Cornell file photo of the university's new president, Elizabeth Garrett

Editor’s Note: The following is part II of a three-part series stemming from an interview this week with new Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett.

Read part I here.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Should the children of Cornell alumni have an easier time getting into the prestigious university than the children of parents who did not go to Cornell?

Not everyone thinks so.

“Legacy preference in college admission, or the practice of selecting the offspring of alumni over other qualified candidates, was originally a strategy developed to grandfather Jewish applicants out of admission,” write Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig and Matthew Bruenig in Salon.

“Though the policy’s intention has changed, it remains the reality that as American students head back to campus this fall, 10 to 25 percent of them do not deserve their spots. They’re ‘legacy admits,’ the kids who got a boost via birth … Legacy, in other words, is a sort of affirmative action for the wealthy.”

Cornell file photo of the university’s new president, Elizabeth Garrett
Cornell file photo of the university’s new president, Elizabeth Garrett

I posed the question of “legacy” applicants to Cornell’s new president, Elizabeth Garrett, in an interview on Tuesday: Is it really fair for the children of alumni to have an easier time winning a selective, highly coveted slot at Cornell than other high school students?

Here’s what Garrett said: “We look to put together a class that has a lot of diversity, so certainly one of the factors that’s considered is the connection of the student and the family to this great institution, which is sometimes expressed as ‘legacy.’”

“In addition, we look at things like, ‘Is this person a first-generation college-goer?’ because we believe Cornell is a unique opportunity for first-generation college-goers, and if you look at private universities, we have a higher percentage than many in our situation of first-generation college goers.”

You can read Garrett’s full response to my question by clicking on question 3 below. You can also read the transcript of our interview sequentially, or click on the question you are most interested.

(For additional perspectives on the question of legacy status and admissions, see here, here, here, here or here. We’ll be running the second half of the interview with Garrett later this week.)

1 — What is the biggest long-term threat to Cornell’s financial model?
2 — Are there fears Cornell’s NYC campus will hurt the Ithaca campus?
3 — Do ‘legacy’ applicants have a leg up in Cornell admissions? Should they?
4 — If someone’s parents donate $20 million to Cornell, does that improve his or her chances of getting in?


Coming in Part II:
5 — Black student enrollment at Cornell has stalled over the last 10 years. Why, and how is Cornell addressing it?
6 — Is middle class getting shut out from Cornell?
7 — Sexual assault investigations and Cornell
8 — Should Cornell be open to divestment over fossil fuel?


1 — Threats to Cornell’s financial model

Q: I wanted to talk about the long-term threats to the higher ed business model … My first question is: What do you think the biggest long-term threat is to Cornell’s business model, and why? And is it something you worry about?’

EG: Well, of course it’s something I worry about. I think any leader of higher education worries about it. I think one of the things that’s been overlooked in the media is how diverse higher education is. So we talk about the crisis facing higher education; we talk about the student debt crisis, but we don’t disaggregate it from the various segments of the higher education world.

And the threats facing, say, a community college are different from what faces a liberal arts college, are very different from what face a public institution, are very different from what faces a private research university.

And my expertise as you know, Jeff, is private research universities — that’s why I’ve been an administrator. And research and universities at the level of Cornell — so, what does that mean?

Our students are graduating, by and large … Our graduation rate is 93 percent. Our students are admitted on a need-blind basis, and we have the resources to help them afford this school if they cannot as undergraduates. It’s a place where we have this spectacular residential experience that we know really can’t be replicated online. It’s possible that, for example, a large community college class might be replicated online. It’s not possible for what happens on our campus to occur online.

File photo of Cornell

So, you see what I mean? It’s a very different environment facing all of those different segments of higher education. When I think of what faces a place like Cornell, I worry a little bit that the discourse doesn’t take account of all of our differences — so we get sort of tarred with the same brush. Our students are graduating, our undergraduates, with a mean debt of $21,000. That is debt, but it’s not an overwhelming debt.

Q: I remember Skorton once told me he was paying his debt into his 40s, and that (the $21K faced by undergraduates) is not nearly as big a debt.

EG: Well, that’s right. And what’s interesting — and this is something the news ought to focus on — where you really see in private universities a real explosion of debt is at the graduate level. So it’s the law students, it’s the graduate —

Q: Yes, there was a New York Times story today about …

EG: I read that.

Q: Scary numbers, right?

EG: It is, but again not all law schools are in the same boat. Cornell has a very strong record of placement of their students after they graduate because we do have this network of alums. It’s not a large law school, so there’s a manageable number of graduates every year.

Certainly, I know one of the things the dean is very focused on is raising endowment and other funds for student scholarships, so students have lots of opportunities when they graduate and they don’t find that the debt moves them in a certain direction.

See related: Editorial: Cornell’s first female president brings charisma, fresh energy, brains

So … Big graduate debt is something I actually think about a lot. Undergraduate, too — but I just think graduate debt tends to get left out of the conversation often.

I think a lot about the state of federal funding for research and in particular discovery-driven research. So you’ll remember from your time here at Cornell that we’re famous for some of the work we’ve done through these amazing core facilities in material sciences and in physical sciences. We have a world-renowned Synchrotron and nano-fab

…That’s something I have to spend a lot of time thinking about: Will the federal government continue to support this discovery-driven, fundamental research that is then taken out in the world to change well-being, the environment, the built environment itself.

2 — Cornell tech campus

Q: One worry I hear constantly is that (Cornell’s new $2 billion) tech campus will drain some resources to New York City from Ithaca. (Former Cornell President David) Skorton said very clearly that their budgets would be completely separate, that the NYC budget would be completely self-financed — can you reaffirm that commitment?

EG: Absolutely. We have organized things in a way to ensure there is not a siphoning off of resources to the Cornell tech campus.

Rendering of Cornell’s new NYC tech campus
Rendering of Cornell’s new NYC tech campus

But I would go a step further. I think the challenge for Cornell — and what I know we will live up to — is to ensure that this unique duality, this footprint and our well-spring in one of the world’s great college towns — Ithaca — and now our footprint in one of the world’s great international cities … that that duality is actually going to bring enormous values to both sides of the coin.

So one of the things I’m working very hard on is as we discover new ways to move forward with tech transfer at Cornell tech, that we bring that back here. And we think about how that affects the businesses we see being created by our students and our faculty here in the Southern Tier; let’s learn from each other. And as we think about some of the opportunities in the Southern Tier — where there may be a cheaper workforce, where there may be better places to live for young couples — how is that going to affect businesses that spring up at Cornell Tech?

So I think it’s a win-win if we do it right. And I’m dedicated to making sure that we do it right.

3 — Legacy applicants

Q: Jumping topics to admissions — several journalists, including a few Wall Street Journal reporters, have done a lot of work on so-called legacy applicants … Those whose parents went to Cornell or donated substantial sums of money, the reports go, have clear advantages in the admissions process.

Do you agree that legacy applicants can have an advantage in Cornell admissions, and then the second part of that is — if so, do you believe that’s a right and fair system?

EG: So I think admissions are more complicated than many of the news stories make it out to be. No one factor drives admissions. We look to put together a class that has a lot of diversity; so, certainly, one of the factors that’s considered is the connection of the student and the family to this great institution, which is sometimes expressed as ‘legacy.’

In addition, we look at things like, ‘is this person a first-generation college-goer?’ Because we believe Cornell is a unique opportunity for first-generation college-goers, and if you look at private universities we have a higher percentage than many in our situation of first-generation college-goers.

We also have the most diverse class in our history this year in terms of race and ethnic background. We look at geographic diversity, not just across the world but across the nation. So I guess what I would say is that I think the kind of holistic admissions process that we undertake, which is thinking about the various attributes people bring to the table and how that creates a very diverse and robust class … I think all of those should be considered, none should be determinative, but they’re factors we should consider.

4 — Legacy applicants

Q: So, do you think if someone’s father donates $20 million to the school … that should be a factor?

EG: We never tie donations to admissions decisions.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.