November 8, 2015

BHOWMICK | Why Should I Give Back?

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“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” — Maya Angelou

Yet, every time we are asked to give, we feel unsettled. At Cornell, student leaders are constantly battling, working with and against the administration with respect to the rising costs of tuition. An Ivy League education is expensive, despite the number of generous endowed scholarships, grants, need-based, need-blind or merit-based financial aid. The cost of private higher education is going up faster than inflation. In this environment, maintaining a sense of “any person, any study” at Cornell is, to say the least, a challenge. The classroom experience in private higher education in the United States is constantly moving towards the cutting edge of sophistication and best-in-class research and faculty resources. The challenge administrators at Cornell have is how to maintain the admirable value of a Cornell education and still make it available for students who are ambitious enough to take on the Cornell challenge?

A pertinent question to ask is, how are our peer institutions doing it? Well, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, Penn, Brown and Columbia all have a higher University endowment per student ratio than Cornell. Despite our endowment being lower than other Ivy League institutions, students paying full tuition at Cornell are only paying approximately 60 percent of the actual cost of their education, with gifts from alumni, parents and friends, young and old, playing a critical role in subsidizing the difference. On top of that, about half of Cornell students receive some form of financial aid, thanks in part to gifts ranging from five dollars to many millions.

Last year, 32 percent of Cornell seniors gave back to Cornell compared to 90 percent of seniors at Penn. Are we less grateful for the incredible and often life-changing opportunities we have received at Cornell compared to Penn students? Increasing tuition costs are a problem everywhere, but they also mean increasing financial aid costs. At Cornell, the actual cost of attendance for most income levels has actually decreased over the last decade thanks to expanding financial aid programs, which rely on alumni support.

A small contribution from each senior is an indication that we care about Cornell. We care about what happens to Cornell after we graduate. We care about the issues we raised while we were on campus and we will continue to care after graduation. I guess the dialogue I am initiating in this column goes beyond giving back to Cornell financially and speaks to a larger question — what kind of alumnus or alumna do you want to be? One who cares about what happens to the place where it all started? Or one who remembers Cornell as some distant memory buried in the past?

Many people bring up that we are students, so we cannot afford to give back just yet. But gifts to Cornell under $500 add up to millions of dollars each year. If every senior gave a gift — let’s say $20.16 — we can have a major impact on the programs, departments and organizations we support. Seniors can choose where to direct their gifts in order to support what means the most to them, whether it’s their college, a department, student life and organizations, Cornell Outdoor Education, the library, athletics, financial aid or the Cornell Annual Fund, which provides support where the need is greatest. Gifts can even be made in honor of an individual, like a favorite faculty or staff member.

We do have a cost issue in private higher education today, and yes, there is always room for improvement at our own alma mater. One way we can be part of the solution is to pay it forward for future generations like alumni have done for us. Without generations of alumni support, we would not have the opportunities we have at Cornell. Going back to Maya Angelou’s quote, with which I started this op-ed, I do honestly believe that I have received a lot from Cornell, and I will give back in my own way. I do believe in the enormous strength of the ripple effect. If anything I said resonates with you, do give back to your class campaign before you graduate in a way that is meaningful to you. If not, I hope future generations will have a more fulfilling experience than you did at Cornell and our contributions will help shape that experience.  As Khalil Gibran once said, “Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.” A truly engaged person understands that identifying the problem is easy, but the challenge lies in honestly caring about it.

Aditi Bhowmick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Abstruse Musings appears alternate Mondays this semester. She may be reached at