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The University's Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions released their set of recommendations on Sept. 14.

September 14, 2023

University Task Force Issues Admissions Recommendations

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The University’s Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions released a set of recommendations to improve Cornell’s admissions process on Sept. 14, culminating the efforts of a task force that was convened by President Martha Pollack in November 2022. The recommendations include increasing efforts to identify prospective students from underserved communities and developing a team to research and implement machine learning algorithms into the admissions process in a limited capacity.

“It’s our responsibility, every few years, to look at our admissions processes and make sure that they’re working well and they’re achieving our goals,” Pollack told The Sun in May 2023. “And our goals, of course, are to admit a class that is extremely academically strong, that will thrive here, that will go out and carry our mission into the world. But we are also, of course, interested in diversity of all kinds.”

The report was developed by the 15 members of the task force, composed of faculty with expertise in a range of disciplines including behavioral research, household finance, data science, mathematics and income inequality. The task force consulted with experts from the University of Southern California, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, Harvard University and the Common App, in addition to Cornell’s admissions officers and financial aid office staff, to generate their findings.

The recommendations encourage immediate implementation on a wide range of actions. In terms of recruiting students to apply to the University, the report recommends identifying students who contain the following attributes and life experiences “that have been identified as enriching the educational experience in the classroom,” according to the report.

  1. Academic achievement, and achievement in other areas
  2. Inquiry: intellectual rigor, passion, curiosity, creativity, exploration
  3. Distance traveled: overcoming obstacles or barriers; experience working part time; overcoming feelings of isolation or disempowerment, headwinds, invisibility, struggles
  4. Persistence: grit, resilience, perseverance, focus
  5. Community orientation: demonstrating kindness, compassion, teamwork focus, impact, pride in culture or heritage, situational awareness, service, engagement
  6. Leadership: influential, trend-setter, lights up room
  7. Knowledge of and appreciation for Cornell’s unique history and mission

The task force also recommended the addition of an essay question that asks applicants about how they would advance the University’s core mission and core values. Specifically, the task force drafted a prompt that asks applicants to describe how their life experiences, particularly within a community, will enrich Cornell’s “any person” ethos.

According to the Cornell Chronicle, this recommendation is already being implemented.

In terms of utilizing data analytics and machine learning, the report recommends “responsible ways” of using the technology in the recruitment and admissions process.

For example, the report stated that data science can be used to provide estimations of financial aid applicants may receive by only using data imputed on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid about family income and family composition. Data techniques may also be implemented to identify and reach students and counselors from high schools that historically have not engaged with Cornell.

In the admissions process, the report recommends utilizing data science to help staff prioritize their time as they parse through the large increase in applications that Cornell, as well as peer institutions, have received in recent years. Data science may also be implemented to identify applicants with specific characteristics by mining through primary and supplemental essays, as well as letters of recommendation, for “information that reflects the University’s admissions principles.”

“It is important to note that [data science] tools can play a valuable role in helping prepare and manage the application pool but are not suitable for recommending or predicting admissions decisions, which remain the sole purview of human staff,” the report stated. 

In order to ensure student body diversity, especially after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action admissions policies, the report recommends targeting high schools that historically have sent few students to Cornell. Currently, the University admits and enrolls students from a static set of “feeder high schools,” or schools from which 30 or more total applications for fall admission were received across 2020, 2021 and 2022. 

“Just over half of all undergraduate applications and nearly 80 percent of matriculants came from one of 1,450 feeder high schools out of over 23,000 high schools in the United States,” the report stated. “We must further diversify our applicant pool by developing strategic partnerships with high schools in underserved communities from which we historically have not received many, if any, applications.”

Although not mentioned in the task force report, a recent New York Times report found that 50 percent of Cornell students had parents whose income ranked in the top 10 percent of income earners, with 11 percent of students yielding from families earning in the top one percent of family incomes, as of 2015.

The task force recommended targeting “non-feeder” high schools by recruiting from schools that are geographically close to Cornell in order to build an initial critical mass, and then extending that base nationally over time. The report also suggested the University build relationships with community-based organizations, such as Thrive Scholars — a group that “provide[s] high-achieving students of color from economically under-resourced communities the opportunities they need to thrive at top colleges” — to identify prospective students.

“I’m grateful for the work of the task force, and especially for the breadth and depth of their outreach and their thoughtful deliberations,” Pollack told The Chronicle. “Provost Kotlikoff and Lisa Nishii, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Interim Vice Provost for Enrollment, will begin implementing a broad-ranging set of best practices and guidelines which will help us build exceptional future classes of Cornellians.”