Are students from rural communities underrepresented at Cornell?

Date: April 2017


Dear Deans,

My friend and I recently read about the new admitted undergraduate class of ’21 setting diversity records. While we both believe this to be a good thing, my friend observed that it was not clear whether students from rural communities are considered part of this diversity.

Intrigued, I did a quick search on google and came across a 2010 NY Times opinion piece by Ross Douthat about rural white students being underrepresented at elite colleges.

My question is, are students from rural communities underrepresented at Cornell, including the Graduate School? If so, are there programs in place to help these students attend and thrive at Cornell?

Thank you for answering my question!

Graduate Student with Rural Interests


Dear Graduate Student with Rural Interests,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. 

I appreciate your interest in understanding more about how Cornell welcomes and supports students from rural communities to help them attend and thrive at Cornell, particularly in the context of elite universities nationwide. Although “Ask a Dean” typically focuses on graduate education, because your question includes undergraduates I’ll include both undergraduate and graduate education in my response.

Given Cornell’s founding mission to “any person, any study” and strong commitment to our land grant university status, Cornell is a leader among elite universities in admitting and supporting students from rural communities. Some of our colleges have very specific missions (and priorities) for rural students that are part of their diversity profile. Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for example, prioritizes Farm Families, 4H, and FFA students as a part of their mission. As New York State’s Land Grant University, Cornell carefully tracks enrollment by New York State county (scroll to the NYS Student Map tab, and filter for all students, or undergraduate, graduate, or professional). That map provides a good sense of the numbers of students from rural areas in New York (much of Upstate is rural).

Also at the undergraduate level, Cornell participates in the New York State Opportunity Programs (NYSOP), including a cooperative arrangement with 4H to do outreach programs on higher education participation and access to Cornell to reach talented low income rural students (the program has strict income limits and expects all students to be first generation). The 4H program in NY brings 500 middle and high school students to campus each summer for career days and exposure to research and higher education at Cornell. The Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI) Summer College diversity pipeline scholarship brings high school sophomores to campus for a three-week immersion program from targeted 4H college access programs across New York state. 

In addition, although not all first generation college students come from rural communities, many do, and Cornell has programs focused specifically on supporting students who are the first from their families to attend college. OADI’s First in Class has active participation from over 500 first generation students and holds receptions and information exchange programs for current first generation students with faculty and staff who share that background. The program engages first generation students in full participation in all that Cornell has to offer, especially undergraduate research, off-campus study, exploration of varied majors, and building social and cultural capital through various programs and events

At the graduate education level, the Graduate School is committed to creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, but especially for those from backgrounds historically underrepresented in graduate education and the academy. Underrepresented groups are inclusive of not only students from ethnic and racial identities underrepresented in graduate education, but also are inclusive of students of any racial or ethnic background that identify as a first generation college student, a student with a disability, a veteran, LGBTQ+, low income, and/or as woman in STEM. Some students who identify as from rural areas hold some of these identities, and there are strong intersections that exist between identities. Consequently, there are a number of students from rural areas, as well as other geographies, that the Graduate School and many of our partners seek to engage through our diversity recruitment and current student success initiatives.

The Graduate School actively recruits prospective students from various underrepresented backgrounds from national and regional undergraduate scholar and success programs such as the McNair Scholars Program and the New York State Opportunities Programs (NYSOP). These programs focus on serving students from underrepresented backgrounds including first generation and low income students across all racial and ethnic identities.

Our data team sorted for truly “rural” students by sorting for graduate students who are from towns of population less than 2,500, focusing on U.S. students. Although a relatively small number of applicants, the admission rate for that group is slightly higher (~30%) than the admission rate overall for Graduate School applicants (~23%), and the yield rate (rate at which admitted students matriculate at Cornell) is considerably higher (54%) than the overall rate for admitted Graduate School applicants (43%). First generation college students have a similar admission rate (24%) as overall, but a higher yield rate (57%).

Within the Graduate School, the Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement (OISE) supports a more inclusive climate for all students and advances the representation, engagement, and success of graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Though most of the programming led or co-led by OISE is open to all students, several programs have a priority focus on students from underrepresented backgrounds, which explicitly includes first generation college students. Examples of such programs include the Summer Success Symposium for new and continuing Ph.D. students, the Future Professors Institute, and several of the programs facilitated in collaboration with the student organizations represented on the OISE Leadership Council such as the Graduate Diversity & Inclusion Welcome Reception. OISE also works in collaboration with OADI to help engage graduate students in First in Class, Cornell’s first generation student support initiative that aims to build a sense of community among first generation students on campus for mutual support and growth. 

Additionally, the Graduate School supports graduate students from all backgrounds in their “Pathways to Success” by providing and promoting programming organized into the following thematic focus areas: Navigate Academia, Build Your Skills, Create Your Plan, Prepare for Your Career. Some of the programming for first year graduate students that falls under the focus area of Navigate Academia can be especially beneficial for graduate students who are either first generation college students or first generation graduate students. One example includes the Transitions series, which covers topics such as Getting the Mentoring You Need and Want and Understanding and Overcoming the Imposter Syndrome.

Thank you again for your question.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School