January 25, 2011

A Missed Opportunity

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The University failed to fill 85 allotted scholarships under the Higher Education Opportunity Program — a New York State-funded venture which provides socioeconomically and educationally disadvantaged high school students with a route to a college education — for the 2010-2011 academic year. With 56 students participating this year, HEOP enrollment is the lowest since the program’s inception in 1969.With no apparent drop-off in demand for the program, this shortfall lands on the shoulders of HEOP administrators. The root cause of the problem is not just substandard recruitment of potential students, as New York State Opportunity Programs Director William Horning concedes, but also insufficient recruitment of staff members with a solid commitment to the continuation and integrity of HEOP. With a substantially high turnover rate of at least three program directors since 2007, the University’s failure to retain a long-standing and consistent staff undermines the program’s supposed goals of improving recruitment through community partnerships and increased communication.While no egregious errors stand out in the execution of HEOP at Cornell, it is clear that the program is not an administrative priority. This attitude must change if the University hopes to step up HEOP enrollment by the next academic year, as program administrators have promised.Putting HEOP on the back burner does not align with Cornell’s educational ethos. HEOP “lands squarely on Ezra Cornell’s mission” — as Horning said — to found an institution where “any person can find instruction in any study.” The program is essential to the maintenance of socioeconomic diversity on the Hill, which contributes significantly to the University’s character. HEOP also, in the truest sense, provides the so-called American dream of opportunity that so many seek through higher education to high school students whose economic and educational circumstances would otherwise make attending an Ivy League institution a pipe dream.Every student who participates in HEOP precedes a future generation more likely to pursue higher education, turning a small impact into a cascade of achievement. For the University to uphold its responsibility to the state’s investment in and vision for socioeconomic improvement calls for a decisive and actionable plan with achievable goals for student and recruitment. Potential HEOP beneficiaries deserve a better plan from the University than abstract commitments to improving communication and working more closely with community programs.We call for administrative transparency and accountability as the University moves forward into revamping HEOP recruitment. The Sun learned of HEOP under-enrollment through a Freedom of Information Law request after the administration denied several direct requests. This type of circumspect hiding behind closed doors is not productive for the future of the program. Accountability is essential to hold the University to a higher standard in its implementation of HEOP.HEOP should be a source of pride for the University. It is clear even from the design of the program’s website that it does not receive the partitioning of attention and resources it deserves. If the University hopes to halt and reverse the precipitous decline in HEOP enrollment chronicled over the past decade, it needs to move up on the administrative to-do list.