January 26, 2017

EDITORIAL: Cornell Beyond the Richest One Percent

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Though elite colleges often boast of their affordability and socioeconomic diversity, a recent study found that Cornell enrolls approximately the same number of students from the richest one percent as it does from the bottom 40 percent. This troubling statistic points to flaws in the University’s mission to make higher education more accessible to students of all incomes. The under-representation of low-income students hinders diversity and inclusion at prestigious schools by discouraging deserving, qualified students from attending and succeeding in college.

Cornell must continue relieving the cost of attending college. Many students and their families remain baffled by the complicated process of applying for financial aid because important information remains scattered across various online sources. An article published by The New York Times described how, like many parents, one mother “does not understand how colleges define basic, crucial terms like ‘need,’ ‘aid’ or ‘need-blind admission,’ and she does not know that those definitions vary from place to place.” The administration can alleviate this by compiling a comprehensive list of resources and steps to secure the necessary aid, including possible scholarships and grants. In addition, during Cornell information sessions, alumni and current students could hold Q&A sessions for prospective applicants to describe how they navigated college and financial aid applications and to encourage students to realistically envision themselves at Cornell.  Encouraging more dialogue about financial aid options will highlight benefits that students may not know they are eligible for.

Efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity should also extend beyond admissions. Low-income students at Cornell share mutual concerns about how college life will play out after acceptance. Applying for financial aid can be a cumbersome process that, if misunderstood, impacts the amount of aid awarded. Even with financial aid, students can still incur hefty costs — for on-campus dining, extracurricular activities and course materials — and face the challenge of fitting into an environment where many of their peers are from richer families.

To address these issues, Cornell should build on the progress that recent student initiatives have achieved already. From First in Class — a student-run initiative that supports first-generation students — to Anabel’s Grocery, students are actively organizing new ways to publicize campus resources and aid financially-struggling students. In the spring, First in Class launched its Lending Library, which loans textbooks to students who struggle to afford them. Similarly, the students behind Anabel’s Grocery seek to open a subsidized grocery in order to decrease food insecurity and provide affordable meals on a campus with notoriously pricey dining. Despite multiple delays and logistical mishaps, Anabel’s Grocery remains a promising organization with an important mission to make it easier for students to afford the college life. Such programs — dedicated as they are to easing the struggles of first-generation and low-income students — not only support a subset of Cornell students, but also help build a stronger campus network of engaged Cornellians by facilitating conversation between people from different backgrounds. It is in the University’s best interest to support these student projects to the fullest extent possible.

Compared to the rest of the Ivy League, Cornell stands as one of the most egalitarian colleges. For example, Cornell has, of all the Ivies, the lowest ratio of one-percenters to students from the bottom 60 percent. The average median income of the parents of Cornell students born between 1980 and 1991 is $151,908, again the lowest in the Ivies, while Princeton students’ parents have the highest average median income at $206,383. This should be encouraging news for all Cornellians, but also an important reminder that there is always progress to be made: the national average for median parental income was $76,499 — approximately half of the Cornell average.

The University must continue to provide a challenging yet supportive environment that socioeconomically diverse students need in order to succeed. A Cornell education is an invaluable opportunity and incredible privilege that should be just as accessible to the top one percent as to the bottom one percent.

  • Cornell Alum ’93

    The top 1% pay tuition at the full sticker price of about $50,000 per year. The bottom 40% pay much less than that per year and some go for free. If the price was the same for all (like most goods and services) then the real cost for tuition would be somewhere in the middle, like maybe $25,000 per year. But, by charging the top 1% much more, the bottom 40% may be subsidized by the top 1% which can then be admitted at much less charge. Although many people want college to be free, the truth is that it costs a lot of money to maintain and run colleges… maintain the buildings, grounds, utilities, pay teachers, etc. Sure, I wish college could be free for everyone- me, my kids, you, your kids, etc. But, the reality is that it costs money to run schools. And, the top 1% have money so they get charged more than “their fair share” and this, in turn, allows the bottom 40% to enroll at much less than “their fair share,” and in some cases, for $0. Like it or don’t like it but that’s the fact of the matter.

    • Cornell Alum 2011

      Agree 100%. Also, I appreciate Cornell’s progressiveness more and more each day, as I am currently at an institution that is silent when racism and inequality is visible each and every day, that makes weak stances in order to appease their alumni and trustees. Cornell should be compared to its peers (other Ivies and “elite” private colleges) rather than public institutions.

  • Reality Check

    Wealthy donors also donate money to the university. This pays for facilities and amenities, and wealthy donors and alumnae also donate to the scholarship funds that support poor students. Basically in order to pay for poor students the university needs a huge base of wealthy donors (and students). In order to provide the networking that would actually enable lucky poor students who were accepted, the university needs to have a large number of wealthy to upper middle class students to make this possible. I think the supportive services like Gannett and various groups on campus got much better over the years in terms of supporting students from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds.

  • old alum

    Agree Reality Check. Not pretty, but true. Also, the number of low income students who eventually become contributing Alums should not be underestimated. Additionally, the high income parents who pay the full tuition rate and often are donors have often been low income students at other educational institutions. Finally, admissions procedures can select applicants to Cornell who show empathy for causes and pursuits that assist and uplift those less fortunate economically.

  • Matoch makur

    Hello… Iam a South sudanese student looking for scholarship to pursue nursing in college. I have completed form four currently in the year of 2012 in Uganda at Lubir secondary school. However, i really need your scholarship due to lack of financial assistance. Our economic situation is very poor and i can not afford to pay my tuition fees. Therefore, iam trying to seek possible international help which seem to the only opportunity for me. I came from very poor family and we are suffering due the war going on in South sudan. So iam looking into studying childcare. Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated. I look forwards to hear from you soon.
    Many thanks,
    matoch makur