It is said that when Archimedes discovered his principle of buoyancy while stepping into his bathtub, he quickly got up, flew out the door, and excitedly ran down the street—naked—yelling “Eureka! Eureka!”—meaning, “I’ve found it!”
Similarly, it seems that many Columbia students, upon walking through the 116th Street gates, also discover something that, similar to Archimedes’ principle, should have been obvious to many a whole lot sooner: Columbia University is an elite institution, and many of its students carry some of that elitism too.
It should come as no surprise that Columbia is often an elite and stuffy place: The warning signs are everywhere when you apply. If the $75,000 yearly cost to attend didn’t give you a hint, nor the Ivy League seal of approval, or even the “Columbia College is the greatest college, in the greatest university, in the greatest city in the world” slogan, maybe it was the 5.5 percent acceptance rate that should have.
In fact, I am sure many applied to Columbia precisely because of its incredible selectivity. After all, only around 50 of about 2,000 accredited colleges accept less than 30 percent of applicants, suggesting we purposely sought out this exclusivity.
Yet many Columbia students, upon seeing many Canada Goose-wearing, AirPod-donning, and Bahamas-tanned students walking down College Walk, take to their keyboards, and write out op-eds decrying the elitist injustice they just witnessed. They do so, however, without thinking about their own privilege of simply attending college in the first place, let alone this institution where people from all over the world desperately compete to get in.
In the grand scheme of things, attending college at all—regardless of how “easy” someone else had it with their investment-banking parents—is a privilege that too few ever had or ever will have, period.
Attending college wasn’t feasible for the vast majority of people even within the past few decades. In 2017, it was reported that only one-third of the U.S. population had a college degree. In 1990, it was 21 percent. In 1964, the year my father was born, it was just nine.
National graduation rates today are even starker. In public universities, where students often juggle jobs and long commutes, just 19 percent of full-time students earn a degree in four years. In fact, the New York Times reports that “only 50 of more than 580 public four-year institutions graduate a majority of their full-time students on time.”
I, for one, do not care for ostentatious displays of wealth and sincerely wish that all those who truly deserve a coveted seat at Columbia would get it free of charge. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in, and it never was.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t getting better. We shouldn’t delude ourselves with the idea that we are still hopelessly stuck in some sort of perpetual class-based subjugation. Compared to Ivy League schools of old—JFK “got into” Harvard in 1935 with just a single paragraph of an admissions essay referencing his well-known father—Columbia isn’t the same elitist bastion it used to be.
The dreaded legacy advantage—which isn’t unique to the Ivy League but is present in 42 percent of private universities across the country—may not be as big of a deal as we think it is. While at Harvard, perhaps America’s most elite university, legacy candidates were admitted at a rate of 34 percent—also implying that the vast majority didn’t make the cut— and only 12 percent of the class of 2021 has an alumnus parent. 70 percent of the student body has no smidge of Harvard legacy in their blood whatsoever. Additionally, more and more schools are cutting out legacy considerations altogether, paving the way for more meritocratic admissions processes.
Yes, historically, admissions purposely kept out large groups of people to keep Columbia WASPy and elite, but that doesn’t mean those injustices aren’t being overcome. When Columbia College opened its doors to women in 1983, only about 15 percent of all american women had a college degree. Today, just 25 years later, women are graduating at an overall higher rate than men. Even 50 percent of undergraduates on campus identify as students of color, a far cry from what Columbia used to be. Lastly, families making under $60,000 aren’t expected to pay a single cent for tuition, room and board, and mandatory fees, making Columbia College at least a possibility for many no matter their income—an extraordinary feat that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
While, inevitably, admissions can always become more just and more socioeconomically diverse, let’s not forget where we came from and where we are today.
The author is a first-year student at the School of General Studies, perhaps majoring in history. Feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.
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