September 24, 2014

Pell Grants Awarded at Cornell Increase by 4 Percent Since 2008

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The percentage of Cornell undergraduates receiving a Pell Grant has risen since 2008 — the same year that President David Skorton announced sweeping changes to the University’s financial aid policy — data from a recent New York Times ranking shows.

According to the ranking, which lists “the most economically diverse top colleges,” the percentage of Pell Grant recipients has risen four percent since 2008 at Cornell — from 12 percent of students receiving a Pell Grant in 2008 to 16 percent in 2012.

More than 2,400 undergraduate students received a Pell Grant during the 2012-13 school year compared to 1,789 students during the 2008-09 school year, according to data obtained from the United States Department of Education. The average Pell Grant award has also risen over the years, from $3,548 in 2008-09 to $4,124 in 2012-13.

The New York Times article ranked Cornell in 32nd place for in economic diversity among top colleges after creating a “college access index” based on calculating the percentage of freshmen receiving Pell Grants at universities, the net price of attendance for low to middle income families and endowment per student.

Cornell was placed behind other Ivy League institutions Harvard University, Columbia University, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.

The ranking comes on the heels of what Jason Locke, associate vice provost for enrollment, described in August as a “significant increase in average grant aid awards for financial aid recipients.”

Freshmen this year received an average grant of $35,735 — a $1,946 increase from last year — according to the University. This year’s freshman class also was the most ethnically diverse in Cornell history, with 42.9 percent of students identifying as students of color.

Still, in light of The New York Times’ ranking, Cornellians say that the University has more to do to meet its official commitment to “access and affordability.”

Franklin Yang ’17, chair of the Student Assembly’s Financial Aid Review Committee, said he thinks Cornell “is doing a good job, but it can do a great job” at being economically accessible and diverse.

“There’s definitely room for improvement,” Yang said. “That’s something that will have to be worked out over time. … Even with our endowments, there are certain limitations as to what Cornell can do right now. A lot of the money goes into maintaining our academic status.”

Yamini Bhandari ’17, a member of the committee, added that the diversity of students’ backgrounds is an asset because it allows students to gain perspective.

“The major drawback is that we often forget that we have this asset and do not ensure that all programs on this campus cater to fostering the diversity,” she said.

Bhandari said the added costs of being part of organizations on campus make it so that some programs are “not accessible to all students.”

“As a University, the major push needs to come from the administration to ensure that we make opportunities truly available to everyone regardless of their background,” she said. “Organizations that require little to no out of pocket expenses for students are traditionally the ones that I have seen have attracted a diverse student population, as is the case for many by-line funded groups.”

President David Skorton said last spring that another challenge with making Cornell economically accessible is the unavailability of aid to “intermediate” income students, The Sun previously reported.

The just-above-middle-class is in the “toughest spot among all students,” according to Mark LaPointe ’16, a member of FARC.

“Their families make too much to be considered for significant financial aid, yet they make too little to fund comfortabl[y] a full, financial aid unassisted tuition for the students,” he said.

Some of the “major changes” in economic diversity that have already taken place on campus have been the result of student-led initiatives, according to Bhandari.

“I believe that a large part of this is due to the incredible diversity in thought and ideas that students at Cornell bring to this campus,” she said. “Students here feel that they have the right and power to advocate for themselves and their needs.”

One example of a student-led initiative to increase economic diversity is the Students Helping Students Fund, which is run by the S.A., according to Yang.

“It’s a grant fund that is set up so that students on financial aid who might have an emergency, like a parent dying, have access to it,” he said. “It’s to promote retention, so students can stay at Cornell and not have to drop out because they don’t have enough money.”

Yang said he feels that ensuring Cornell is economically diverse is important because it allows students to be exposed to “different perspectives.”

“I’m from a Los Angeles suburb. I have a different perspective on things as compared to inner city kids or kids from New York City,” he said.

Promoting economic diversity at Cornell is also important because it leads to social mobility, according to Prof. Steven Alvarado, sociology.

“The easiest way to move individuals from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other is through educational attainment,” he said. “Cornell and other top schools hold a lot of power in being able to promote that social mobility, so that the son of a farmer can become a banker, for instance. That should be a fundamental goal of any institution of higher education.”