Nearly every year, the front page of Cornell’s website is blazoned with some variation of the headline, “Cornell Admits Most Diverse Class Ever.” The University boasts that its goal of increasing the number of students of color on campus is working, as more and more minority students enroll at Cornell each year. Yet the claim that Cornell is becoming more “diverse” is misleading. Yes, the University is the most racially heterogeneous it has ever been. And yes, the University has one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the country. However, skin color is not the sole measure of diversity; in fact, it is only a component of a much larger puzzle.
The purpose of diversity is to include people of different backgrounds to create a more enriched cross-cultural experience for students. To create this experience for students, university officials must look beyond race — specifically, they must also look to socio-economic status. And when it comes to socioeconomics, Cornell fails miserably.
Currently, the average household income of a Cornell student’s family is $151,600 — nearly three times the national average of $57,600. Half of all Cornell students come from the top 10 percent of income earners in the country, and a third come from the top 5 percent. On the other hand, less than 4 percent of Cornellians come from families in the bottom 20 percent of income earnings. Among the nation’s 2,395 colleges, Cornell is ranked 2,142 in its representation of students from the bottom 20 percent.
These numbers are, quite frankly, egregious. Cornell continually parades itself as a beacon of diversity, yet is as economically diverse as a Westchester country club. This self-promoted “diversity” is but a fallaciously concocted illusion.
What these numbers do not tell is the very real struggle that non-upper class students face on a daily basis on campus. In my experience, there are two types of students that are particularly impacted by Cornell’s lack of concern for non-wealthy students: Cornellians from low income families, and upper middle class students.
The struggles faced by low-income Cornellians are apparent everywhere. The ridiculously bloated on-campus food prices, the endless array of fees (I’m looking at you, printing fee), and the eye-popping cost of textbooks are just some of the problems that continually plague the poorest of students.
But one of the greatest struggles faced by low-income students is the abysmal failure that is Cornell housing. Currently, the university only guarantees on-campus housing for two years. After their sophomore year, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are shoved off to Collegetown where they are forced to pay the astronomical rental rates of Ithaca’s slumlords. With the average apartment running in the $900-$1,000 range, these prices are simply impossible for low-income Cornellians to pay. And what has Cornell done to alleviate this problem? Hardly anything. So much for diversity.
In addition, students that live outside the Northeast often find it impossible to travel home. Those who live in California or Texas often find that they are forced to spend Thanksgiving on campus, as they are unable to afford a plane ticket back home.
While the struggles faced by low-income students are quite obvious to anyone who even remotely pays attention, the problems faced by upper middle class Cornellians are less apparent. Unlike their wealthier peers, these students do not have the resources to pay full sticker price for a Cornell education. And unlike their lower income peers, the parents of these students make enough money so that financial aid packages are quite limited. Upper middle class Cornellians are thus thrust into a sad financial purgatory, where they do not receive the necessary economic resources to pay for Cornell from neither the university, nor their families. As a result, students in this group are often saddled with exceedingly high debt. As someone who currently owes over $100,000 in student loans, I can personally attest to this depressing situation.
Cornell is, without question, a school for wealthy students. And while students from low income and upper middle class backgrounds are particularly affected, all non-wealthy Cornellians are impacted in some capacity by the university’s policies. If Cornell aims to truly be a diverse campus, it must begin to ameliorate the absurdity of its socio-economic condition. Financial aid programs must be expanded, burdensome fees must be reduced and affordable housing must be constructed.
The fiscal hawk in me recognizes that the above policies are, of course, hard to implement in light of budgetary restraints. However, the university seems to enjoy spending money on unnecessary projects all the time –– just look at the number of new buildings that are constructed each year. Instead of embarking on a new construction project every five seconds, perhaps the administration should take a look at the financial security of its students.
Michael Glanzel is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Mondays this semester.