Dad: Should l Force My Son to Attend Cornell?


Some of my most popular blog posts are generated by comments from parents whose children face agonizing college decisions.

I got an email today from a dad who is grappling with what to do with his son, who was accepted to Cornell University last year through deferred admission or guaranteed transfer option.  Under this arrangement, Cornell requires an applicant to complete his/her freshman year at another school before enrolling at Cornell as a sophomore. I find this long-time practice of Cornell despicable.

The son started at Washington University in St. Louis and is thriving there, but his father is contemplating making him attend Cornell. The student’s twin sister, who was also offered the same deal from Cornell, started at the University of Wisconsin, where she is happy, but she has agreed to transfer.

The dad reached out to me to solicit my opinion. I obviously have my own thoughts on this, but I’d love to hear from you after reading the dad’s email. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

A Dad’s Letter

Cornell University

Cornell University

I read your blog post about the Transfer Option because I have been obsessed with this issue for a year now and your “cynical” suggestion about gaming the US New and World Report was one of the theories that has really bothered me.

Fact:  I have twins.  Both applied to Cornell (boy applied early; girl regular), and both were rejected but given the Transfer Option to the ILR School.  Roughly 40% of the class is transferring into the class of 2017 at Cornell’s ILR School.

Boy was accepted to Wash U. in St. Louis and went, maintained good grades, made Dean’s list spring semester and received the offer from Cornell.  Girl was accepted to Univ. of Wisconsin, maintained good grades and received the offer from Cornell.

Girl had great social experience in high school and freshman year in college, and she has confidence that she’ll be able to make the transition socially at Cornell.  Boy had rough high school experience socially and found a wonderful social experience at Wash U.  He is not at all convinced he’ll be happy at Cornell.  Both I and my wife went to Cornell and we have strong bias toward the school and the Ivy League degree.

Wanting to Stay at Washington University

Situation:  Girl is prepared to go to Cornell, leave Madison sadly but confidently.  Boy is not prepared to go to Cornell, and yet he and we are struggling with the idea of turning down something with perceived value like an Ivy League degree balanced against friends, fraternity, and familiarity of his Wash U. campus.  In his mind, everything is good.

We would have to “promise” him that if he were to go to Cornell he’ll get the job he wants and a better life, which of course we cannot do.  That said, he would also go if we “force” him to go; that is, if we make the decision for him, he’ll go along with it because he cannot do otherwise.  We’re paying every nickel of his education.

The Mystique of an Ivy League Brand Name

Washington University

Washington University

In my heart:  Let him stay, make his way, work hard, and make this choice as an adult which will be a lasting one.  Get his Ivy degree in graduate school.  Or don’t, and just be a good, smart person who contributes in a meaningful way, happy and secure.

In the back of my head:  He’ll regret this later.  He’ll be the only one in the family not to have gone to an Ivy League school (unless he goes to one for graduate school).  He’ll lose out on a lifetime of pomp and circumstance that comes with being an Ivy League graduate.  (Of course, I realize these are not good reasons, but they are real, subjective feelings nonetheless.)  No doubt the ILR program is good and is well-respected especially on the East Coast, and could land him a good job right out of college.

His proposed major at Wash U is every bit as challenging (probably more) and interesting to him.  Wash U’s national reputation is just nowhere near Cornell’s.  This college investment is what I have to offer my kids as a legacy.  He’s throwing it away because he likes his fraternity brothers and feels that leaving would be betrayal?  Unacceptable.

Playing With College Rankings Numbers

The reason I write:  It occurred to me and your blog confirm or at least supported my suspicion that gaming is going on.  It makes me angry that Cornell did this to play with scores and it underscores its susceptibility to the sort of game that has jettisoned Wash U and Middlebury to exalted places on the US News and World Report list in the last 20 years.  Thirty-five years ago I never would have dreamed that Middlebury let alone Wash U would be in the same neighborhood as Amherst or Brown, respectively, yet there they are.  It does disgust me.

Yet, unlike Middlebury, which would never attract me or my sensibilities, Cornell’s siren call is compelling and as the summer progresses and the day draws nigh when a decision must be finally made, I wonder if I’ll be able to really say to my boy, it’s not the choice I would have made, but I understand why it’s the right choice for you and I support your choice.  Right now, I’m saying it, but I’m not believing myself.


Postscript: The son ended up staying at Washington University!

Read More…

Saying No to Northwestern University

An Angry Mom Rants Against Elite Colleges

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  1. Simply put, this dad is a snob who has a very overinflated ego. He needs to keep his mouth shut at this point and let his son stay at Washington U. Has the father thought if he forces his son to go to Cornell, the kid might end up failing at Cornell just to spite his father? Or the kid might go to Cornell, graduate, then resent his father for the rest of his life and then the dad will complain that his kid hates him…
    This is what happens when parents let their ego get in the way of being a parent. Yes, Dad Cornell was great for you! But, your son isn’t you! Just because you thrived at Cornell, doesn’t mean your son would. Also, if your son is thriving at Washington U, doing well there, and likes it, then let him stay there! Yes, you’re the one paying, but it seems like Washington U is a good investment in your son’s future. Let him be an adult and make this decision. I can see getting more involved if the choice is between State U and taking out a ton of loans for Cornell. In that case it would be wise to guide the child to the school that will result in the least amount of debt. But, that’s not what’s happening here!
    You know what, Dad? If you are going to force your son to go to Cornell, please don’t complain later on that he hates you….

  2. Hi, I am a senior in high school. I honestly find this offer to be very intriguing. I am wondering do they only offer this to ILR students or is this for other majors to. I am mostly interested in the arts and sciences schools. What are you sons stats so I know what I have to work to. If I was him I would jump at the opportunity. Honestly how many are lucky enough to go to an ivy!
    BTW: I have a 3.93 GPA so im just wondering because I have absolutely no shame going to community college for a year then transferring to Cornell! In fact I would be honored that they did not flat out deny me. 😛

  3. I found myself in the same situation this summer; my parents are cornell alumn, I was offered a guaranteed transfer to Cornell and did my first year at Wake Forest. I wrestled with my parents over it all summer and ultimately the decision was made for me. I force myself to feel optimistic about the opportunities cornell presents for me but truly I am miserable and could not dread going any more. Your son should stay at WashU. WashU is extremely reputable and at this point,I believe, even ranked above cornell

    1. I am so sorry that your parents are forcing you to attend Cornell and ignoring your desires. It’s a terrible shame that some parents become so blinded by “brand name.”

      It’s up to you now to make the most of it. I wish all the best at your new school.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. “Wash U’s reputation in certain East Coast cirlces is just nowhere near Cornell’s.”

    Fixed for ya, dad.

    Frankly, outside of certain circles on the East Coast (and tiny pockets on the West Coast), most people with the power to make hiring decisions would regard a guy who thinks that Cornell is somehow far more prestigious than WashU to be fairly addle-brained.

    Mind you, I’m aware that Cornell has stronger ties to Wall Street than WashU, so if your son has an interest there, Cornell would certainly help him more there than WashU. He can decide on his own whether making the move would be worth it. In pretty much any other career, though, I don’t see how making him leave an environment that your son enjoys and is thriving in is a good call.

    So what is his major or career interests? In most industries, Cornell doesn’t confer some golden halo that gives you an advantage over someone from (*horrors*) WashU. In fact, in most industries, even HYPS doesn’t.

  5. My nephew went to Hobart and William Smith. He was offered admission to other liberal arts colleges, but made his choice, in part due to this school’s proximity to Cornell. He stayed because he liked being at a smaller school, found a major he liked (Political Economy) and made friends through pledging a fraternity and being on crew. To be honest, I don’t know what his grades were during his freshman year. I’ll guess that he did not earn the 3.3 because he had to really work to get decent grades in high school.

    I don’t believe that he had a “passion” for HR to the point where he appreciated his father’s work in the field. I know that he had interests in marketing (his current field) and public policy while he was in college. Hobart is a good school for pursuing those interests. The president was the former Peace Corps director under President Clinton. It was also a good school for him to compete in crew. He never would have made the squad at Cornell.

    My brother was willing to pay for any college that his children wanted to attend. That was not a concern. However, he expected all three children to make good academic progress, at least a 3.0, if not better.

  6. Hi Lynn,

    I agree with your view about the transfer practice. My brother has a son and daughter who were faced with the same decision. One decided to stay at the liberal arts college he enrolled freshman year, the other went to community college but did not earn the grades she needed to make the transfer happen.

    Frankly, both were offered the option, in my view, because their father graduated from ILR at Cornell. The experience turned out very well for him. He has had a long, successful career in human resource management, which is one hope of the faculty and administration who lead the school. My brother had a rewarding internship as part of a team that negotiated a major labor agreement with the Metro North commuter railroad as well as a second position in corporate HR. He had also considered going to law school and did well enough to get in, though he did not go.

    The difference between my brother and the father who wrote thus is that my father let my brother decide where he wanted to go, and he let his kids choose their path. You have to let your kids make their first important adult decision on their own.

    1. Ah, someone who has insight into the exact dilemma! Yes, I believe that the T.O. was offered to my kids (as opposed to just letting them in as Freshman) because there was a nod to the “legacy” aspect. I am interested in your nephew’s experience. What liberal arts school did he attend and then decide to stay at? What were his reasons for staying? Did he have an interest in ILR or related aspects (e.g., organizational behavior)? Any regrets?

      It’s funny how everyone seems to picture this as if it’s some sort of forced marriage in Pakistan. All I said was I was bothered by the idea in my head that he’d be leaving an Ivy League education on the table which has objective and subjective value in many (though clearly not all) circles. And, it may be that those circles are not all that progressive or meritorious. Yet, those circles exists and your brother probably knows well what I’m talking about. I never meant that there was to be some literal compulsion. I know my son would value my opinion, and the question is whether I give it from the heart or the head — or perhaps both. It’s also funny how so few of the commenters give much attention to the dynamic of twins or siblings or family. They view it in a very linear black-and-white manner. Yours is the only comment that seems to understand what’s going on at the family level. I do take exception, however, to your last exhortation. In a family, decisions are not made “on their own.” Ultimately, they are made by each person, but rarely with teenagers would I expect a decision as big as this to be made without parental consultation. I think the ideal of letting a teenager make a quarter of million dollar decision without consultation is irresponsible. What’s making people more enthusiastic about letting a child make this decision probably is that there really isn’t a bad choice here. So, it’s much easier for folks to be horrified by my involvement and consultation because it’s such a safe decision either way, so “why not let the kid decide”?

      That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in which school your nephew decided to stay at.

      I’m also sympathetic (though most of the other bloggers here do not seem to be so) to the situations where your neice went the community college route and then didn’t get the 3.3 GPA minimum. That must have been difficult for her and her family. I wonder whether the nephew’s decision was influence by the dynamic that would have occurred if he had gone but his sister did not. What would that have done to the relationship? I think those sorts of dynamics (like we have with our twins) is one of the things that can make the T.O. insidious.

      I appreciate the fact you shared that similar situation, and I would greatly appreciate further information on your nephew’s experience.

  7. Really Dad? Read all above comments. TWICE, just so you hear what so many have so perfectly stated. Bottom line: butt out, pay (or don’t) for Wash U (no schlub school, BTW) and let your son do HIS college life thing. Did it ever occur to you, Dad that your son might be a different person than the rest of you Cornell types in the family (and is your daughter also or is she just placating you?) If your son is made to feel “left out” of the pomp and idiocy of family traditions then, I guess you’ll need to work harder for INCLUSION of your own son and the choices he makes.

  8. I agree with previous comments about why this father should not force his son to transfer to Cornell. This blog entry, along with the comments, started me along another path of thought…

    I had never heard of these guaranteed transfer options before and am amazed at the gall of institutions who offer these to students. But what also strikes me is these options basically undermine the perceived value of what Cornell is trying to sell…that it provides a superior education compared to other institutions. If they really believed this would they automatically accept these kids who spent a year at another accredited 2 or 4 year program? Basically this is admitting that the kids who went to ‘lower tier’ schools including community colleges and regional universities for their first year requirements were just as prepared to succeed as those who went to Cornell for that year. They are admitting that it is the caliber of the student and what they do with their education that matters more than where they get their education, which agrees with all the published studies. I am guessing a response to this would be that the upper level classes are more important. That may be true, but then where is the line drawn when ‘the better education’ starts at the Ivies, after freshman year, sophomore year…..???

  9. Lynn,

    If I didn’t know better I’d think this letter was a fake and that this dad was just trying to get a rise out of you. Ivy League degrees do not confer some intangible superiority over the degrees from other colleges, and if any Ivy alum thinks they do, I’d have thought he’d be embarrassed to admit it. Somehow this letter reminds me of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz when he gets the certificate that proves he has a brain–although the scarecrow never was arrogant. The Ivies offer wonderful opportunities and are great when they are the right fit for a student– just like so many non-Ivy colleges. On so many levels it would be a colossal mistake for this dad to force his son to transfer. First of all Washington University holds its own against Cornell any day of the week. Second of all, while Cornell might be better for one student, Wash U will be better for the next. To think ivies are better just because of their name is just about the most un-nuanced thing I’ve read all day. I would advise this dad to work towards trusting his son and recognizing that his son is an independent young adult. I don’t believe the choice is the dad’s. I also don’t believe parents should use the payment of tuition as a justifiable reason to treat their adult children like adolescents. Dad, I promise you this, if you make your son transfer, you will end up remembering this as one of your biggest parenting blunders ever. Trust your son. Trust and be grateful for his happiness. The ivy is not always greener on the other side. I have a son at an Ivy League school, and he loves it for all the right reasons and is the first to admit the things he loves about his beloved Ivy could be found at countless colleges across the country. He and his friends do not carry around this snobbery, and I somewhat resent this dad for presenting such a poor representation of Ivy League students and grads. I don’t intend to be mean, but I’m just so offended.

  10. Dear Dad, this is really your opportunity to become a better dad – loosen the stranglehold and let your boy start making his own decisions. (It sounds like he’s already doing a pretty good job at it.) You can bite your nails over this phase in his life like the rest of us parents, and pat yourself on the back for launching him into adulthood.

  11. Question for this dad … are you prepared to deal with the possible, even likely scenario, that your son agrees to the transfer, gets to Cornell …. and is MISERABLE??? He will blame you for the rest of his life! He could fail or drop out, or engage in “non-productive” behavior or activities to compensate for his unhappiness.

    It all could end in a bed of roses and he might be happy after all, or it could end quite the opposite. Are you prepared to deal with the outfall if that happens? I myself would never forgive myself if I forced such a decision on my child and it ended badly.

    He’d “be the only one in the family not to have gone to an Ivy League school”. The horror!! Is your ego really THAT big that you are willing to sacrifice your son’s happiness and your relationship with him? Because that is exactly what you are setting yourself up for.

    Neither my husband or I attended an Ivy League for undergrad, but I did attend an Ivy for my MBA. I am very grateful for BOTH experiences and my life is full, productive and prosperous. Wouldn’t change a thing about my education.

  12. I am a recent WashU grad, so I may be a little biased, but…Doesn’t everyone in the academic community recognize WashU is a top 20 ranked school?

    I am from the East Coast, and I do realize that the prestige of WashU is forgotten sometimes in this area of the country. Nevertheless, it is an AWESOME school with AWESOME people, where everyone is happy. You can feel it in the air. Why trade that in simply for the Ivy name? In 10 years, I guarantee WashU will be comparable to any of the Ivys. The education I got there was unbeatable, and the best decision I ever made in my life.

  13. I would go with student’s choice as a father. If you don’t, you are arresting his development and making a very important decision for him. To prove you wrong he may not work as hard and take advantage of what Cornell has to offer. On the other hand, if you play your role right as a father, you can give him a chance to prove you wrong. Which would be great, because that means at the end student would prove that WUSTL was just right for him.

  14. My son just graduated from high school and is preparing to go off to college in the fall. He was accepted–with a nearly full-tuition merit scholarship and the promise of a research position with a faculty member as an undergraduate–to the prestigious university that my husband and I both attended. However, he has chosen to enroll at a different college–one that he feels will offer him the collegiate experience that he wants. We smiled and cheered when he made his final choice and never let on that we felt disappointed in any way, but his rejection of our university cut pretty deep (especially for my husband, because our son is planning to major in the same field and my husband had fantasies of reliving that shared experience with his son.)

    Could we have forced him to attend our alma mater? Absolutely. Our son felt horribly conflicted about turning it down, and just a few words from us would have made him run to the computer to accept that offer. But why would we do that? We aren’t going to college this time–HE is. This is his decision, and he needs to be in a place where he feels comfortable–academically, intellectually, socially and otherwise. We aren’t living his life–HE is. The Cornell dad would do well to remember that about his own children.

    And a side note to the Ivy League-obsessed dad: My husband used to work at a company where he was the director of a department. The employees under him included graduates of Harvard, MIT and Dartmouth. His boss–and the boss of the entire division? A graduate of the night school at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Once you get into the work force it doesn’t matter where you went to school–it matters what you can do. A degree from Cornell isn’t going to guarantee his children any special perks in life. Besides a sticker on their car windows, that is.

  15. Sounds much like my FIL with his children. Picked the school for them as well as the degree for his daughter (my wife). Ultimately she failed out and it wasn’t until after we were married 2000 miles away that she found a school she loved enough to finish.

    In contrast, my dad gave me something I’ve tried to pass to both my kids “it’s your life, I can’t live it for you.” While my daughter will start this fail at the same school I went to, it was purely her choice. We went to great lengths to ensure she visited multiple schools before deciding. My son who has a few years yet to decide, is still bouncing between what he wants to do, never mind the school. But we’ve emphasized to him that he must choose his own path and does not have to follow either his sister or me. Which right now seems to something between big game hunting guide, computer engineer, and Marine. 🙂

  16. As an MIT and Duke grad, I really love the experience that I had at both schools. One thing that I treasure about both experiences was that I grew as a person because the environments suited my interests and personality. I fully realize that although I want the best for my children that they are not a mini-me but rather independent, young adults that are engaged and pursuing their interests.

    Believe in your son and his ability to make his own choice; he’s showing self awareness and courage in letting dad know that four years at Wash U is a better option for him than 3 yrs at Cornell.

  17. Wash U opens as many doors as Cornell (it wasn’t always so, but it’s been the case for a good 10 years). In some circles, it’s actually more highly sought after and considered more reputable than Cornell. So, there won’t be any regret nor any trade off for your son. And he may well get a graduate degree from an Ivy League school later on. All and all, it sounds like the dad wishes he could have bragging rights, at the expense of his son’s satisfaction, and based on an outdated picture of college prestige.
    Also, the dad should realize that college success shouldn’t be taken for granted – and an unhappy student is rarely a successful student. So the student may trade Dean’s List at Wash U for a sub-3.0 at Cornell and potentially unauspicious behavior.
    In short, I do not see any positive outcome to “forcing” the son to switch.
    I do understand switching from U Wisconsin to Cornell, because Cornell will provide more “amenities”; it’ll offer more comfort as a private university than a public university can and more “door opening power” on a broader base. But there won’t be any difference for the son, only loss of comfort, loss of friends, uprooting, all for no gain whatsoever.

    Note: I think the “guaranteed transfer option” is also a way to placate alumni. It’s another form of admit/deny for families who are full-pay, it doesn’t sting as much as outright rejection so it saves the alumni donations, and it allows Cornell to play with numbers.
    However, Middlebury didn’t rise this way. It rose because it’s the #1 school in the country for foreign languages and related fields, and there are lots of bilingual or would-be bilingual kids who want to be immersed in other countries’ culture and top schools. BTW, it’s high now, but it’s always been very highly ranked.

  18. I am in complete agreement with the other comments made here. This is a time for your son to blossom and find his own way. Ultimately, I believe the college experience is more about what a student makes of it than where they go. Why make a kid who is thriving change schools, especially if he ides not want to? There are thousands of folks out there who are incredibly successful despite not having an Ivy League education on their resume. The Ivies may initially open doors, but seriously, Wash U. has it’s own prestige and will open other doors. So let this be and let this boy continue the path of success he has begun, he will be better for it and so will your father/son relationship, which is worth much!

  19. Forcing either of his children to transfer is a huge mistake and to do so would be controlling and unhealthy. Both are already attending fantastic schools and having great experiences. Why mess with a good thing? The only regret I see in the whole idea of forced transfer is the damage to the relationship between the father and his children.

  20. I don’t think this father realizes how lucky he is that both of his students were happy and thriving after their first year of college. I know so many families in which, sadly, that is not the case. Considering their son was unhappy in high school, I think it is a mistake for these parents to take their son’s contentment for granted. (I must point out that they are doing the same for their daughter.) College is not as carefree and delightful and sunny for all students as it appears in the glossy brochures.

    If the son goes to Cornell under duress, what are the odds that he will be as happy there, and — more important to his father than his happiness, apparently — that he will succeed there? He will only get that Ivy League degree if he actually graduates. What if he is miserable? How will the parents deal with that?

    My neighbor’s child went to one of our state schools, did very well there, and is now getting an Ivy League graduate degree on the school’s dime. I know several other students of whom the same is true.

    The dad says, “This college investment is what I have to offer my kids as a legacy.” But it does not sound like a legacy of love, given conditionally and without respect for the child’s individual wants and needs.

    I would tell this dad: Enjoy your alumni parent weekends with your daughter, and let your son blossom in his own wonderful school — not yours, not his sisters, but his. It sounds like he has already begun to do so. Be grateful, supportive, and proud.

  21. I have no words. I do not understand why parents seem to feel that an Ivy League college is the best place for their kids. He’s not attending the college, his son is. Let it go and be happy your son is thriving.

    1. The only words I have are: Does Dad realize that many people aren’t as impressed with his Cornell degree as he is?

  22. Dad, please don’t force your son to change schools. As parents we only want the best for our kids and its no doubt that our culture glorifies the name brand… but sometimes the best means we support our kids to find their happiness and confidence… because that is truly where success begins. I did not have an ivy league education… state school for both my husband and I, mostly because our parents couldn’t afford such a thing, back in the day. We both did okay, LOVED our college experience, made life long friends, worked hard in the outside world and have been successful. My friends who both graduated from a well known ivy league school, lived on the same block we did, (we had the larger home, btw and nicer cars)- if that matters. We have since moved to a much nicer neighborhood than my ivy league friends. They are successful in their own right as well but financially we have done better. Does a ivy league education make a difference, maybe? but it’s not a done deal. Washington University is a great school with a fine reputation. Your son’s happiness and confidence is much more important and not worth the risk that he will be miserable.

  23. If the son is happy and thriving at a school he loves, I personally feel its ridiculous to force him to leave and go to a school his DAD loves. While it’s very generous of his parents to pay for the son’s entire education, there is a time every parent must let go and allow their child to live his/her own life. For this father, I would say that time has passed.

    1. To me this is a no brainer. Wash U is easily the peer of Cornell and I can think of many circles in which it would be overall perhaps more highly regarded. As a college admissions consultant, I would urge this dad to recognize that his perception of Ivy League mystique is rapidly fading, and that any college is what the student makes of it. A happy student is always more successful in any endeavor; your son deserves to do what he wants to do; it will be a better tuition investment all the way around. .