September 18, 2013

Cornell Offers Free Tuition, Housing to Inner City Scholars

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At more than $60,000 a year for those in the endowed colleges, the cost of attending Cornell is unattainably steep for some students. But as a result of a new partnership, some high school graduates from the country’s lowest-income school districts will be able to attend Cornell for free starting Fall 2014, the University announced Wednesday.

Cornell is one of 10 other universities — including Dartmouth College, Rice University and Vanderbilt University — that joined Say Yes to Education Inc. this week. The New York City-based non-profit organization helps low-income students attend college by organizing after-school programs, summer camps, college-prep workshops and other events for them from the time they enter kindergarten until they graduate with their bachelor’s.

Critical to Say Yes’ outreach efforts is its Higher Education Compact, a program that allows low-income students who graduate from a public school in Buffalo, Syracuse, New York City and other areas to attend any university in New York State that they are accepted to for free, according to the organization’s website.

The University does not yet know how many students it will support through Say Yes in the fall, but it expects that the initial class of students admitted will be less than 10, according to Barbara Knuth, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost of the University.

Knuth said that Cornell’s partnership with Say Yes will help the University “get our message about affordability and access to education to a broader community.”

“There are many high school guidance counselors who work in schools situated in relatively low-income communities who are not aware of Cornell and other private institutions’ need-blind admissions and need-based aid programs,” she said. “By being affiliated with Say Yes, we can help schools and families know that our schools are accessible to them.”

Ulysses Smith ’14, president of the Student Assembly, said that, although the program seems like “a great initiative in theory,” he has reservations about how well it will do in practice.

“What is being done to ensure that students from backgrounds are able to be successful once they’re here? I think we already have a bad habit of pouring so much into recruitment and not enough into achievement,” Smith said.

He added that he hopes the University will focus its efforts on “inclusion” and “achievement — things people have been so fond of discussing in recent years.”

“I agree with Say Yes’ mission to help disadvantaged kids get here, but again, I don’t think we focus enough on what happens after people get here,” Smith said. “I don’t like the idea of setting people up for failure. It’s not fair.”

Although dozens of other universities have committed to support Say Yes by promising full tuition to low-income students affiliated with the organization, Cornell and four other colleges have offered to cover the full cost of attendance — including room and board — for all Say Yes scholars accepted to their institutions, according to the organization.

Since its founding 26 years ago, Say Yes has helped more than 3,000 high school graduates attend college, according to the organization’s website.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), whose office played a “critical role” in Say Yes’ outreach efforts to Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday that Say Yes’ mission is pivotal to lifting low-income students out of poverty.

“Higher education remains one of the clearest paths to the middle class in this country — and it must be within reach for anyone willing to work their hardest and earn their degree,’’ Gillibrand said. “Say Yes makes this possible.”

Gillibrand said she saw for herself how local stakeholders, working together “at every level … to support students every step of the way,” can be powerful forces in helping young people pursue an education.

“Say Yes works because it shows young people what’s possible and brings those possibilities within reach. Say Yes tells our young people … to think big … to dream big … and gives them the chance and the tools to earn it,” she said in the statement.

The program has been praised by President Barack Obama, who recently toured upstate New York to speak about college affordability.

“The great work that’s being done through the program that’s called Say Yes … [is making] sure that no child in Buffalo has to miss out on a college education because they can’t pay for it,” Obama said at the State University of Buffalo on Aug. 22.

Nothing is more important in attaining economic mobility than a good education, Obama said to a packed room at the university.

“A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future … and I’m proud of all the students who are making that investment. … That’s not just me saying it,” Obama said. “Some form of higher education is the surest path into the middle class.”

While Say Yes to Education is based in New York City, it also has a presence in Syracuse, Buffalo, Cambridge, Mass., and Hartford, Conn. The organization is hoping to expand to more cities in the U.S. in the coming years.