likely able to pay full tuition — a major draw for a need-blind school. Although creating multi-generational Cornell legacies reasonably elicits accusations of elitism, it has both a romantic historic appeal and the practical effect of producing alumni who are more likely to be active, financially and otherwise. The University relies on alumni generosity and the ability of some families to pay tuition in full in order to fund a robust financial aid program to bring in those qualified students who would otherwise be unable to afford to attend Cornell.
Universities are businesses, and they sometimes need to function as such. For those who will counter that this self-interest poses a detriment to deserving students, that argument has its limitations. A college’s admissions process will, by necessity, correspond to a desire to admit the highest number of individually qualified applicants possible. Accepting an exorbitant percentage of students based on non-academic characteristics like legacy or race alone would directly and negatively affect a school’s place in the rankings and thus their ability to compete for top applicants down the line. This crucial balancing act serves as a natural check on universities’ use of non-meritocratic factors for admissions. If most of Cornell’s 15-percent legacy population were not qualified for admission in their own rites, we would see it reflected in the numbers.