September 4, 2019

FOX | Spread the Wealth

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The concentrated wealth at Cornell University is palpable. Large donations, legacy status and well-connected private schools all work in tandem to ensure that over 10 percent of students hail from the wealthiest one percent of families. The trade-off between this history and admissions equity is generally justified with the understanding that the wealth these families bring in — both through full-tuition payments and donations — does a great service to Cornell as a whole, and its low-income students in particular. 

In his op-ed last semester, Rory Walsh ’21 said of the money coming in from the families of wealthy students, “If not for their contributions, Cornell would likely be less accessible for low-income students.” The administration hails large donations as “provid[ing] critical, permanent support for faculty, students and programs.” They are correct: The funding derived from these students and their families both improves and makes possible the educational experiences of thousands of Cornell students, and allows for the development of public-oriented research and development, the benefits of which are undeniable. Still, this is a poor bargain — not for Cornell, but for the broader education system in America. The system of legacy and donor priority in admissions ought to be discontinued.

It is a deliciously self-congratulatory truth that we in elite institutions spend our time and energy devising ways to let a few extra people through our pearly gates. Every dollar an alumnus donates, we figure, is a dollar another student will save in their family’s collective effort to pay for college. What we forget is that most Americans who pursue bachelor’s degrees are enrolled in colleges with acceptance rates greater than 50 percent. The bulk of college-goers attends public colleges, the backbone of our higher education system.

But public colleges — with the exception of a notable few that hold similar status to elite private colleges — are in increasingly dire straits. Conservative governments (and the occasional liberal one, too) in search of easy budget cuts are slashing funding at an alarming rate. Skyrocketing tuition costs are driving students into more “pre-professional” majors like business — which overtook history as the country’s largest major a few years ago — leading to the reduction of humanities departments across the country. A dearth of support resources keeps four- and six-year graduation rates at unacceptably low levels. Democratic party politics is shifting ever closer to support for free public post-secondary education, but the conversation about maintaining and improving the quality of those institutions has taken a back seat.

In addition to their full tuition payments and hefty donations, wealthy families’ impact on post-secondary education includes their considerable political sway. With near-guaranteed spots in elite schools through legacy admissions and past and prospective donations, these families have little incentive to lobby to protect the public higher education system. As long as elite private universities remain insulated from the burdens facing public systems, and the politically powerful maintain their safe memberships, public colleges will remain vulnerable to further erosion.

Padding the treasuries of Cornell and other peer institutions to diversify student bodies and expand opportunities is a noble mission. To ease the admissions of the already fortunate in order to guarantee room and resources to those in need makes sense as long as the Ivy League is seen as the centerpiece to higher education.

But the argument breaks down when its inherent elitism is highlighted. A just and healthy society relies not on a small number of elites being equipped with the tools to build and to lead, but on an educated population able to drive prosperity from the ground up. Furthermore, acceptance into a university like Cornell would not be seen as necessary to propel one into (or preserve) a position of social and economic stability if the state system were allowed to act at its full potential.

Money also goes further in public colleges than in private ones. When Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, last year, he was rightfully lauded for his generous philanthropy. But the impact that money could have had on the underfunded state system is much greater. With just 20 American colleges raking in 28 percent of all donations, the concentration and availability of money for higher education becomes clear. The billions of dollars spent on political campaigns every year demonstrates the gravity of wealth in effecting policy change. If the political interests of the wealthy were aligned with the educational interests of the greater population, public funding might join with private philanthropy to restore and improve the post-secondary education of the state.

The proposal to deprioritize legacy and donor applicants is not a silver bullet. But by easing the paths of the already privileged into bubbles like Cornell, a distinct potential is lost. The concentrated benefits of concentrated wealth pale in comparison to the potential impact the money could have elsewhere. Cornell can and should be made more accessible and affordable by directing money currently devoted to excessive amenities to scholarships. The admissions system that prioritizes wealth and legacy should be scrapped not because it is immoral, but because it isn’t pragmatic. The very wealthy — those best suited to economically advance Cornell — ought to be nudged toward spaces where their dollars would go furthest. Their much-needed political influence would follow in tow, drawing government support back to a higher education system once considered the finest in the world.

Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at efox@cornellsun.com. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.