April 24, 2017

GUEST ROOM | The Ivory Tower on the Ivory Tower

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The esteemed Prof. Matthew Desmond, sociology, Harvard, spoke at Cornell late last year. Standing in front of a group of eager academics, he passionately discussed the riveting journey of a low-income family under duress. This family, consisting of a single mother and her young sons, was unceremoniously evicted from their trailer home; they could not pay rent. Trudging through snow-blanketed streets, the downtrodden mother and her children were forced to seek immediate shelter to make it through the week.

As Desmond continued his story, I sat shaken in the audience. How could anyone press on despite such abject conditions? I could not see myself surviving the confluence of immense financial burdens, runoff psychological tolls and potential societal stigma through which  Desmond’s anecdotal families went. After the event ended, I found myself lost in thought and wandering aimlessly through central campus.

This semester, I continued my inquiries into socioeconomic inequality. I came across a New York Times article detailing Ivy League socioeconomic data. Unfortunately, the nominal data was severely disappointing. Despite the fact that we attend a school with billions of dollars in its endowment, only 2.9 percent of poor students become wealthy adults.

Despite my initial surprise at the data, a quick look at my Cornell experience reveals something obvious. Throughout my time here, I have become part of a socioeconomically privileged system; I am the president of the Cornell Consulting Club, a professional organization with a 2.5 percent acceptance rate. There are more pre-professional clubs like this, some with equivalently strenuous admissions processes. Moreover, these organizations represent only a slice of the issue. The extensive Greek community, other elite non-business organizations and even certain colleges further exclude and segment a supposedly united student body.

Why is selectivity problematic? While Cornell is resource-laden, it is severely behind the career counseling curve. Many students’ inclination to trust their peers over Cornell’s career counselors when it comes to advice speaks volumes about the quality of the University’s administrative competencies. As such, career success is highly dependent on unrestricted access to extracurricular resources. This access is manifold. Whether it be through learning how to interview under the tutelage of a senior or through amassing social capital via a sorority’s events, the quintessential Cornell experience is locked behind a wall of applications and rush events.

To surmount the wall, students invest time and money. Monetary costs include formal attire for business clubs, membership dues for Greek organizations, and a host of aggregate auxiliary costs  (e.g. social costs). Time costs are just as clear. A student working several jobs to pay tuition may find it difficult to spare time to participate in intensive student groups.

Other barriers are harder to quantify but still ever-present. Wealthier students may have extensive pre-college networks that help them navigate Cornellian territory. Consider resumes: connected students may have neatly formatted resumes replete with prestigious internships and experiences. Those of lower-income can lack opportunities and might, in Cornell’s environment, appear less traditionally interesting or learned. After all, society tends to view the worldly Instagram traveler as more cultured than the son of a blue-collar worker.

This “vicious cycle” is perpetuated at Cornell. The underprivileged lack the economic and social resources necessary to break into some of the most effective extracurriculars. As a result, they have a tougher time taking advantage of what this campus has to offer. Upon graduation, they are often quantitatively and qualitatively behind.

Cornell’s motto is “Any Person, Any Study.” Quite frankly, this is hard to believe (see the leaked AFAWG papers). Because I doubt Cornell’s main focus is on student socioeconomic equality, I believe campus leaders should spearhead the change. The clubs we lead often hold some of the keys to structural terms of success out of college — many recent graduates and upperclassmen credit their organizations for their career successes. For example, my mentors within my consulting club and business fraternity helped me land my internship at McKinsey. I genuinely believe that I would not have made it there without their assistance.

Campus leaders can take the proper moral stance by evaluating barriers to entry. My consulting club has banned the freshman resumé and now strongly encourages casual attire during our interview process. Along with one of my good friends in AEM, I have also started lobbying business club leaders to create a joint “business boot camp” to disseminate professional resources to the public. One potential universal solution could be a united effort to offer more financial flexibility with regards to membership dues in various clubs and Greek organizations.

These potential solutions all matter. While interviewing for internships last semester, I kept hearing one recurring theme: “we care about intrinsics.” In other words, my interviewers were looking for internal skills as opposed to the icing on the cake. Cornell ought to maintain a similar environment. Prior advantages conferred upon select students do not accurately represent the skills and intellectual capacity of the average Cornellian.

To disparage and ignore this issue is to fail an exercise in empathy and compassion. As Cornellians, we travel to Ithaca expecting to learn from and grow with our peers. Yet, the current system separates us from one another due to factors outside of our immediate control. We end up trapped in our echo chambers while also perpetuating a type of inequality with severe implications for society as a whole. This year is the year to begin fighting the trend and taking responsibility for the problem at hand. If not now, then when?


Charlie Liao is a junior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].