February 14, 2012

An Open Letter to President Skorton

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During the three weeks since the Board of Trustees passed your recommended 2012-2013 budget for the University, our proposed tuition increases have come under attack from students and the larger community. I do not feign ignorance of the fact that from 2001-2010, endowed college tuition at Cornell rose at a rate 4.7 times greater than income rose for families with income at the 20th percentile nationally, and at a rate 2.7 times greater for families at the 80th percentile. The rate of increase for contract college tuition has been nearly double the endowed college rate. This increase in gross tuition has little meaning, however, in light of Cornell’s financial aid policies. Let us then consider the change in net tuition (including financial aid).

As you are well aware, because you have long championed these policies, Cornell requires no parental contribution from families earning less than $60,000 annually and owning less than $100,000 in assets. In 2010, the 60th percentile for household income nationally was $61,735 and in 2007 (the latest data available) the median net worth of families between the 40th and 60th percentiles for income was $81,000. This suggests that Cornell’s extremely progressive parental contribution policy may apply to nearly half the nation. Beyond this policy is Cornell’s provision of $0 in loans in the aid package for students from families with incomes less than $75,000 annually. Coming from such a family myself, I personally thank you for maintaining such a policy that is open to the vast majority of U.S. families. With 2010 U.S. household income at $100,065 for the 80th percentile, and families with income under $120,000 annually being eligible for reduced loans in their aid packages, a huge population nationally can benefit from Cornell’s farsighted commitment to making college affordable.

I would be remiss, nevertheless, to neglect the small percentage of the U.S. and global population not eligible for aid at Cornell. While I do lament that full tuition is a strain on many families in the highest income quintile, my greatest concern is with the ability of students to attend our institution, as opposed to how comfortable it is for them to attend. Admittedly, the opulence of first class is more comfortable than the processed food and zero legroom in the economy cabin, but that does not mean I should drop $12,000 every time I take the eight-hour flight to visit my family in Stockholm.

I do not mean to suggest that some things cannot and should not be done to limit tuition. Cornell has achieved substantial savings through changes to our procurement policies and through administrative streamlining. We must continue in this vein. You must also continue seeking input from across campus on how to make difficult decisions about allocating resources strategically to departments and divisions to best promote excellence in research, teaching, and public engagement. Nevertheless, with 62 percent of Cornell’s expenditures going to compensation and benefits, I am not naïvely enthusiastic about identifying huge additional opportunities for savings. I am unwilling to support additional massive cuts in our workforce after sustaining the loss of several hundred employees over the last few years. I am equally unsympathetic to any suggestion that we allow ourselves to become uncompetitive with our peers in terms of salary and benefit packages that will attract the best and brightest faculty.

As we seek to limit tuition increases, we must not move away from our current financial aid policies. The front-page article, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say” in last Friday’s New York Times confirms this. Does our aid policy, in part, redistribute tuition from wealthy to poorer students? Yes, but I feel this is appropriate. Yet, many students yearning for a reasonable national tax policy complain of the redistributive nature of tuition. This signals a true disconnect.

I wish college could be more affordable for all, and know that it must be if the U.S. is to avoid falling farther behind the rest of the world in educating our citizenry. Still, I assert that in the short term, we cannot spare the extremely progressive financial aid policies you have defended for years, even if they come partially at the expense of higher overall tuition. As a freshman at Princeton University, I had a roommate who lamented being unable to receive financial aid; he was the son of a billionaire oil magnate. I also had a friend from a small family farm in Nebraska who actually sent money home to support his parents while at Princeton because his family struggled so severely. Until we have the resources, or until this nation has the political will, to make college universally affordable, we must continue to do all that we can to help those who need our assistance most.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen