February 23, 2014

EDITORIAL: Easing the Middle Class’ Financial Aid Burden

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At a student assembly meeting Thursday, President David Skorton identified a weakness in the University’s financial aid policy: the availability of aid to middle-income students. While Cornell provides generous packages to students whose families’ earnings fall below the median income, Skorton noted that there are students with higher than median income who may still not be able to afford tuition. We appreciate Skorton’s willingness to acknowledge the problems that such “intermediate” income students face. However, as the University hikes tuition each year, middle-income students and their families are increasingly being forced to take on loans. We call on Skorton to address the needs of middle-income students in a way that does not impact low-income students’ financial aid needs.

At Cornell and nationally, the dialogue about financial aid often focuses on college affordability for low-income students. Indeed, the University’s financial aid policy provides tuition breaks for truly needy students — its current policy, implemented in 2008, eliminated loans for families with incomes at or below $60,000 a year. The University offers financial aid to half of the undergraduate population. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are students whose families can afford to pay the full value of a Cornell education: $61,618 for the endowed colleges in 2013-14. This has resulted in a concern, at Cornell and nationwide about a barbell effect — wherein colleges, in accommodating low-income students’ financial aid needs, neglect the middle-class. The University has made some effort in recent years to stave off the barbell effect — expanding loan offerings to students in higher income brackets, including those making over $120,000 a year — but this is not sufficient in and of itself. This problem is also not particularly new. Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations and economics told The Sun in 2011 that he was concerned about “middle-income melt” at Cornell. Middle-income students should not be deterred from enrolling at Cornell, but also should not be graduating with crippling debt.

Other universities have attempted to combat this middle-income problem by implementing student loan relief programs to limit the amount of debt such students are taking on. Franklin and Marshall College implemented a pilot program in 2012 that capped federal loans for qualifying students at $10,000 over their four years of college and replacing loans above that amount with grants. While the University must evaluate its financial ability to implement such a program, it should consider gearing grant aid towards middle-income students, too. There is no single solution to relieve the burden on these students, but the University can propose initiatives that work towards this goal, such as placing a greater financial burden on the wealthiest students at Cornell.

In recognizing a gap in the socioeconomic distribution at Cornell that financial aid has not reached, Skorton took a constructive step towards addressing the problem. But if, as the University says, financial aid is propelling increases in undergraduate tuition, policy must keep up with the plight of the middle class. We believe a solution can be found without detracting from the financial aid offered to low-income students.