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.