Balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities and some semblance of a social life at Cornell is hard for any student. Adding 10-12 hours of paid work each week places a significant burden on even the most organized undergrads.
Nearly half of Cornell undergraduates (49 percent) received need-based financial aid, with an average grant of $17,292 in 2004-2005. Students were then asked to come up with, on average, another $11,000 through loans or work. These numbers, coming from Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis, reflect the tremendous financial burden that rests on many students that sit in your classes, participate in your clubs and live in your dorms.
“We need to provide enough money for students to be here, but not a single dollar more,” Keane said of the tight financial aid budget.
Earning Their Keep
Freshmen are expected to earn $1,800 as part of their aid package, an amount that rises to $2,000 annually for upperclassmen. Whatever is not met by salaries must be covered by loans or outside scholarships. Students usually put in 10 hours per week, according to Keane’s estimate.
There is also a summer employment requirement for students entering Cornell with a financial aid package. Incoming freshmen are expected to earn $2,060 by the time they move in in August, an amount Keane admits “absolutely is a stretch.”
About 500 students each year ask for a Summer Savings Expectation Adjustment because their summer jobs or internships did not cover the earnings expectation. As with academic year adjustments, the gap between money earned and money needed is filled by a loan.
Cornell’s self-help level of $11,000 is more than twice the average of other Ivy League schools, Keane said, estimating that peer schools usually expect $5,000 from loans and work.
Cornell’s large size and relatively small endowment are factors that force the University to rely so much on student income and debt. To reduce the self-help level by just $1,000 per student would cost Cornell $2.8 million.
“We can’t afford to make that jump,” Keane said.
Not only can the University not afford to pay for a decrease in students’ self-help level, but many departments do not have the money to pay full student salaries. They often rely on students with Federal Work-Study (FWS) because the government pays half of the wages.
The history department, for example, “strongly suggests that a student be work-study eligible to work in the office,” said Maggie Edwards, undergraduate coordinator for the department. “This isn’t our only deciding factor when hiring students, but it certainly doesn’t hurt,” she said.
At the university libraries, FWS is “preferred, but not by any means required,” according to Lyndsi Prignon, human resources manager for the libraries.
The libraries employ nearly 500 students annually, most of whom work between 8 and 10 hours per week.
Alison Auriemmo ’06, lead manager on duty at the Straight, attributes her success in finding a job to her financial aid situation. A Cornell Tradition fellow, half of her wages are subsidized by the Tradition endowment.
“If I didn’t have Tradition it would have been really hard for me to find a job on campus,” Auriemmo said. She works 10-12 hours per week and is restricted to hiring other Tradition fellows or students with FWS or COSEP (Committee on Special Education Projects) funding.
Keane admitted that FWS students (or those with similar pay-sharing programs) are often favored. “Most departments would take the work-study student over the non work-study student,” he said. “My experience has been that in getting a job, non work-study students are not at a disadvantage. In getting a specific job, they might be.”
Josh Katcher ’06, a student-elected trustee who oversaw a review of non-mandatory fees last year, said students who work are at a disadvantage.
“There are two tiers of students – those who can afford the whole Cornell experience, and those who can’t,” he said. For those who must work, “it can take away from your ability to have a social life.”
But Prignon disagreed, saying that student employees do not have to struggle to finish schoolwork and find downtime.
“There are enough hours in the day to work and build your skills as a student and an employee and still have your social life,” she said.
Hannah Marcus ’06, who currently works in Collegetown but used to work at the Cornell Cinema office and WSH ticket desk, said she had to find new employment because 16 hours on campus did not fit into her class schedule anymore. Her current job is closer to where she lives but sometimes requires up to 20 hours per week, including evenings.
Marcus said she cannot socialize as much as she would like because of her job.
“Of course working affects my social life. But if I don’t work, I don’t have the money to drink anyway,” she said.
A Freer Market
Despite perceived limitations on the availability of jobs for students without FWS, Cornell’s student employment system is more than competitive with other schools in upstate New York.
At Ithaca College, students who are expected to work for financial aid reasons are assigned to Dining Services for their freshman year. Upperclassmen can choose their own jobs.
Students who do not qualify for aid at Ithaca College might find the job hunt a little harder.
“First-time student employees who have not applied for financial aid must wait until October 1st to obtain a position,” states the Student Employment website. At Cornell, on the other hand, students can begin their job searches even before they come to campus.
At SUNY Binghamton, students who are not eligible for FWS but want on-campus employment are restricted to a group of jobs that are also open to more attractive FWS students.
And SUNY Cortland students can be paid as little as $5.15 per hour, although the university “encourages” minimum wages of $6.00. Cornell’s wage scale ranges from $6.75 to $16.00 for highly skilled jobs that are often saved for graduate students.
Keane is proud of what he called Cornell’s “free market” approach to student employment because students can find the jobs that best fit them and receive a structured wage increase as they become more experienced.
Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor