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.