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The Inner-City Valedictorian

Should Cornell admit students based on what they have accomplished, or what they have the potential to accomplish? I have been thinking about this question recently.

The high school at which I teach held its graduation on Friday night. Not one of the students who walked across the stage deserved admission to Cornell. None of them were prepared to succeed at Cornell, and that much would be clear to any admissions officer. One student earned a 4.0 GPA and took our most advanced classes, but couldn't reach 20 on the ACT. On the basis of what he achieved, he certainly did not deserve a spot in the entering class.

Cornell's motto, "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study," is a good one. But in the context of urban education, what does this motto mean? Can any person really find instruction at Cornell?

I am not speaking of the student from an affluent background who wastes opportunities in high school and lacks the credentials for admission. Rather, I am speaking of the student who never had the opportunities to earn those credentials. One of my seniors - our class valedictorian - has the leadership skills, self-discipline, and attitude to succeed in most anything. But not in rigorous college-level academics.

If a child has the misfortune to be born in a particular neighborhood, and attend its chronically low-performing schools, only the most immense personal effort would give him the chance to earn acceptance at Cornell. The blame lies with the schools. As a teacher, there is no excuse for setting low expectations when you have students who can meet higher ones. But when the schools fail, who can take up the responsibility for ensuring that these students can succeed at the highest levels of high education?

At Cornell, where only 1 in 20 students is African-American, Black students report that the transition to college is difficult. Often, these students gravitate to institutions like Ujamaa and the Africana Center, where they will find support and camaraderie with students of similar backgrounds. But Cornell, with its huge campus, large introductory-level classes, and hefty population of entitled suburbanites, is not the most supportive of universities. Remedial classes and tutoring services are available, but students must seek these out on their own. And only recently has Cornell shown much of an interest in preventing students from slipping through the cracks.

Should it really surprise us that Cornell's six-year graduation rate for Black men is only 75 percent?

I know that admissions officers will rightly view an inner-city student with low board scores as a gamble. Most factors indicate that he will not succeed at Cornell. Still, with his non-academic skills and willingness to work hard, he will probably contribute more to the positive culture on campus than another wealthy student from the suburbs who is content to get drunk five nights a week while cruising along with a 3.5 GPA.

Perhaps someone with money can endow a special summer program for incoming freshmen who come from low-performing high schools. There, students could learn basic research and writing skills, understand the importance of good study habits, and form connections with each other before classes begin in August. With such a program in place, I am sure that students such as our valedictorian could succeed on campus. Without it, he would only be set up to fail.

Edit: As reader JS emailed me, and Joe Martin mentioned in a comment attached to this post, there is a program that sounds almost identical to what I described. It is the Prefreshman Summer Program, and it is mandatory for students who are accepted into Cornell's Higher Education Opportunity Program (EOP for contract colleges). This looks like a great program for low-income students, and JS reports that his friends have spoken highly of it. Unfortunately, Cornell has struggled to recruit enough students for the program.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on May 14, 2011 (#)

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