Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

The Undergraduate Admissions Office on Sept. Debates over legacy admissions continue after SCOTUS decision.

October 19, 2023

Cornell’s Legacy Admissions Process Sparks Debate Following Removal of Affirmative Action

Print More

Following the Supreme Court’s strike down of affirmative action earlier this year, questions have been raised over the continuation of legacy admissions — who currently make up around 15 percent of the class of 2025. 

Some universities, such as New York University and Michigan State University, have decided to remove the practice of legacy-based admission after the landmark decision. However, many top universities, including Cornell, have not made a change in their admissions policy. 

“We are taking very seriously the recent analyses and considering the best course of action for Cornell,” Vice President of University Relations Joel Malina told The Sun, referring to Cornell’s admissions policies around legacy admissions.

Legacy admissions became prevalent in the United States in the 1920s. It was used as a way to limit the amount of Jewish and second generation immigrant students who could enter college, mainly at large protestant universities, according to a research paper from Purdue University. Today, many universities use legacy admissions as a way to stay connected and engaged with alumni networks. 

While they encourage alumni connections, legacy admissions have always been an ongoing topic of discourse at Cornell even before the SCOTUS decision. A Student Assembly resolution in 2021, for example, called for an end to this practice. The resolution cited that Cornell was founded on the principle of “any person, any study,” and legacy admissions inhibits this goal. 

Claire Tempelman ’24, a former human ecology representative on the Student Assembly, introduced Resolution 35 in 2021 in an effort to remove the policy of legacy admissions. Upon introduction, in a 22-1-2 vote, the resolution was approved almost unanimously. 

Adele Williams ’24, a former member of the Student Assembly and a co-sponsor on Resolution 35, explained that most people in the Student Assembly, including legacy students, were in support of the resolution. 

“When we were discussing the [resolution] in the assembly, there were a few members who were legacies,” Williams said. “One of which mentioned that he’s afraid to tell people he’s legacy, he didn’t even want to check the box because he wanted to get in on his own merit. I think everyone in the assembly realized that [the practice of legacy admissions] is pretty antiquated.”

When discussing why she decided to sponsor the resolution, Tempelman explained that her issues with legacy admissions are not related to an applicant’s desire of going to the same universities as their parents, but instead about the inherent fairness and equity of the admission process.

“There is nothing wrong with attending or wanting to attend the same college as your parents,” Tempelman said. “It’s just about being admitted to the same standards.” 

Yael Schranz ’26, the daughter of an alumni, shared that her reason for applying and attending Cornell wasn’t due to its prestige, but rather due to her family’s connection to the University.

“The reason I wanted to go to Cornell was because of my dad,” Schranz said. “My dad’s college experience was really impactful for the beginning of his life, [and] hearing the stories of any part of my parents life is important to me, so this is similarly important to me. I’m happy to go to a school where I can continue growing as he did.” 

When discussing the removal of legacy admissions, Schranz explained that while she believes that it would be a good decision, universities have to consider the financial aspect. 

“I think morally [removing legacy admissions] is a smart decision, but financially it isn’t the smartest,” Schranz said. “Schools have to think about the financial status of the school and alumni are the ones who donate money. These alumni will continue to [donate] if their family continues going to Cornell. That isn’t fair, but it should be considered.”

In the fiscal year of 2022, Cornell received $839 million from alumni in their annual funds gift. Many gifts go toward programs such as financial aid, allowing students who otherwise might not be able to afford coming to Cornell to access a high-quality education. Some argue that removing legacy admissions from college admissions may disrupt long-standing traditions and alumni connections, potentially affecting fundraising efforts.

However, Williams said that this is a common misconception that people have about the relationship between legacy admission policies and alumni donations. In the book “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” the author analyzes the origin and implications of legacy admissions, finding that legacy admissions policy does not have a strong influence on alumni donations. In fact, schools who do not consider legacy in admissions, like MIT and Johns Hopkins University, have not seen a significant decline in alumni donations. 

With the removal of affirmative action, students have begun to wonder what future student bodies will look like. Affirmative action was originally instituted to increase diversity at universities during the Civil Rights movement. This program essentially gave applicants of underrepresented races extra consideration. The removal of affirmative action, Tempelman highlighted, brings the challenge of retaining policies that favor historically disadvantaged students.

“With this Supreme Court ruling, the urgence around it has changed. New students being enrolled, it’s not going to be as diverse as previous classes,” Tempelman said. “It doesn’t make sense to provide a policy [legacy admissions] that is basically affirmative action for students who are already highly advantaged in the admissions process, while getting rid of affirmative action for students who have historically not been given advantage in the process.” 

An Associated Press survey from 2021 found that Cornell, along with Notre Dame, USC and Dartmouth, have a higher percentage of legacy students than Black students. In the past, schools with bans on affirmative action have seen a decrease in the number of Black, Indigenous and Hispanic students. At Cornell, 13.7 percent of students are Black, whereas 14.7 percent are legacies.

In addition to the legacy admissions advantage, Tempelman said that legacy students already have a systematic advantage because of the resources, familial support and educational opportunities they often benefit from in their upbringing. 

Jonathan Lam ’27, a first generation college student and child of Vietnamese refugees, said that, while he was part of Thrive Scholars — an organization aimed to help low income, first generation students across the country with their college applications — he had little support from his family and high school. 

“Coming from New York City, a lot of our guidance counselors or guidance department in our school aren’t well funded,” Lam said. “They don’t really have the understanding of how to help students put together an application.” 

Lam said that he believes affirmative action was created to remove the gap in opportunities and privileges that historically disadvantaged groups had faced due to systemic discrimination and prejudice. 

“A lot of people who support affirmative action have the false misconception that affirmative action should be in place forever,” said Lam. “We need affirmative action now to ensure that we don’t need a system in the future to increase diversity.”

Templemen and Lam believe that removing legacy admissions would be the first step towards institutional change in the U.S. education system, particularly at a university like Cornell. 

“In general, I think that Ivy League institutions work to maintain the class structure. One way they do that is through legacy admissions. Legacy admissions goes against Cornell’s mission of ‘any person, any study’ because it’s really limiting it,” Williams said. “Policies like legacy admissions stop Cornell from expanding into diverse communities and getting people who would really give back to their community.”