Emily Jacobsson / Sun Graphic Designer

According to the Cornell Undergraduate Admissions web page, students receiving aid are expected to make a contribution to their academic needs during the semester through the student contribution fee. Two groups are organizing a teach-in to give students a "safe-space" to discuss these policies.

November 15, 2018

Student Groups Educate Peers on Contribution Fee, Make Calls for Change

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The student contribution fee needs to change, argued the People’s Organizing Collective and the First Generation Student Union in a teach-in Thursday evening. At the gathering, members presented data and testimonies about how the required payment presents challenges for low-income students.

Every Cornell student, regardless of financial aid status, is required to pay a student contribution fee. This fee starts at $2,700 for freshmen and increases each year, reaching $3,700 for seniors. The intent of the fee is for students to have a “stake in their education,” POC said at the meeting.

Students are expected to pay the fee through a combination of summer earnings and current assets, while students who can’t afford the fee are allowed to take out a loan. The presenters at Thursday’s event argued that forcing students to take out a loan if they can’t pay the contribution fee goes against Cornell’s commitment to low income students.

Cornell’s financial aid website states that families with an income less than $60,000 and assets less than $100,000 will have no parent contribution and no loans.

Jaelle Sanon ’19, co-president of Cornell’s First Generation Student Union, has previously taken out loans to afford her contribution fee. At Cornell, Sanon noticed that the only people who worried about the fee were other low income students, and that the higher income students she talked to often didn’t even know the fee exists.

“Whenever I think of the student contribution, I always think it’s a punishment for being low income,” Sanon said.

The presentation shifted between explaining the contribution fee to engaging with the two dozen audience members.

One of the attendees pointed out how generous he saw Cornell’s financial aid contribution to be, especially compared to less competitive state schools. Others, however, felt that the fee prevented low income students from seeking unpaid summer internships and other opportunities.

Clady Corona ’19, co-president of FGSU, told the story of how she chose to go home the summer after her freshman year and work a minimum wage job rather than look for an “expensive” internship. The job allowed her to save $1,500 to take with her for the fall semester.

“It really is a kind of perpetration of economic violence,” David Leynov ’21 said. “$3,300 on a bursar bill doesn’t seem like anything that could fundamentally change the way you experience Cornell, and yet it does.”

Jason Locke, interim vice provost for enrollment, was among the attendees who showed up despite the snowstorm. At the end of the event, Locke proposed a second discussion about the fee, this time including university administrators to explain details about the contribution fee to students. Locke said that he thought that the administration could improve on its explanation of the fee.

“I take at heart that this is a complicated area and that we do ourselves no favors by the way we explain it,” Locke said.

Last month, POC provided a letter and petition with hundreds of signatures calling an end to the contribution fee. President Martha Pollack responded with what POC interpreted as a decision to not address the fee and close the conversation with her office. The student organizations hope to start the conversation again through Locke and other members of the Cornell administration, and to eventually bring it to Pollack’s attention again.

POC has also been collecting personal testimonies from students affected by the fee, and hope to continue engaging with the student body.

“We know things here take a while to get done, but one thing we definitely want to do is have constructive conversation,” Sanon told The Sun.