October 18, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Who Should Shoulder this Burden?

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Something weird happened when Jonah Okike-Hephzibah ’16 asked for help. The Cornell engineering student in his senior year was suddenly faced with an unexpectedly steep price tag, despite his scholarships. And when he explained his situation, that he had been locked out of a rigid financial aid process and was staring down the barrel of the overwhelming cost of higher education, the circumstances of the situation sounded familiar to many. But when he launched a campaign to publicly deal with this situation, asking students and strangers to donate what they could — if they could — it brought a few assumptions to light, and they might be worth taking a closer look at.

When Okike-Hephzibah began a Crowdfunding campaign, tuition took on the air of charity. This was a person with his back against a wall, unable to do anything but make a broad ask for kindness. This tarnishes the idea that cost is never truly prohibitive at universities like Cornell. When loans, grants and aid are supposedly available to cover the full need of a student, the idea of an exclusionary price tag is easy to dodge. But when students begin coming forward, in acts of desperation, saying that the system has failed them, that denial becomes harder to swallow.

But what Okike-Hephzibah’s request really did was publicize this systemic problem, and make the community react. The hundreds of students who donated presumably saw it as an opportunity to help. Yet Nikolai Lumpkins ’16, a student who followed suit and Crowdfunded a few weeks later, didn’t nearly reach his goal. He also reported a sizable number of people responding to his page with anger and disgust that he would ask for help with something that many students have to deal with. Both had struggled through a familiar financial aid system and been handed a reduced price tag that was still just too expensive — an experience familiar to many on this campus. Ironically, it seems like the people who have slogged through the financial aid process, and have often resorted to taking out loans, are the precisely the ones who disapprove of these Crowdfunding student campaigns.

The significance of this is profound. Rather than being united around a common cause — the desire to help our peers — the student body fractured along this unexpected line. Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, spent little time considering the circumstances that made this Crowdfunding necessary. I did not consider why there should ever be the need for this method of funding tuition. Instead, I took the unbelievable difficulty that putting oneself through college can pose for many students as an inalterable fact of life, and by doing so, initially believed that everyone should find a way to deal with it on their own. It did not matter, for example, that tuition had increased every year since Okike-Hephzibah initially agreed to attend the University.

But we ought to consider the reason why these two came forward, and perhaps why it was so surprising that they did as well. I submit that there is a belief that paying for college is an individual endeavor, and that the difficulty that it presents is relatively inalterable. We assume that the burden of affording a higher education falls on the student or their families, not necessarily on the community.  As a result, when the community was asked to shoulder their hardship, many were taken aback.

There are a few people whose responses we can’t know. Would Robert Harrison, chairman of the Board of Trustees, feel compelled to donate? Would he, and others with direct power over the system that forced these students to ask, feel as though they failed in their mission, or are Okike-Hephzibah and Lumpkins just exceptions to a system that broadly works? To be quite honest, I don’t know what the right answers to these questions are, but they probably should be asked. If Crowdfunding for tuition seems like a small issue, it’s only because it’s a final resort. Just because only a few students have attempted to publicly Crowdsource doesn’t mean that many students aren’t struggling everyday to afford tuition. These weren’t the first students to have these problems, but they made the statement that their individual situation should have a collective solution. In this, they were absolutely right.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.