March 3, 2022

STUDENT ASSEMBLY VIEWPOINT | It’s 2022. Why Do We Still Practice Legacy Admissions?

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During the last meeting of fall semester, the Student Assembly passed Resolution 35: Calling on Cornell to Eliminate Legacy Preference in Admissions nearly unanimously. Unfortunately, President Martha Pollack has rejected our call to eliminate this unjust practice. 

By keeping this policy of giving an admissions advantage to students with legacy status, Cornell creates a contradiction between its actions and its values. Cornell can’t proclaim that it supports “Any Person, Any Study” while it keeps a policy that systematically excludes all but the most privileged of students. If abolished, Cornell would make history as the first Ivy League school to no longer keep this practice.

Legacy admissions is not a widespread policy, but one that is relatively new and mostly limited to selective universities in the United States. Giving preference to students whose parents were alumni started in the 1920s, when these same universities wanted to limit the number of Jewish and second-generation immigrant students gaining admission on their own merit. Ivy League universities strove to exclude these students to keep up their image as institutions of the elite. In keeping legacy admissions, Pollack perpetuates a policy with antisemitic and xenophobic roots to persist in the modern day. Legacy admissions are virtually unheard of outside of American borders; our international peer institutions such as the University of Oxford have never allowed them. 

Today, legacy admissions exclude promising students, especially students of color and those that are low-income. A Duke University study found that abolishing legacy admissions would lead to a more racially and socio-economically diverse incoming class. And it may seem at first that abolishing legacy admissions would only have a marginal impact; indeed, Cornell maintains that legacy admissions are simply used as a tiebreaker between equally qualified students. However, Johns Hopkins University, who abolished the practice in 2014, saw its share of Pell Grant eligible students rise from nine percent in 2010 to 19.1 percent in 2020. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cornell saw similar results.

Johns Hopkins is not alone. Most recently, Amherst College abolished legacy admissions last year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, Pomona College and the University of California have also abolished or never used this practice. Each university maintains thriving alumni communities and student bodies. While more research needs to be done, a 2010 study found no connection between a legacy admissions policy and alumni giving rates. In fact, there is a growing movement, led by the advocacy organization Edmobilizer, of young alumni who pledge to not donate to their alma mater until they forgo legacy admissions. The First-Gen, Low-Income (FGLI) community at Cornell has been at the forefront of this issue, most recently sending a letter to Pollack in 2018. In maintaining this policy, Pollack chooses to ignore these voices.

There’s nothing wrong with attending or wanting to attend the same university as your parents. If legacy admissions are abolished, legacy students can still be admitted and contribute to the Cornell community — only this time, on an equal standing as everyone else. As a future Cornell alumna, I want my future children (if they wish to attend Cornell) to gain admission on their own merit, not take away a spot from a more deserving student who wasn’t lucky enough to have the right parents. I want my future children to learn the values of hard work and fairness rather than achieving through unfair advantage.

There are many inequalities present in the college admissions system in the U.S., many of which have roots in deeper systemic issues in the K-12 education system. In 2013, only 19.6 percent of Cornell’s graduating class were from families in the bottom 60 percent of the income ladder, while 10.5 percent were from the top one percent. Abolishing legacy admissions is not a cure for this, but the first and one of the simplest steps in making a fairer college admissions process. 

It should not be controversial to say that we should admit students based on their academic qualifications instead of whether their parents went to college. Yet in keeping this policy, the University values keeping an elitist system and an image of exclusivity over its values of justice and academic excellence. 

Claire Tempelman is the College of Human Ecology Representative to the Student Assembly and a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. Tempelman is this week’s author of Student Assembly Viewpoint, a rotating column written by members of the SA. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Student Assembly Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.