When was Cornell Founded?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

View of Cornell University building.

When was Cornell Founded?

When was Cornell founded? On April 27, 1865, the New York State Senate passed a law designating Cornell University as the state’s land grant institution, leading to the establishment of the university. Senator Ezra Cornell donated the use of his property in Ithaca, New York, as a location for the institution, and a personal endowment of half a million dollars.

Andrew Dickson White, a fellow senator and seasoned educator, consented to be the university’s first president. During the subsequent three years, White supervised the construction of the university’s first two buildings. He also traveled the world to recruit students and staff.

On October 7, 1868, the university opened its doors to its first class, which consisted of 412 male students. Two years later, in 1870, Cornell became the first school in what would later become known as the Ivy League to open its doors to female students, making it a coeducational institution. The faculty included eminent figures in the scientific community such as Louis Agassiz and James Crafts.

Cornell was founded to offer students a diverse educational experience and to advance knowledge in fields benefiting society. The study of agriculture evolved organically at the school due to its location in a region rich in agricultural, conservation, and recreational opportunities. Additionally, it established the first university publishing firm in the United States, which remains one of the most successful publishing companies in the country today.

Cornell signage placed near the entrance of a school.

During the 20th century, Cornell experienced substantial growth, resulting in an increase in the student population, which now exceeds 20,000. As the student body grew, so did the faculty; by the end of the century, the institution had more than 3,400 teaching staff members. In tandem with its expanding student body, Cornell University broadened its range of academic programs. The institution now offers more than 4,000 classes across a diverse range of academic disciplines.

The 2000s saw an expansion of Cornell’s overseas programs. The Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, established in 2001, was the first American medical school to be located outside of the United States. The university continues to build connections with key institutions in the People’s Republic of China, India, and Singapore. The academic institution even claims the title of “the first multinational university.”

What is Cornell Known for?

Cornell University is often perceived as having more “relaxed” academic standards compared to other members of the Ivy League. However, it’s essential to note that each school and college within the university has its own admissions process and requirements.

Specialized educational institutions generally seek students who are involved in focused and relevant extracurricular activities. However, the academic requirements for admission to the College of Engineering are among the most stringent, on par with those of other Ivy League institutions.

View of Cornell University building.

At Cornell, students have the opportunity to study under renowned faculty members, including Nobel laureates, MacArthur fellows, and Pulitzer Prize winners. They can also choose from more than 120 minors and 80 majors.

Prospective students must submit their applications to one of Cornell’s individual schools or colleges rather than to the university as a whole. The following colleges are open to undergraduate applications:

  • College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • College of Architecture, Art, and Planning
  • College of Arts and Sciences
  • Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (comprising the School of Hotel Administration and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management)
  • College of Engineering
  • College of Human Ecology
  • School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR)

Transferring within the university is possible, but it requires undergoing a comprehensive application process and meeting additional criteria. Nevertheless, students are still able to enroll in classes offered by other schools within the university.

Cornell is renowned for various programs, including engineering, architecture, and hotel management. Notably, the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell is the only U.S. program offering a full four-year study in hotel management.

Some students pursue concurrent degrees across multiple schools within the university. To do this, students must already be enrolled in one college and meet the prerequisites for both programs. This option isn’t available at every college within the university. For instance, a student might pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Arts and Sciences and a Bachelor of Science degree from the College of Engineering. Completing multiple degrees simultaneously often extends the study to five years.

Additional dual-degree options exist, such as the Five-Year MBA Program in partnership with the Johnson Graduate School of Management. Participants can earn both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA in just five years.

Many Cornell students pursue further education in law, medical, or veterinary schools. Cornell stands out as one of the few universities in the U.S. with its own veterinary school. The university offers advising resources and pathways for students aiming for these professional schools.

Over a third of Cornell’s undergraduates participate in international programs. Opportunities include Cornell Global Programs, college exchanges with prestigious institutions abroad, faculty-led programs during winter and summer, and approved programs at universities outside of Cornell.

The acceptance rate for Fulbright applicants at Cornell University is one in four, surpassing the national average of one in six.


Cornell, having a deep reverence for tradition, has been around for more than 150 years, giving it ample time to cultivate a rich tapestry of unique customs, some quite unconventional.

Since its founding, one of the most prominent traditions at Cornell is Dragon Day, celebrated annually around St. Patrick’s Day. During this event, first-year architecture students parade a massive dragon, which they design and build, across the campus. Alongside the dragon, a group of architecture students in quirky costumes can be seen. Engineering students, traditionally seen as competitors to architecture students, often jest at the dragon.

Another cherished tradition is Slope Day. On the final day of classes, a celebration occurs on the picturesque Libe Slope, featuring live music and various other forms of entertainment.

Extracurricular Activities

With access to over a thousand extracurricular activities, clubs, and student groups, Cornell University students can easily find opportunities that align with their passions and interests.

Over sixty percent of these extracurriculars are related to Greek life. Over thirty percent of Cornell undergraduates participate in the school’s Greek community throughout their tenure, making the numerous fraternity and sorority chapters a significant facet of the student experience.

Young woman painting in a room.

In terms of membership, Cornell University’s Greek community ranks among the largest in the United States. The more than 50 fraternity and sorority houses on campus house approximately 1,500 of the over 4,000 students affiliated with these organizations.

The outdoor education program stands out as one of the most prominent extracurricular activities at Cornell and is considered among the best of its kind in the U.S.

Cornell boasts 37 varsity sports teams, with the men’s ice hockey team being the most renowned and popular. The Big Red competes in NCAA Division I, the Ivy League, and the ECAC, which includes 12 teams. Notably, they are the only NCAA team to have ever completed a season undefeated and have clinched two NCAA national championships. Furthermore, Cornell has won the ECAC Championship 12 times and the Ivy League Championship 24 times, ranking them just behind Harvard.

What Majors is Cornell Known for?

Cornell was founded with a commitment to academic excellence. Nearly eighty formal major subjects are available to students, along with rigorous dual-degree programs and a vast array of interdisciplinary majors that transcend traditional departmental boundaries. The following are some of Cornell University’s most prominent areas of study:

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers are often described as entrepreneurs, creators, and innovators. They not only design but also build structures like roller coasters, bridges, dams, and sound stages for rock acts. They devise intricate systems such as transportation and water supply networks, as well as information systems for the design and management of engineering projects. Additionally, they design hazardous waste remediation projects, water treatment systems, and other infrastructure to protect the environment.


Majors in economics can explore various subfields, including economic theory, econometrics, money and banking, international economics, economic history, growth and development, and industrial organization. There’s also the emerging discipline of behavioral economics, which enriches economic analyses with insights from psychology. Students can also participate in an innovative seminar that fosters collaboration between economists and psychologists.

Biology & Society

This interdisciplinary major allows students to merge biological sciences with courses probing the social and ethical implications of modern biology. Besides a foundational understanding of biology, students gain insights into the social dimensions of contemporary biological issues and the biological aspects of modern societal challenges. Both College of Arts and Sciences and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students can enroll. It’s an ideal major for those aiming for careers in law, medicine, public health, public policy, business, research, or academia.

Agricultural Sciences

With the world rapidly evolving, food and agriculture are at the forefront of pressing global issues. Future farmers, policymakers, corporate leaders, innovators, and educators will shape the trajectory of agriculture. Cornell consistently ranks among the top five universities for agricultural sciences. The Agricultural Sciences significant offers concentrations in animal science, business management, and policy, education and society, organic agriculture, and sustainable cropping systems management. Through this program, students understand agricultural systems and related environmental, and socio-economic challenges. They participate in practical lab and field courses, gaining hands-on experience.

Three students lounging on a bench.


Sociology majors at Cornell focus on core sciences and delve deep into public and educational policies. Research areas include gender, racial and income inequalities, drug use, economic development, and organizational practices. The program equips students with advanced research skills in both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, ensuring they have a solid sociological foundation.


Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) emphasizes creative and critical design practices focusing on sustainable impact. They champion a design process driven by creative experimentation and iterative analysis. The undergraduate and graduate programs are structured to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and provide an integrated base in global history, theory, environmental systems, building technologies, and visual representation.


Communication has been a cornerstone of social sciences study at Cornell since its inception. In the Department of Communication, students learn to understand diverse audiences, craft messages, and engage with people and technologies. The field views communication as an interpersonal process to influence individuals within various social contexts. With the advent of information technologies, communication has evolved, and as a Communication student, one gains a deep understanding of the theories and methodologies of social sciences while also having opportunities to conduct grounded, empirical research on pressing social challenges.

How Hard is it to Get Into Cornell?

Cornell University’s admissions process is notably competitive. Reflecting on the university’s foundational history, for the class of 2023, Cornell received a whopping 49,114 applications. Of these, only 5,330 were accepted, translating to an admissions rate of 10.9%. The early decision program garnered 6,150 applications, with an acceptance rate of 22.7%—meaning 1,397 applicants were granted admission through this process.

Young woman smiling in front of the camera.

Of the total applications, 42,956 applied through the regular decision process. Yet, merely 3,933 were accepted, resulting in an admissions rate of 9.16%. A comparative analysis of the admissions rates for early decision versus regular decision suggests that applicants have a higher likelihood of acceptance when applying through the early decision route.


Cornell’s founding invites us to explore the establishment of an institution that revolutionized higher education in the United States. Cornell University, located in Ithaca, New York, was founded with the unique vision of creating an inclusive and comprehensive university that would cater to various fields of study.

Founded in an era when higher education was restricted to the privileged, Cornell’s inception marked a commitment to provide education to all students, regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic background.

If you want to learn more about how Cornell was founded, or if you need help putting the finishing touches on your college applications,  at AdmissionSight, we have over 10 years of experience guiding students through the competitive admissions process.

AdmissionSight can help you put your best foot forward when applying to college this fall. Contact us today for more information on our services.


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