Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, speaks about the importance of financial aid (Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer).

Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, speaks about the importance of financial aid (Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer).

October 21, 2015

Cornellians Debate Financial Aid

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Several University administrators and professors spoke about a major financial dilemma that may threaten to decrease current financial aid allocations at a faculty forum Wednesday.

The forum — “Cornell’s Financial Aid Policies: Unimaginable Outcomes?” — follows up comments that Dean of Faculty Prof. Joseph Burns Ph.D. ’66, astronomy, made at a Faculty Senate meeting last week, where he questioned the University’s ability to continue increasing financial aid in pace with rising tuition costs while still maintaining compensation for qualified faculty members.

“We won’t be able to support a diverse student body [if we decrease financial aid]. We’re Cornell. We can’t do that — that’s unimaginable,” Burns said. “Then by the same token, I stop and I think, ‘Oh maybe we can keep [increasing financial aid], but if we do that, we won’t have any money to support excellent faculty.’ That’s unbelievable.”

Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, speaks about the importance of financial aid (Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer).

Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, speaks about the importance of financial aid (Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer).

While the cost of attendance for the bottom three quartiles of students receiving aid has been declining, students from wealthy and middle-income families have been paying more as tuition continues to rise, according Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school, who was among the panelists at the forum. She added that half of Cornell students do not qualify for financial aid.

Prof. Suzanne Mettler, government, spoke about student loan debt as a national issue, highlighting the differences in average debt levels among public universities, private nonprofit universities and private for-profit universities. The highest levels of debt were to be found among students attending for-profit universities, Mettler said, and she added that federal subsidies for higher education have been declining over the past several decades as student debt has simultaneously increased.

Barton Winokur ’61, who was the Chair of the Brandeis University Board of Trustees and is now a Cornell emeritus trustee, also spoke on the panel and insisted that the trustees have consistently striven to meet students’ financial needs.

“I’ve never seen anyone at Brandeis or at Cornell vote against the principle of providing aid for those who need it,” he said.

However, the Board of Trustees has also had to balance this with an interest in meeting faculty members’ demands for high salaries, Winokur added.

“Professors expect to be paid at the median of their peers, and they consider their peers to be the very top schools,” Winokur said, calling the amount of money universities require students and families to pay, “in effect, … like a tax rate.”

While at Brandeis, Winokur said he argued that offering generous financial aid would successfully attract students who might have otherwise accepted admissions offers from other prestigious schools over Brandeis.

Winokur also acknowledged that many students still need to confront a significant gap between their estimated need and their actual need, but he argued that those students can still find ways to attend.

“Need is not an objective issue, it is a subjective issue,” Winokur said. “People make decisions based on their alternatives.”

To support this assertion, he pointed to the story of a Brandeis mother who told him that when total financial aid for her child decreased by $3,000, she took an additional custodial job scrubbing floors at a local school to be able to pay for her child’s college expenses.

Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, said that student expectations have changed since his generation attended school and that many students now do not feel obligated to work during their four years in college.

Ehrenberg said that his parents, being of a Great Depression-era mindset, never borrowed a cent in their lives and that for him, borrowing money to attend college was out of the question, adding that though he was accepted to Cornell, he chose not to attend because of the cost.

Despite the dilemma regarding financial aid that the panelists discussed, Winokur still emphasized the importance of providing copious financial aid to talented underrepresented minority students, adding that it is a powerful tool in ensuring their success in society after graduation.

He supported his claim by saying that students’ performance after they leave campus is a far more substantive metric than just looking at the composition of an incoming class.

Inner city students taking “hard sciences courses” have been able to do well, Winokur said. These students are not able to come to Cornell without generous aid, but when they can take advantage of it, they succeed.

  • Jon

    Seriously? Like the faculty and bloated administration aren’t already compensated enough? When some random vice-assistant associate dean of whatever makes over $100k? How much more can the university squeeze out of its students? “To heck with the students, let them take out more loans” seems to be the administration’s attitude. The school is already charging $65k per year! Even a family who makes $200k per year would be shelling out a third of their income for one year of school, and they would be in the top 1% of American households. Isn’t it kind of ridiculous that a family in the top 1% seems to be deserving of financial aid when a third of their income is going to education costs? Eventually the University is going to run out of even “rich” people’s money too. Ezra Cornell would be ashamed of how the administration is mismanaging the University, and how it certainly isn’t living up to its “Any person, any study” mission.

    • Jon

      Good luck to the University when they start soliciting donations from all the financially resentful alumni.

      • skeptic

        HELLO, RIGHT!!

  • Randy Wayne

    We were brought up with the “Great Depression-era mindset” or what we called “depression mentality.” It taught us how to set priorities and to live within our means. Sometimes less is more.

    • skeptic

      Ultimately, each student’s cost of attendance will be reconciled against their individual benefit/reward of attendance – it is all about VALUE.

      As we are reminded during this Mental Health Awareness Week, Cornell has a different kind of “depression mentality” that generates stress which can lead to depression/anxiety and undermine students’ sense of value – e.g. overly complex bureaucracy, financial aid shortcomings, housing obstacles, punishing academic practices (grading on a curve, posting median grades on official transcripts).

      While Cornell can’t change the weather, we can improve our climate that leads to excessive stress and undermines our value and reputation. I am hopeful that our new leadership intends to improve our climate.

  • Cornell Junior

    Ohh I don’t know, maybe STOP RAISING TUITION BY $5,000 EVERY YEAR? It’s unbelievable what Mr. Winokur said regarding the parent of the Brandeis student. “oh yeah, she just had to get another job no big deal…”

    Also, of course people need to borrow money now… Tuition has increased way faster than median earnings and/or inflation!!

  • skeptic

    I’ve heard that relative to our Ivy League peers, Cornell offers the least generous financial aid packages, with the greatest reliance on student loan debt, resulting in the highest average net cost of attendance. Further, Cornell financial aid packages tend to evaporate over time while cost of attendance rises steadily, making a four-year family financial plan unpredictable, very challenging and extremely stressful. All true?

    • Cornell Junior

      Sadly, all true

  • GenX Mom

    College-shopping mom here. These guys sound unbelievably out of touch. The only reason I can think of for Ehrenburg to believe there are kids out there who think they don’t have to pay for some of college themselves is that he teaches at a place with a $60+K COA, which, surprise, pulls a lot of fantastically wealthy kids. And Winokur talking about STEM — wake up, man. Have you seen job ads for fresh STEM BSes? They’re not plentiful. And with sci funding harder and harder to come by, there’s no guarantee that going to grad school in STEM means you get paid to work for a PI. Or that your institution will fund you for five years.

    After watching the expensively-produced recruiting video, I was sorry it hadn’t occurred to *me* to apply to Cornell, much less my daughter, but this piece is a dash of much-needed icewater. Many thanks.