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Is Cornell's Guaranteed Transfer Program 'Borderline Unethical'?

So the New York Times is running an article on the recent increase in guaranteed-transfer programs, and perhaps unsurprisingly given Cornell's habit of using such policies, it features Ezra's university front and center.

First, there's this rather cavalier quote from Hamilton College:

But while the practice, known as deferred admission or a guaranteed transfer option, offers applicants another shot at their dream school, it can also place them in limbo, as they start college life on a campus they plan to abandon. And it can create problems for that institution, which is not usually told about the deal the student has struck with a competitor.

Monica Inzer, the dean of admission at Hamilton College in upstate New York, called the practice “borderline unethical,” saying it had the effect of recruiting students from other colleges. “We would allow a student to defer for a year, but never to matriculate full time at another college,” Ms. Inzer said.

I can see how a college that sees a lot of students leave to Cornell on account of guaranteed-transfer option might find the practice a bit disconcerting, but I don't know if there's anything unethical in the practice. Nowhere in a matriculation agreement does either a college or a student commit to a set period of study. And most schools plan for a set amount of transfer-outs, drop-outs, and transfer-ins every year.

It is unfortunate, however, that the schools that educate a lot of Cornell's guaranteed transfers -- perhaps SUNY Binghamton, Geneso, and maybe even Hamilton -- are hurt in terms of the rankings on account of the policy. Guaranteed transfers necessarily reduce their graduation rates, and these colleges have done nothing wrong except to admit and educate students who want to go to Cornell.

Cornell's interest in the program is really four-fold, in descending levels of earnestness:

1) Cornell would actually like to educate more of its excellent applicants than it has room to in the first year. A noble aspiration, which I actually believe to be the case.

2) Cornell can plan ahead in terms of filling the space for the roughly 4 percent of the freshmen class (e.g. 175 students) will create by not returning their sophomore year.

3) Cornell can make more money off of transfer students (because for the contract colleges they're cheaper to educate, having fulfilled their more expensive distribution courses (e.g. the courses in Arts, which the contract colleges have to pay-up for, as I explained back in this post from 2009) like freshman writing seminars prior to attending Cornell).

4) It makes the University look better in the rankings. The later point is mentioned by the Times:

Some admissions officers suggested in interviews that deferred admission had also provided an edge in college rankings. Because the rankings are based in part on the SAT scores and high school grade-point averages of freshmen entering in the fall, the scores — presumably lower — of students who are to begin later are not included. Deferring the admission of some students also lowers the college’s admissions rate, making it appear more selective.

I'm not too concerned about that last point though, given that Cornell's probably not vastly improving its SAT scores through the guaranteed transfer program -- there's only a set number of spaces on North Campus, after all, and the University can still afford to reject the vast majority of applicants with 700+ SAT scores on the Math and Verbal tests.

There's still a whole host of other issues with the program, along with a rather unfortunate quote from a sophomore guaranteed transfer at Cornell, which I'll save until tomorrow.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 10, 2011 (#)

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