January 23, 2017

1 in 10 C.U. Students Are From Richest 1%, While Low-Income Students Remain Underrepresented, Study Finds

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Cornell enrolls about the same number of students from the top one percent income bracket as it does from the bottom 40 percent, according to a new study.

While Cornell enrolls a smaller percentage of students from the top one percent income bracket than any other Ivy League school, those students from the top one percent are still vastly overrepresented at the University.

About one in 10 students at Cornell come from families whose income places them in the top one percent, while about one in nine Cornell students come from families in the bottom 40 percent of income.

Studying anonymized tax returns of more than 28 million college students born between 1980 and 1991, researchers with The Equality of Opportunity Project found that many elite institutions enroll a disproportionate number of students from high-income families and, in many cases, are not effective at moving students from the bottom income quintile to the top income quintile.

First Among Ivies

Cornell has the lowest average median parent income of all Ivies and the lowest ratio of one-percenters to students from the bottom 60 percent. The Ivy League itself is among the worst at enrolling a proportionate number of students from all income brackets.

Ivy League schools enroll more students from the top one percent than they do from the bottom 50 percent, and only Columbia, Cornell and Harvard enroll more students from the bottom 60 percent than they do from the top one percent.

The average median income of the parents of Cornell students born between 1980 and 1991 is $151,908, the lowest in the Ivies, while Princeton students’ parents have the highest average median income at $206,383.

In stark contrast, the national average was $76,499.

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Jaelle Sanon ’19 — who attended a high-achieving, low-income Boston high school where all students received free breakfast, free lunch and SAT fee waivers — said Cornell’s wealthy skew can be alienating.

“A lot of low-income students don’t see a path to Cornell,” Sanon said. “We see how hard it is to get [in], and [it’s] extremely expensive, so we think, ‘why should I apply?’”

“It’s kind of difficult to say, ‘I am a normal student,’” Sanon added. “There are definitely things that I have to worry about that other students don’t.”

Financial aid helps, Sanon said, but smaller purchases add up: hundreds of dollars for books, a $90 gym membership and more.

Sanon added that being low-income in a wealthy environment can make students feel out of place and noted the importance of a strong friend group.

“The experience when you see other students talking about the trips that they’ve taken and where they’ve been because their parents have been able to afford those things … can be a bit awkward,” Sanon said. “But if you have a good group of friends and know how to navigate the school, ask the right questions and know the right offices to go to, then I think it’s manageable.”

An Institution Where Many Rise to the Top

Even though students in lower income brackets are underrepresented at Cornell, those who do attend often rise to the top income brackets after graduating.

By limiting the data sample to students born in 1980, 1981 and 1982, — the cohort with the most stable incomes — researchers found that low-income students who attend elite institutions are more likely to end up in the one percent.

Ivy League schools have uniquely high “upper-tier success rates” — the percent of students from the bottom income quintile who rise to the top one percent. Cornell’s upper-tier success rate — 10.4 percent — is high compared to all schools, but one of the worst in the Ivies, beating out only Brown.

In a random sample of 200 Cornell students, one of those students would be both from the bottom 20 percent income bracket and move to the top one percent later in life, which makes Cornell the ninth-best mobilizer of students to the top tier in the country. 

Sanon said this statistic reassures her that the sacrifices her family made to send her to Cornell may very well pay off after she graduates.

“It gives me hope that all the things I’m doing here will allow me to provide for my family and that Cornell is worth me leaving my family for four years and probably more,” Sanon said.

“I am the youngest of seven, and I am a child of an immigrant and I am an immigrant myself,” Sanon added. “So when I leave my home to come here, I’m not just leaving my family, but I’m also leaving my dad, who doesn’t speak English very well. I’m usually the translator — the person who’s calling the cable company and things like that.”

… But Only if You Can Get In

While Cornell and other elite institutions stand out in moving the bottom 20 percent to the top one percent, these institutions lag behind other colleges in moving the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent. Less selective institutions, the data show, enroll more students from the bottom 20 percent and successfully move those students to the top 20 percent.

Other New York colleges, including the entire CUNY system, are picking up the slack in mobilizing students from lower income brackets to the top 20 percent.

Sanon said Cornell could send people from low-income communities to those same communities to recruit so that prospective students could “see themselves at Cornell.” She also said resources for low-income students should be publicized more.

“So if those were more clear and open, then those low-income students would not feel like Cornell is this mysterious, expensive place that they can’t see themselves going to,” Sanon said.

The Equalizer

Because students at the high school Sanon attended had to pass an exam before they could enroll, Sanon was surrounded by high-performing students who she said may have underestimated their own ability.

“People are getting 4.0 [GPAs] … and they’re going to schools with people with 2.0s,” Sanon said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘oh my god, y’all could’ve done so much better at Cornell. Y’all are smart. I don’t know why y’all are there,’” Sanon added, laughing.

The data supports Sanon’s speculation.

One of the study’s more significant findings was that income-based “mismatch effects” — the alleged tendency of students from low-income backgrounds to perform poorly at schools with wealthier classmates — are almost nonexistent across all types of schools. This means that if Sanon’s low-income but qualified classmates had gone to Cornell, they may very well have earned nearly the same income as Cornell’s wealthiest students.

But Sanon was quick to add that the virtue of low-income students attending Cornell is more than wealth — it is about being treated fairly.

“There are so many people who fall for the trap … of schools that accept a lot of students — especially ones who didn’t do so well in high school — and they just give them a lot of loans, have nothing else to offer and those kids usually end up dropping out,” Sanon said.

Not so at Cornell, according to Sanon.

“Cornell and other Ivies and Ivy-like schools invest in you,” she said. “They care about their graduation rate and they care about you,” she said.

But attending an Ivy League institution does not eliminate all the struggles of being a student from a low-income household, Sanon said.

“If your parents are struggling to pay rent, or dealing with gentrification — if your parents are dealing with those things — it’s really hard because you’re here, but it feels like you’re dealing with it too,” Sanon said. “You can’t enjoy all of the things that Cornell has to offer when your parents are at home struggling to pay rent.”