April 15, 2019

LEE | Cornell Fitness Centers Should Be Free to Students

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The cost to attend Cornell University has skyrocketed each year. The tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year is $56,550, a $6,000 increase from the $50,712 I paid for my freshman year in 2016-2017. This price tag is the tuition alone, which does not consider other costs to attend Cornell, such as the student activity fee, housing, dining and much more. The total cost to attend an endowed college at this institution will amount to around $75,000 for the upcoming academic year. At a place where costs stack up higher each year, fitness memberships should not be an added burden placed on students.

Why fitness facilities are an additional expense for students who already pay such a hefty price for the Cornell experience has continued to baffle me. During this past academic year, students were required to spend $159 per year or $100 per semester in membership fees to use the Cornell Fitness Centers equipment and attend group exercise classes.

This may not initially seem to be a major concern, since many other cost-related issues already permeate across campus. From overpriced apartments to expensive meals, there are numerous ways through which Cornell students, some of whom are taking on loans to help finance their education, are expected to empty out their pockets. $159 may not appear to be the foremost cost issue, but it is definitely a barrier that precludes students who are on a tight budget from seeking a healthier lifestyle. $159 inhibits people like me who aren’t avidly athletic from even trying because we might as well allocate those funds to an additional meal per week throughout the year. “For people who feel the need to exercise, the high membership fee may be worth it. For everyone else who may want to go occasionally, the fee discourages them from feeling the need to exercise,” said Jenny Wu ’19.

Among the many issues across campus, mental health has been a key concern according to President Martha Pollack’s address to the Student Assembly last month. In its “broader and more holistic approach” to examining mental health issues, the University should consider opening the doors to the fitness facilities to all students. From the University’s standpoint, this would be a doable and cost-effective measure that not only improves students’ physical health but also their mental health. As is commonly known, exercise boosts the body’s ability to respond to stress, thereby relieving symptoms such as depression. Encouraging regular activity through eliminating the cost to use fitness facilities would bring about positive ripple effects in Cornell’s high-stress environment where the number of students who seek Counseling and Psychological Services has risen by eight percent within the past decade.

Cornell is the only school in the Ivy League that requires an additional payment from undergraduate students to use its fitness centers during the academic year. Other universities in the area — Ithaca College, Syracuse University, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology — also include fitness memberships as a part of their student privileges. Just as healthy employees enhance productivity in the workplace, healthy students augment the learning environment. These schools in the Ivy League and in Upstate New York understand that making athletic facilities accessible is an effective method of directly enhancing student well-being.

While Binghamton University is one of the few schools nearby that requires a $180 annual membership fee, students there receive a reimbursement if they make 50 visits in a six month period. If providing free membership for all students is unfeasible at Cornell, similar reimbursement programs that have existed in the past should be brought back at the minimum. CFC’s newly launched late-night special option, which allows all members of the Cornell community to use its fitness centers on Friday and Saturday evenings past 8 p.m., is a good start. Yet many students have prior commitments on Friday and Saturday evenings, posing an additional accessibility issue. Students should not have to see enriching their social and extracurricular activities and their health as an “either or” option.

The University should designate certain free fitness facilities for each day. The fitness centers could be open on additional days throughout the week at varying times. For example, the centers could be open to all community members during Mondays and Tuesdays in the afternoon, and Wednesdays and Thursdays in the morning, in addition to the evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Another possible resolution could be to offer one or more free group fitness classes per week throughout the semester, with a signup deadline required at least 24 hours before the class takes place. There are many processes through which CFC could be made more accessible for its primary users — the students — without posing a major burden on its operations. It is now time for Cornell to realize the need to foster student well-being by adopting a policy that is already set in stone by comparable Ivy League and New York State colleges.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.