August 26, 2013

GLICK: Preserving The College Experience

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The streets of Collegetown are once again alive with roaming herds of freshmen, and the week-long slog of tepid recitations about our less-than-thrilling summer internships is, blessedly, almost over. As Orientation Week comes to a close, we have hopefully welcomed our newest Cornellians into the cherished embrace of the “college experience.” It’s this “experience” — whatever exactly that may mean — that defines, in a fundamental way, these four years of our lives. We bask in the glow of our own institutional successes; the students at the world’s thirteenth-best university, reading the country’s best collegiate newspaper, have a reason to celebrate in the shadow of yet another round of campus construction projects.

At the outset of this school year, we like to think of ourselves as vibrant, full of the unbridled possibilities of college. But this magical chapter of our lives does not exist in an idyllic vacuum between Dunbar’s and the Oxley Equestrian Center. As we return to Cornell, hopeful and ambitious, we must pay attention to events, striking closer to Ithaca than we may have expected, that show us how very fragile — and, to a certain extent, untenable — this “college experience” is.

Last week, President Obama, no longer tied to a travel schedule drawn on an electoral map, ventured into the Democratic bastion of the Empire State to tout his new education plan. The President, perhaps intimidated by our “We Didn’t Go to Harvard” cheers, did not ascend far above Cayuga’s waters; he did, however, visit SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Binghamton, thus bringing a sense of urgency to all the New York students who are unused to the attention that swing-state colleges receive. His message was clear: Our “college experience” is in danger.

During the summer, Congress passed (and President Obama signed) a bill that lowered student loan rates and tied the cost of borrowing to the state of financial markets. In sum, student loan rates will remain low so long as the economy fails to pick up steam; if current trends continue, however, and the economy booms, working-class families will pay the price as interest rates rise. While this attempt to fix the student loan crisis is perhaps the best that can be hoped for from this paralyzed Congress, it is nothing compared to a guaranteed, fixed-rate program that would help finance our nation’s future. Alas, most members of Congress would prefer to talk about Edward Snowden.

At the center of this crisis is the President himself. Unable to push a progressive education through the House of Representatives, he has taken his case to the American people. The center of his proposal, as outlined in his visits to the SUNY schools, amounts to a fundamental realignment of how colleges ought to be judged. He criticized college rating systems — such as the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings over which Cornellians are celebrating — because they are not sufficiently tied to the affordability of the offered education. His proposal, which would still need to weather the ingrained misanthropy of Congress, would seek to rate colleges on criteria such as tuition, student debt and the financial diversity of the campus. This new rating system would, according to the President, soon translate into a new system of federal aid in which colleges that have proven themselves to be affordable receive a larger chunk of taxpayer benefits.

The spark of innovation behind the President’s proposal is that he would seek to tie a successful “college experience” to universities that have, first and foremost, demonstrated an ability to provide an effective education at a reasonable price. Success would be rewarded, creating a virtuous cycle that would lower the cost prohibitiveness of higher education. This may upend the reign of universities that have achieved prestige without tackling the economic imbalance of their campuses. This noble principle, which ought remind Cornellians of our “any person, any study” motto, brings us back to the overarching quest for a “college experience.”

If the profit-based status quo of higher education remains intact, the “college experience” will be defined by exclusive, rather than inclusive, criteria. In an era of tuition hikes and ever-expanding University bureaucracy, how can we, as students, be sure that we are celebrating Cornell for the right reasons? Once on the Hill, it is tempting to forget the formidable economic hurdles that each of us have overcome to get here, and that have kept so many others from joining us. O Week parties, first days of classes, late-night runs to CTB: all these treasured aspects of life at Cornell are meaningless if they are too defined by the personal wealth of those students who can enjoy them. If the gulf between collegiate dreams and economic realities continues to decimate this important facet of the American Dream, then each of our “college experiences” will be fundamentally cheapened.

We students must answer the call to action that President Obama issued not an hour’s drive from Ho Plaza. We must lobby the administration to ensure that the University’s ranking will only improve if we are judged not by the fame of our faculty, but by the affordability of their lectures.

Jacob Glick is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jglick@cornellsun.com. Glickin’ It appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Glick