On Oct. 17, 17 students crowded through the offices of Day Hall, proudly presenting Interim Director of Financial Aid Colleen Wright with a letter and a petition with hundreds of signatures calling for an end to Cornell’s student contribution fee.
The contribution fee is a flat rate based on a student’s year in school and is a requirement for every Cornell student enrolled at the University. However, said Daniel Bromberg ’20, one of the organizers of the People’s Organizing Collective campaign, not every student on campus is even aware of its existence.
“If you haven’t looked at your tuition bill, you don’t know what it is,” he said. The experience, he said, is profoundly different for students who receive financial aid and those who do not.
Freshmen at the University are required to chip in $2,700, which cannot be reduced through grant aid or University scholarships. The only way to reduce a student contribution, meant to be a student’s “stake in their own education,” Bromberg said, is through an outside scholarship, and, even then, only if a student is already receiving maximum financial aid from the University.
Other than that, it is up to the student to come up with the money, which the University expects to come from summer on-campus work, its website states. The expected contribution increases each year — sophomores pay $3,300, juniors $3,500 and seniors $3,700.
“If I work this entire semester I can expect to make $1,500,” David Leynov ’21, part of the POC, told The Sun. “So I would have to work two semesters to make up that $3,000. If you do that, you can only really take four classes — if you’re working 10 hours a week, it’s hard to take five classes.”
He was one of the nearly 240 people as of the time of publication who signed the petition, which began to circulate a couple of weeks before the letter drop at Day Hall. Bromberg and Kataryna Restrepo ’21, organizers of the campaign, presented a go-between for President Martha E. Pollack with a letter personally addressed to Pollack, former Director of Financial Aid Susan Hitchcock and Associate Vice President for Enrollment Jason Locke regarding the student contribution fee.
Hitchcock is no longer the director of financial aid, and no one appears to have been hired to fill the position.
Pollack told Bromberg in an email shared with The Sun that she would be meeting with “senior leadership” in regards to the student movement and will respond to the petition demands. The University declined to comment to The Sun by time of publication.
“These parents of low-income families can’t afford to pay those fees,” Restrepo told The Sun in an interview. “People from better-off-financially families can have their parents easily pay it.”
Christopher Hanna ’18, also involved with the campaign, said that the University’s current policy was in opposition to its “any person … any study” branding.
“It’s not really embodying the main principle that Cornell aims to set out,” he told The Sun.
The Princeton Review currently puts Cornell University at #20 in its ranking of “great financial aid schools,” which the Review says comes from students’ satisfaction ratings.
The University’s website states that 56 percent of current students receive some type of aid, with 44 percent qualifying for Cornell grant aid. Students with familial incomes of less than $60,000 per year have a “parent contribution” of $0, though the student contribution is still in effect.
The POC is advocating for a complete abolishment of the student contribution fee for every student, Bromberg told The Sun. This means that every student, including full-tuition students, would have their expected payment decrease by the amount applicable to their year.
The petition lists an estimate of a $50 million cost to the University if this measure were undertaken, which POC writes will come from diverting funds from “frivolous expenses.”
The University’s operating budget is expected to total $4.45 billion this year, stemming from endowment returns, tuition costs and donations. Of that, approximately $270 million is slated for undergraduate financial aid, according to the 2018-2019 budget plan.
Though POC hopes that Cornell will become a leader in the movement to abolish the fee, the University is not the first among top schools or even the Ivy League to take this step, they said. At Princeton, all students from families making less than $65,000 per year have full tuition, room, board and a “residential college fee” covered by the university, according to Princeton’s website. Summer savings are expected but not billed.
The University of Pennsylvania has no flat rate contribution but expects summer savings of around $1,800-3,000, depending on the student, their website states.
Harvard also does not require a flat rate student contribution, though its website indicates an expectation of school year and summer work. Yale has the second-highest student contribution, at up to $5,950 for upper-level students per year, including the summer contribution.
Emily Hong grad was an undergraduate student at Columbia University 10 years ago, where she was part of a similar campaign. On March 11, 2008, Columbia announced that it was eliminating all loans for students receiving aid, according to its financial aid website.
“Many years later, as a grad student, I still have loans from undergrad,” she told The Sun. Now, as a teaching assistant, she said that some of her own students weren’t able to complete courses they wanted because of the requirements of an on-campus job.
She said one of her former students is involved in the POC, which prompted her to lend her “solidarity and support.”
However, Columbia still requires a “Summer Work Expectation” of $2,400 for incoming students, while Dartmouth expects the student to contribute between $1,000 and $3,000 annually.
Brown has the highest advertised expectation in the Ivy League, with a summer earnings expectation of $2,950 each year and an additional up to $3,200 for upperclassmen.
Matthew McGowen ’19 contributed reporting to this article.