January 24, 2011

Scholarship Opportunities Missed for Disadvantaged Students

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Following a 41.7 percent drop in enrollment from 2000 to 2010, Cornell’s Higher Education Opportunity Program now has its lowest enrollment since the program’s inception in 1969, according to data The Sun obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. Although a decline in public funding for HEOP reduced the number of available scholarships, Cornell’s New York State Opportunity Programs Director William Horning said HEOP’s steep enrollment drop-off was primarily caused by Cornell’s failure to recruit enough students. For the 2010-11 academic calendar, HEOP enrolled 56 students for 85 state-funded slots.Along with the Educational Opportunity Program, which provides the same service for Cornell’s contract colleges, HEOP offers a path to Cornell’s private colleges for low-income students who could not gain admission under the University’s normal academic standards. Going beyond Cornell’s financial aid programs, EOP and HEOP — jointly known as H/EOP — extend an educational lifeline to students “whose past educational experiences and deprived life circumstances” hampered them from realizing their potential in high school, according to the program’s state charter. Enrollment in EOP has decreased by 12 percent from 2000 to 2010, a decline Horning attributed largely to a sharp rise of enrollment in 2008, when EOP enrolled 18 more students than the state had funding for. The over-enrollment led Cornell to allow fewer students into the program in subsequent years, he said. Data on EOP’s enrollment prior to 2000 was not available for this story. Students and alumni of HEOP lamented the recent enrollment figures, arguing that HEOP’s decline would reduce Cornell’s economic diversity.President of the African Latino Asian Native American Programming Board and EOP student Antonia Singleton ’11 said H/EOP’s “drastically declining” enrollment meant fewer “inner city students” and more students from wealthier neighborhoods would come to Cornell.

She added the program’s decline especially changes the “demographics of minority students,” from “those [minorities] who can afford to be here [to] those who can’t.”

Affirming Cornell’s commitment to the HEOP program, Horning said “a lot of things” were responsible for Cornell’s failure to fill 29 — more than one-third — of the allotted scholarship positions. He cited poor matriculation rates and frequent H/EOP personnel turnover as two key factors.“As with any student who comes here, [HEOP students] have the decision to come or not come …. Not all the students we offered [to enroll] came,” Horning said, adding that the funding for last year’s 29 unfilled scholarships was returned to the state. Student Assembly Minority Representative Roneal Desai ’13, who is also on the Joint Assemblies Multicultural Issues Committee, said he was “personally saddened” by the decline of HEOP enrollment because HEOP is an “absolutely necessary program that allows Cornell to offer students an opportunity to succeed they wouldn’t otherwise have.”HEOP alumnus Nicholas Diaz ’10 said he and his friends “noticed a lot less students going into” HEOP while at Cornell, and that, to his disappointment, “every year the numbers would dwindle and the venues got smaller and smaller.”Diaz said in the aftermath of the economic crisis he “felt the priorities of the University shifting” toward accepting more students “who can pay.”  “Now that the program is shrinking, it seems like people in it are not going to feel as supported or included in the University,” Diaz said.  Although Cornell pays for “the bulk” of H/EOP students’ tuition costs, Tom Keane, director of Cornell’s financial aid office, said the University would have covered the cost for the 85 scholarship positions had they been filled.Barbara Knuth, vice provost and dean of the graduate school, noted that HEOP students “are being supported to a strong degree by Cornell dollars,” especially given the new financial aid initiative guaranteeing grants for families with incomes under $60,000.Knuth said Cornell is “working to develop new recruitment strategies” for attracting HEOP students. She added that the University was focusing on working with “community-based organizations” and at improving communication between Cornell’s Admissions Office, Cornell Financial Aid and the New York State Opportunity Programs.“We are doing things to try to right this ship … and increase enrollment,” Horning said. Yet even if HEOP filled all 85 slots, the program would still have enrolled fewer students than in the past. The Sun’s FOIL request — which came after Horning’s NYSOP office denied multiple requests for the data — revealed that HEOP enrollment has fallen steadily from the 1980s and 1990s, when the program consistently enrolled around 100 students every year.Horning said this more gradual decline, and the reduction of funded scholarships, was caused by another persistent problem for NYSOP: maintaining sufficient funding with an increasingly grim state budget outlook. Horning said that HEOP has “been feeling the pressure for funding” since former Governor George Pataki’s first term, when Pataki unsuccessfully proposed to eliminate the program. In the middle of the 2009-2010 academic year, New York State cut $40,000, or 12 percent, of HEOP’s funding, according to data obtained by The Sun. Horning said Cornell was “very supportive” in “supplementing what we were doing with University dollars.”Still, Horning said this cut had scaled back the size of the program.“With the economic downturn, each year we feel [the pressure] a little more and more,” Horning said, adding NYSOP is “waiting to see” the details of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget, to be released Feb. 1.Cornell State Legislative Associate in Albany Zoe Nelson said Cornell was “trying to hold the line for no cuts this year.”“The state is in bad shape and they’re looking for cuts everywhere,” Nelson said, though added Cornell is “encouraged because we think the state recognizes the value in the program.”Nelson said a group of H/EOP students would be coming to Albany in February to express their support for the program. ALANA’s Singleton criticized the University for moving H/EOP from Day Hall to Comstock Hall. According to Singleton, the relocation had an adverse effect on the relationship between the counselors and the current students in the program who said the relocation discouraged them from making the “distant trip over.”The decrease in enrollment “makes me worry about what [Cornell] is going to do to bring the kind of diversity traditional to the program,” said Kervin Pillot ’06, an HEOP alumnus.

Original Author: Jeff Stein