Cynthia Tseng/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

S.A. President Patrick Kuehl introduces Resolution 68 before the Assembly.

March 25, 2024

Student Assembly Unanimously Passes Resolution Urging End to Legacy Admissions

Print More

The Student Assembly unanimously approved a measure advocating for the end of legacy preferencing in Cornell’s admissions process on Thursday.

The overturn of affirmative action by the Supreme Court in June sparked a national conversation over the continuation of legacy college admissions.

Many colleges including Michigan State University and Bryn Mawr College disclosed that they would not consider legacy status in future admissions. They also said that they would indicate the absence of legacy preference from their policy in the Common Data Set, the main data source used by higher education publishers such as U.S. News & World Report

Cornell has so far maintained its consideration of legacy connections for applicants.

Students who are children of alumni are nearly four times as likely to be admitted to elite colleges as students who have identical test scores but are not children of alumni. 14.7 percent of students in the Class of 2025 are descendants of Cornell alumni, outnumbering the proportion of Black students in the same class, at 13.7 percent.

S.A. President Patrick Kuehl ’24 introduced Resolution 68 before the Assembly alongside Evan Mandery, a constitutional law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Law. Kuehl prepared the resolution in conjunction with the student assembly presidents of Columbia, Brown and Yale University. 

The Assembly passed a similar resolution in a near-unanimous vote in 2021, when Claire Tempelman ’24, former college of human ecology representative, introduced Resolution 35 calling on Cornell to end legacy admissions.

Mandery is the author of Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, a book concerning how legacy preference is used to perpetuate the over-inclusion of the wealthy in elite higher education. He explained that at 38 higher education institutions in the United States, more students come from the top one percent of national income than the entire bottom 60 percent. 

At Cornell, 10 percent of students come from families in the top one percent of income while approximately 20 percent come from the bottom 60 percent. 

“Ending legacy preference would not end inequity in college admissions,” Mandery said. “But I think it would be a very powerful statement for all of you to decry legacy preference.”

To promote inclusive admissions processes, Cornell implemented identity-based essays and vowed to decrease the proportion of students admitted through the early decision track beginning with the Class of 2028, following the University’s Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions’s recommendations, which were released in September.

Former interim vice president for enrollment Jason C. Locke told The Sun in 2018 that legacy students have a greater chance of being accepted in the early decision round as a result of a mutual commitment relationship.

However, the University was not yet certain about adapting legacy advantages, according to Prof. Avery August, immunology, at an Oct. 11 Faculty Senate meeting.

“The task force and administration felt that they weren’t yet ready to decide on the issue of legacy. But it’s still being very heavily considered and thought about,” Avery said.

According to the resolution, legacy admissions originated as a “discriminatory strategy to exclude immigrant and Jewish students from accessing higher education,” and today it “has been proven to inhibit social mobility, undercut socioeconomic and racial diversity and reproduce cycles of privilege” in higher education.

Kuehl explained the lack of financial justification for legacy admissions. While many argue that legacy preferencing in admissions propels higher alumni donations, the authors of Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions determined a lack of statistically significant evidence to back this claim. 

Jahmal Wallen ’24, undergraduate representative to the University Assembly, noted that legacy students also disproportionately come from wealthy or donor backgrounds, diminishing the value of individual candidates’ merit in admissions decisions. 

Wallen said that ending legacy preference would be a logical choice, following the overturn of affirmative action. 

“I think that all [legacy preference] does is reaffirm a system where people who have access to resources get an advantage. Simply having wealth does not make you more deserving of education [than others],” Wallen said.

Aissatou Barry ’24, vice president of diversity and inclusion and minority students liaison at-large, said that the existence of legacy preference undermines Cornell’s founding principle of being an institution where “any person can find instruction in any study,” particularly by alienating low-income students, many of whom are students of color.

“Lower-income students that come to Cornell are uncomfortable,” Barry said, “Once they’re better represented in the student body, the overall Cornell experience will be a lot better [for them].”

Luke Thomas ’27, director of elections, said that it could be potentially harmful to make general statements about all legacy students, particularly considering Cornell alumni’s diverse backgrounds and professions.

Franklin Berry ’26, college of architecture, art and planning representative, echoed the concern that categorically condemning legacy admissions may rely too heavily on the assumption that the parents of all legacy students are wealthy or have donated to the school. 

Mandery responded that arguing against legacy preference is not meant to be a personal attack on any admitted student. Rather, condemning legacy preference is meant to resolve an institutional problem that is harmful to students who do not have a legacy background.

“[Suppose] you say that people deserve a slight advantage in the admissions process by virtue of [their parents] having gone to this college,” Mandery said. “In that case, you say someone else deserves their disadvantage in the admissions process because [their parents] did not.”

The Cornell Undergraduate Admissions website states: “In general, when two students with similar, strong credentials apply to Cornell, the applicant who is a direct descendant of a Cornell University alumna/alumnus may have a slight advantage in the admissions process.”

Mandery said that decrying legacy preference and promoting an ideal to make higher education more accessible to people from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds would provide more equitable opportunities for lower-income students to succeed academically. 

Karys Everett ’25, LGBTQIA+ liaison at-large, emphasized that it is the S.A.’s responsibility to foster a more inclusive higher education system.

“We need to show that this Assembly [supports] creating accessibility to exceptional places because we are a country of exceptional people,” Everett said. “We just haven’t been given the historical chance, and it’s time to begin now.”