For a University founded on the principle of “any person, any study,” Cornell is greatly lacking in economic diversity, ranking among the most financially exclusive institutions in the country.
According to a recent report in Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a monthly newsletter focusing on issues of education and accessibility, enrollment of Pell Grant recipients at Cornell has declined by over 25 percent since 2000 while the number of grant recipients across the country has increased by almost 40 percent. These numbers, PEO editor Tom Mortenson said, are a clear indicator that the University has been “fighting the demographic tide.”
While the number of students eligible for Pell Grants across the country has increased, indicating a growing number of low-income college applicants, enrollment of these students in many of America’s top-ranked universities, including Cornell, has conversely not risen.
U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Jane Glickman said this is due to the high tuition rates at many of these schools. Even with Pell Grants, which only cover a small fraction of attendance costs, poor students often cannot afford expensive degrees from the country’s “best” institutions.
Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships, said one reason for the large decrease in Pell Grant recipients at Cornell was a change in the formula used by the Department of Education to calculate financial aid. With the new formula, many students at the margin receiving small grants were cut off, he said.
“This answer is technically correct,” said Mortenson. “But it is also true that colleges hide behind these technical arguments.”
Instead blaming a deeply-rooted class-based education system in the Northeast, Mortenson said Cornell exacerbates the problem of financial disparity in the U.S. by discouraging poor students away from a quality education. He said that with high tuition rates and sub-par financial aid, the University effectively excludes many would-be applicants from low-income families.
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org, an organization designed to inform students about the financial aid process, said many college students next year will not get any help from government aid either thanks to Congressional budget cuts for the Pell Grant program.
Despite an overall increase in the program’s budget, enabling the Department of Education to offer larger grants to current recipients, proposed changes to expand coverage to more students will not happen. So while those falling under the current income threshold will benefit from a slight increase in tuition assistance, most students will have to continue finding other ways to pay the bills.
Addressing challenges created for Cornellians by shortcomings in government aid and increasing tuition prices, the University recently finalized a new financial aid initiative for next year. The new program will spend an additional $14 million annually to replace some students’ need-based loans with Cornell grants, helping to decrease student debt.
‘It’s good but it’s not the best out there,” Kantrowitz said.
Research by PEO indicates that some top universities are actually attracting more students from low-income families by offering competitive aid packages. Among these institutions, Harvard has increased the number of Pell Grant recipients by the highest amount, over 100 percent, in the past seven years.
Such changes in university policies are critical to ensure greater equality in American society, said Mortenson. Current aid programs at prestigious schools like Cornell are limiting the best educations to the wealthiest students, “performing socially destructive goals, enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor.”