Cornell Eyes New Admissions Strategies Following SCOTUS Decision

Can the Ivy League school live up to its promise to educate “any student”?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on October 18, 2023
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  • Cornell University recently issued a report recommending new admissions policies and strategies.
  • The report follows the Supreme Court's decision to ban race-conscious admissions.
  • Tactics include more targeted outreach to low-income communities and partnerships with community colleges.
  • Cornell uses AI tools in admissions but remains aware of bias and relies on people to make final decisions.

Cornell University has always been something of an outlier within the Ivy League.

Founded long after the other Ivies, in 1865, Cornell is New York's land-grant university, born of an ethos to make higher education available to the working class. Its founder, Ezra Cornell, famously believed the university should be an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.

Even today, some Cornell students attend “contract colleges” within the university that are state-supported, offering New York residents discounted tuition.

Yet despite its democratic roots, Cornell, much like its Ivy counterparts, disproportionately attracts wealthy and privileged students. A recent Harvard study shows that students from families in the 90-99th percentile for income were 2.4 times more likely than other students to attend Cornell. Students from families in the top 1% were six times as likely, although that figure was the lowest among the Ivies.

Still, as one might expect, Cornell remains committed to enrolling a diverse student body. Just under one-third of Cornell undergraduates are white. Asian students constitute 22%, while Hispanic (15%) and Black (9%) numbers fall short of proportional representation. Roughly 18% of Cornell students receive Pell Grants compared to the national average in the 30-40% range.

For Cornell and other universities embracing this diversity goal, the task became more difficult following the Supreme Court's decision to ban race-conscious admissions. Yale University recently released its revised admissions strategies in the wake of the decision, committing to intensified outreach and recruitment efforts among historically excluded populations.

Now it's Cornell's turn, though, to be fair, the university had already begun rethinking its admissions strategies before the SCOTUS edict, perhaps in anticipation of what most in higher education considered an inevitable outcome. The report's recommendations recognize changes in the current legal landscape resulting from the court's decision.

Convened in 2022 under the direction of President Martha Pollack, Cornell's “Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions” issued its findings and recommendations last month. While it's certainly nothing revolutionary, it does signal some changes many elite colleges will be pursuing in the years ahead.

To succeed in our academic mission, Pollack said in a statement, we need to be thoughtful and deliberate in ensuring that we are always a place where any person is welcome.

Cornell Recommends Broader Outreach, Targeted Recruitment

The task force's charge covered three broad areas: characteristics of the student body, the use of data analytics and machine learning in admissions, and recruitment and retention. In an interesting aside, the group noted it initially delved into the question of maintaining its current test-optional policy but lacked sufficient data to make an informed decision.

While determining which students might best be served by a Cornell experience, the task force noted the university's reputation as the “mobility Ivy.” A 2017 study found that Cornell outranks its Ivy peers in providing low-income students opportunities to climb the economic ladder. Such students demonstrate grit, resilience, and perseverance, character traits that help identify who might succeed in college.

In the months following the SCOTUS decision and leading up to the fall admissions cycle, colleges carefully crafted new essay prompts allowing students to discuss how race, among these other attributes, has shaped their experiences and identities. Cornell's report proposes its own version:

We remain committed to the importance of diversity in our educational mission. Explain how your life experiences, particularly with a community that is important to you, will enrich our ... any person ... ethos. We encourage you to think about community broadly. This could include family, school, or larger social circles.

Enrolling a more diverse student body — or at least maintaining current diversity levels — will require Cornell to broaden its outreach efforts into more underrepresented communities. In a candid discussion of its current practices, the task force noted the university draws from a relatively small group of feeder high schools from which 30 or more students apply each year.

Over the past three years, just over half of Cornell's applicants and nearly 80% of matriculants came from one of 1,450 feeder high schools out of 23,000 nationwide. Presumably, these schools are in more affluent towns that fail to represent the full spectrum of American racial diversity.

Broader outreach involves partnering with community colleges, particularly those in New York State, and with community-based organizations that can maximize Cornell's capacity to develop robust enrollment pathways for first-generation, low-income, and other underrepresented student groups.

Such measures align with the recent Education Department guidelines on how colleges can promote diversity in a post-affirmative action world.

To that end, Cornell currently uses the College Board's “Landscape”, which assesses the “challenge level” of schools and the students they enroll based on factors such as median household income, educational attainment, and employment rates. On a scale where 100 represents the highest challenge level, Cornell students rate an 11. Applicants to the university rate a 14.

So the narrative must change if Cornell is to recruit more low-income students. Targeted recruitment campaigns can help demystify the application process and help convince students that Cornell is accessible and affordable. The task force noted that the university's language around financial aid can be opaque and confusing to many families.

Finally, the task force recommends leaning into artificial intelligence and other forms of machine learning to streamline admissions functions and help identify applicants who possess certain characteristics valued by admissions committees.

At the same time, the task force was careful to note that algorithms built on past admissions cycles can skew results according to the types of students who historically have succeeded at Cornell and that data must be regularly calibrated to eliminate such biases. The group also suggested that while AI can help sift through mountains of applications, final decisions about candidates still require a human touch.

What all these recommended changes ultimately yield for Cornell will soon become evident. Recent history demonstrates that eliminating any form of racial preferences in college admissions results in a dramatic reduction of racial minorities, at least initially.

For Cornell and other highly selective colleges, it's now a matter of beta-testing strategies to see which efforts yield satisfactory results. While sobering, examples from the University of California system and the University of Michigan, whose race-neutral policies Cornell cited, can prove useful.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, Cornell's mission of educating “any student” has become exponentially more difficult to achieve.