March 14, 2019

EDITORIAL: The Small Things

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The biggest college admissions scandal the FBI has ever prosecuted: wealthy individuals paying for their kids’ admissions into elite institutions with fake athletic records and artificially inflated test scores. And a Cornell alumnus, Gordon Caplan ’88, is among the offenders. This scandal goes to the root of a noxious, pervasive problem in higher education — the influence of money on opportunity. Though the $500,000 in bribes from actress Lori Loughlin to the University of Southern California is an extreme example of this national problem, universities like Cornell let wealth legally influence their admissions in small but unfair ways every year.

While our University is “need-blind” for domestic applicants, we do not remove money from the admissions process. What are the demographics of the areas in which Cornell has recruitment efforts? Do schools in areas like Greenwich, Conn. — where Caplan resides — have more students at Cornell than areas that are not among the United States’ top 10 richest places? Money played a huge role in this admissions scandal, but it plays an even larger role in everything that comes before.

Standardized test tutoring costs a pretty penny at an average of $70 per hour according to This is a more “affordable” — and FBI-free — option for those without the cash that Caplan coughed up to increase his daughter’s ACT score. The quality of high schools also varies immensely depending on one’s neighborhood. Thanks to the US’ system of funding public schools with property tax money, high schools in wealthy areas simply have more resources than others, and students who graduate from such schools are at an advantage. They have probably been exposed to more material from better-resourced teachers and have technological skills from using the most up-to-date equipment.

We need better outreach efforts on Cornell’s part to reach students who may not have had access to extensive SAT tutoring. A University of Michigan study found, “High-achieving, low-income students who received personalized commitment of financial aid are more than twice as likely to apply, be admitted to and enroll in a top-tier university.” A small strategy like this could reduce the effects of money on admissions processes, but Cornell has not employed it.

Another good step would be to get more information out to the public. Collecting and publicizing the data can help hold the school more accountable for reaching a more diverse audience and improving targeted recruitment efforts. It could shed light on areas that are being overlooked and help focus efforts on these long-ignored demographic groups.

We know that 62.3 percent of the incoming Class of 2022 went to public high schools, but that’s not enough information. We need more comprehensive information about the neighborhoods these schools are in — ranked by wealth, by whether neighborhoods are rural or urban and by what percentage of students receive some form of federal assistance.

Cornell should be on the hunt for information like this so it can really make admissions socioeconomically fair — and not just an option for students whose parents are able to fork over $300,000 like Caplan could for his daughter.