January 31, 2011

Rethinking Costs and Benefits

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The University recently announced that the cost of a Cornell education will increase again for the next academic year. While some attribute this rise to a changing economic climate, tuition hikes continue to surpass national inflation rates and, for some students, dispensable household income.

This added financial strain contributes to the impetus for students to graduate a semester early, according to Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations and economics. Between 1980 and 2002 — the most recent set of data available — the number of incoming students who graduate in fewer than eight semesters has risen from three percent to 10 percent. This means that for 10 percent of Cornell seniors, the costs of a semester’s education outweigh its benefits, calling to question the balance between what students get out of the Cornell experience and what they put into it.

Time and again, Day Hall pledges to make college more affordable on East Hill. Thus, it is the University’s responsibility to make sure that tuition increases are minimal and that adequate financial aid packages exist to offset the economic burden imposed on most students. While we applaud existing aid programs for students from lower-income families, the next logical step is to consider how increased revenue from tuition will impact the allocation of financial aid. The University must remain sensitive to the needs of middle class students who fail to qualify for financial aid but for whom a tuition hike of $1,875 is still a serious financial burden.

Ezra Cornell’s vision of a University where “any person” can pursue a quality education is in danger of becoming an ideal that the University adheres to only in theory, not in action. Improving the quality and accessibility of a Cornell education must be made a top administrative priority. In light of recent under-enrollment in Cornell’s Higher Education Opportunity Program and cuts to the education, theatre, film, dance and math departments, the University must renew its commitment to the principles it was founded upon.

If the aforementioned goals are to be realized, the University must be more transparent in its allocation of tuition. Student dollars should go towards increasing socioeconomic diversity by making Cornell more affordable to those who struggle to afford it, or towards enhancing the academic experience by bolstering educational programs, hiring new faculty and increasing resources. If instead tuition money is helping boost the University out of its budget hole without any tangible benefit to students, they have a right to know.

A Cornell education is a valuable commodity and an advantageous opportunity for which demand is relatively high. What administrators must consider is whether the Cornell experience is, in fact, available to “any person,” and whether students who matriculate here will feel as if they got what they paid for after four — or three-and-a-half — years on the Hill.