October 16, 2011

Cornell is elite, but not elitist

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To the Editor:

Re: “University, Inc.,” Opinion, Oct. 4

An article in The Sun on Oct. 4 touched upon how the increasing “chasm” between the rich and the poor is leading to socioeconomic blandness among institutions of higher learning across the country. Yes, college educations do in fact raise the earning potential of their holders compared to those without bachelors degrees. Yes, going to a highly selective institution is strongly correlated with greater earning potential, ceteris paribus. And yes, many institutions do not have the resources to overlook the financial assistance that would be needed by a prospective student if they attended. However, here at Cornell, we do in fact have the resources necessary to promote socioeconomic diversity.  As Chair of the Joint Assemblies Financial Aid Review Committee and one of the students in those “glossy brochures” the University sends out, I can personally attest to the fact that Cornell is working hard to make sure that students of all backgrounds can attend Cornell, regardless of socioeconomic status.

My parents own their own business, a small consulting firm that does emergency preparedness work. Income is greatly variable year to year in our family because business is cyclic, as it is for most families who own a business. When I applied, Cornell gave me the best financial aid package by far, with about $30,000 more aid annually than other ivy league schools. My situation is merely one of a plethora of cases concerning financial aid here, but maybe a more statistical assessment will help.

Cornell University is need blind in its admission process, meaning that the individual colleges admit their students with no knowledge of what the family can afford to contribute.  That practice alone is a sign of Cornell’s enduring commitment to assure that “any person . . . any study” can attend Cornell. In fact, 50 percent of students at Cornell are eligible for need-based aid and 49 percent of students here receive some form of grant or scholarship assistance. Of those who apply, 88 percent of families with annual incomes of more than $120,000 receive need-based grant aid. While this figure is impressive, perhaps more so is the fact that 18 percent of students at Cornell qualify for Pell Grants, a figure that suprasses the 15.5 percent of students at Dartmouth College and 17 percent at Harvard University who qualify for Pell Grants.

In the past ten years, the amount of need-based scholarships and grants awarded  by the University has more than doubled.  While Cornell only gave out just over $85 million at the turn of the millennium, the University’s annual grant aid soared to more than $219 million for the 2010-2011 academic year. That increase is grant and scholarship money alone! This change is attributable to policies Cornell enacted, including a cap on the amount of loan assigned to students in lower income brackets in a financial aid package. One of the of the most recent financial aid efforts goes as far as to guarantee that we will match the need-based financial aid offers of our peer institutions — the Ivy League plus Stanford, Duke, and MIT. Now students who are choosing between Cornell and other schools need not base their matriculation decision on financial factors.

Is Financial Aid here perfect? No. However, ignoring the University’s efforts to provide for students of every socioeconomic background when criticizing higher education as a whole does not paint an accurate portrait of the financial aid efforts here upon the hill. When it comes to the discussion of diversity in terms of access to a Cornell education, a more concise statement of my opinion sits on the wall of the financial aid office itself, where a poster is situated that reads, “Elite, but not Elitist.”

Daniel Kuhr ’13, Chair of JAFARC