Recent student-run crowdfunding campaigns to finance University tuition have attracted the attention of many in the Cornell community and raised questions about the necessity of change in the school’s financial aid system.
Most recently, following the success of Jonah Hephzibah ’16, Nikolai Lumpkins ’18 took to the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe in hopes of raising $25,000 for tuition in order to remain enrolled at Cornell. As of Tuesday night, Lumpkins’ campaign has raised nearly $6,000.
Originally anticipating “average” reactions, Lumpkins said he was surprised at the strength of the responses he received, both positive and negative, when he made his online page.
“There’s so much animosity and so much support,” he said. “I guess both extremes happen when you put something like this on the Internet.”
Lumpkins said his father and mother divorced when he was one year old, and that his father did not respond to him when he requested his father’s tax information for his financial aid application.
Lumpkins said he reached out to the Office of Financial Aid prior to the start of the semester to discuss the removal of a noncustodial parent from his financial records at school.
“Financial Aid was so dodgy,” he said about the response he received at the time.
Later, after the start of the semester, he learned about a noncustodial waiver petition form of which his counselors over the summer did not mention, he said. By that time, the deadline for the waiver’s approval had since passed.
“[This] is definitely an issue within the system,” Lumpkins said. “I don’t feel any animosity towards the school, however I do believe the financial aid system needs to be revised.”
Movement for Change
Juliana Batista ’16, president of the Student Assembly, described recent crowdfunding efforts as the result of “an issue that needs to be taken up at the University level.”
“Not that it’s the job of the Financial Aid [Office] to ‘hand-hold,’ but [the University] needs to be cognizant about the mental pressures on students and to have an understanding of what students need in order to help them with their situations,” Batista said.
Batista said this issue is also occurring at the national level in colleges across the country, adding that she and John Lowry ’16, the president of the Class of 2016, are working on initiatives to tackle this problem.
“We’re looking for solutions to alleviate the cost of financial aid and also to make going through Financial Aid less emotionally tolling on students,” said Batista.
Lowry described his impression of the crowdfunding pages as “a final cry for help.”
“GoFundMe only helps people who sign up for it,” Lowry said. “It is not a long term solution, and it is not equitable in the sense that people who also may need it may not feel comfortable reaching out for it.”
Toward A More Flexible System
Lowry said there needs to be more sustainable solutions designed to alleviate the stress placed on students.
“I think there is a logic behind the way Financial Aid works, but what we’re finding is that it is not adjusting to specific issues,” he said. “It could be more flexible.”
The initiatives underway will attempt to adjust the Financial Aid system to cater more directly to students, according to Lowry.
“It is not a matter of payment, but more a matter of how smooth the process is,” he said. “A large portion of that is helping students understand how they can pay in a more simplified manner in layman’s terms, outside of a counselor’s office.”
He also emphasized the emotional components of the financial aid process, describing money as just one of the items of baggage that handicaps students.
“There needs to be a more organized and structured manner [so] people who need it can get it,” he said. “Within the larger context, these students [require] emotional support, so there [has] to be more understanding within the system itself for specific cases.”
Lowry suggested making more digestible resources available to students, so they know what to expect before going into the financial aid office.
“There are three simultaneous projects we are working on,” said Lowry about the initiatives. “Out of respect for the administrators with whom we wish to discuss these plans, we will release more information about [the initiatives] after administrators have received a first courtesy notice, as they will be instrumental in this process.”
Grants from the University
In response to the growing debate about the school’s financial aid system, Gretchen Ryan ‘97, associate director of Financial Aid, said, “Cornell University makes admissions decisions without regard to the ability of students or parents to pay educational costs.”
In her statement, she said that the university prioritizes need-based financial aid to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and provides a limited amount of aid for international and undocumented students.
“Cornell spends about $235 million each year on Cornell grant aid for undergraduates that directly benefits students and provides access to a Cornell education,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s response was the only statement the University will provide on the issue, according to University spokesperson John Carberry.