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Cornell's (Relatively) Open Doors

Inside Higher Education has an interesting article today on a recent report released by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation on the increasing lack of accessibility to elite private colleges and universities. Specifically, it is becoming increasingly harder for transfer students to gain access to the ivory-coated towers of America’s finest institutions of higher education:

Fewer than 1 of every 1,000 students at elite private colleges started at community colleges, the foundation found. More than 40 percent of undergraduates study at community colleges.

It’s not just community college transfers who are having a tougher time getting in, but anyone who started at another institution. In 2002, the proportion of students at elite private colleges who transferred from another institution was 5.7 percent, down from 10.5 percent in 1984, according to the report.

But Cornell, with its mission to educate ‘any person… in any study’ appears to be relatively immune to this worrisome trend...

In the first five years of the current decade, Cornell had roughly 550 entering transfer students on average – a notable increase over the 1980s when that number was typically in the 400s. And assuming that the modal transfer student is on campus for 2.5 years before graduating, these numbers suggest that transfer students normally comprise around 10% of the undergraduate student body. Another statistic, taken from a survey conducted by Cornell’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning, suggests that 11.4 percent of all Cornell undergraduates are transfer students, and that 15 percent of a graduating class is transfer students (Page 92).

Of course, it is no secret that the number of transfer students varies by college, In particular, ILR and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have a heavy reliance on transfer students. This reflects the fact that it is relatively cheaper for these colleges to educate a transfer student even though they are paying the same tuition – the student can load up on his or her required distribution and introductory courses at another institution, saving the colleges from having to teach these students the “more expensive” courses (think freshman writing seminars). And it seems that most transfer students hardly mind this arrangement-- they still receive a world-class education and can focus on the courses that are most interesting to them.

But I could find no data on the number of transfers at Cornell from community colleges, and it would be interesting to see how Cornell ranks in this regard. My own anecdotal observations would suggest that more than 1 out of every 1,000 Cornellians is a community college transfer student, but I have no definite proof of that. (And if anybody out there knows of such numbers please send me an email!)

Even so, Cornell’s strength in accepting transfer students doesn’t mean that the University couldn’t do more to encourage access and outreach to some of America’s best students – those who may not have necessarily attended a good suburban high school or had a family that was willing to pay for SAT tutoring or could only afford to attend a community college for their first couple of years of undergraduate study. Granted, Cornell has already announced its partnership with the Cooke Foundation to provide substantial financial aid packages for transfer students from community colleges, but more can always be done. Both the University of Virginia and UW-Madison have recently announced guaranteed admission programs to community college students with GPAs above certain thresholds. Will Cornell one day follow their lead?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on June 19, 2006 (#)

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