March 1, 2018

DANBERG BIGGS | This Week I’m Just Writing About Rent

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There’s a column out there, if someone can find it in them to write it, that rails against Cornell for increasing tuition by another 3.75%. It calls out the total absence of moral leadership in American universities that allows skyrocketing costs to be an immutable reality, and implores the student body to take a stand. Hopefully it points out that the $10 million increase in financial aid promised for next year is accompanied by about a $13 million increase in sum tuition for the nearly 50% of students who rely on financial aid. And if we’re lucky, it will mock Provost Kotlikoff’s absurd posturing that claimed to have “augment[ed] Cornell’s commitment to increasing the socio-economic diversity of its student body.” The generations who paid for debt-free school with loose change and a summer lifeguard job will quickly comment that the author is ungrateful and foolish, and the cycle will repeat.  That column should be written, but I don’t have it in me this week. I’m just trying to take out a loan.

Each semester I’ve had at Cornell has begun with a trip to Day Hall, and a unique sort of anxiety that I don’t really find anywhere else. I go for the semi-annual conversation in which we sort out if, and how, I will be able to pay for another a semester. I walk in certain of how much my family has to offer this time, and weighed down by the knowledge that, truthfully, I would accept whatever interest rate they offer to cover the rest of it. From there we cobble together a semester out of aid, loans and payment plans.

This week, though, I’ve realized that our original plan won’t quite cut it. Occasionally this will happen — expenses arise unexpectedly, and suddenly there are several months of rent, food and tuition that aren’t quite accounted for. And so, I march back into Day Hall to try to borrow a bit more.

These meetings don’t bring the standard order stress that comes from a crowded schedule or an important exam. That anxiety is rooted in the manageable worry that I won’t be able to do something that is expected of me. Instead, my visits to Cornell’s Financial Aid and Bursar offices bring the overwhelming feeling that I’m losing control.

By this I mean two things. First, when you add to your debt, it carries the undeniable sense that you’re sacrificing some piece of your future self. At some unknown moment in the future, whether it’s when you search for a job or buy a home, you will have your choices bound by a debt incurred years earlier.

Student loans are unlike other types of debt. Business, home and auto loans are often incurred through a rational choice weighing the benefits of immediate capital against the costs of future constraints. In the case of student debt, however, no such calculus meaningfully exists. I opted into my first loan package when, at 17, I was presented with a handful of schools that all required similar amount of borrowing. Since then I have re-upped these loans every year, in ever-increasing amounts, because opting into the second, third and fourth years at a school is not nearly as free a choice as the first. Nor is opting out of college, given our unforgiving, rapidly-evolving economy.

This first anxiety can hollow out my day-to-day. Accolades and achievements feel half-earned and ultimately inconsequential because they seem like a borrowed success. Whatever I might do today won’t matter tomorrow when someone comes back to collect. I’m suddenly weighed down by a grating sense of forced pragmatism, that dangerous idea that there’s no room for risk and creativity when repayment is waiting just around the corner.

The second part of this anxiety is a creeping sense of lost agency. Maybe the greatest gift that comes with being a student is that so much of our successes and failures are determined by the work we do. From coursework to extracurriculars, we are handed the rare space to structure our lives around a set of passion projects, to drive towards outcomes that are largely governed by our own actions. That illusion dissipates very quickly when I am confronted with a demand for money that I don’t have.

It’s in these moments when Cornell is thoroughly ordinary. Rather than being a refuge from a world in which ambition is secondary to circumstance, the University is exposed to be just another place where wealth structures permeate. Money once again builds walls around my perception of what’s possible. The grade I got the day before, and the hours of studying over the weekend, won’t be counted against my outstanding balance.

It’s in these moments, too, that my life feels absolutely fraudulent. I go to school surrounded by some of the wealthiest people in the country, a group insulated by financial security and endowed with a phenomenal array of life choices. After four years, I should say that this includes some of my closest friends. Yet sitting in a cubicle in the Bursar’s office, again across from a woman whose name I wish I did not know, I am reminded of the distance between us.

The result is that during weeks like this, I walk around with an unfair and unpleasant resentment of much of the school around me. I hurl stones at Cornell’s unflinching bureaucratic facade, wishing that it would show some creativity and courage; I disengage from classes that now feel insignificant; and I’m truly ashamed to say, I feel angry with my friends and classmates whose financial privilege allows them to simply attend and not worry.

I don’t say any of this because I believe it is the right way to feel. There is, of course, not a single person on this campus who deserves any kind of antipathy solely because of their parents’ wealth. But in this country, we expect education to be a great equalizer. As the narrative goes, our universities carve out corners of society where only skill and ambition matter, and all else gets to be momentarily equal. Yet even with the vast privilege that my identity affords, my tenure has involved periods of acute isolation from a University that I really do love. In so many ways, from race to gender to class, universities like Cornell foster an unequal and alienating studenthood. This week, I don’t have solutions; I did have a meeting yesterday, though, and it looks like I’ll get the money I need to graduate. That’s good, I guess.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at The Common Table appears alternate Fridays this semester.