Eddy Medina ’17 was crying in the financial aid office in the fall of his junior year. He couldn’t pay his tuition, his family didn’t have the credit to take out more loans and he was about to be withdrawn from the University. He was sitting with a financial aid counselor, and he had just asked her “what the hell do I do now?”
He asked if he should take time off from school to work and make more money, but that wouldn’t work, as it would increase his income, and that would have lowered his financial aid package. The counselor asked if he had any family who could help him pay for college, but that option wasn’t immediately available to him either. The counselor started tearing up too. She told him she was sorry, and that there was nothing she could do.
Medina said his family’s socioeconomic status is “as middle class as middle class gets.” After being withdrawn from the ILR School in the winter of his junior year for failure to pay his tuition, he was able to return in time for spring semester by securing a loan with the help of his grandmother, who cosigned despite the fact that she cannot speak English.
Data from the University show that financial aid policy has taken several turns in the past decade, and that Medina is part of a trend. In the past five years, loans have increased significantly, while grant aid has stayed roughly similar relative to the increase in loans.
In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, Cornell announced a new financial aid initiative to reduce loans for students. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2009, Cornell loans dropped from $3.016 million to $796,000. Private loans didn’t escape the trend either: It dipped from over $15 million in 2009 among 923 borrowers to $9.74 million in 2011 among 555 borrowers, according to data from the University.
Since then, however, loans have increased significantly. In 2012, Cornell announced that it was scaling back financial assistance to students, forcing more students to take out loans. Now, Cornell loans and private loans have risen 516 percent and 78 percent, respectively, from their lows of the past decade.
Still, in real dollars, Cornell is more affordable for most students today than it was before the 2008 loan-reduction initiative, according to Diane Corbett, Cornell’s director of financial aid. She said in a statement to The Sun that Cornell awarded $257 million in grant aid in 2018-2019, and that number is expected to grow to around $285 million next year.
Corbett said that 47 percent of undergraduates receive some form of need-based grant aid from Cornell, and that loans are capped based on a student’s income bracket. But students who find themselves taking out private loans could find themselves in difficult situations, especially since the total number of private loans are near 10-year highs, but the number of private borrowers at Cornell are not, suggesting that those that are taking out private loans are taking out higher amounts.
Clara Ricketts ’20, for example, has four siblings, three of whom are older and went to private universities. Her parents have over $100,000 in debt from taking out loans to send her older siblings to school, and they do not have the funds to pay her family contribution nor the credit to take out more debt.
Her freshman year, Ricketts took out a loan in her own name of around $30,000 from Wells Fargo. She was 17 years old at the time, and her parents co-signed for her, but they couldn’t take it out themselves because of the state of their credit.
Her sophomore and junior year, her family still couldn’t pay the expected contribution, so she secured a loan from a family friend who was willing to loan her money at a low interest rate.
Still, Ricketts — currently a junior — said she intends to graduate at the end of the semester because she cannot afford to stay another year at Cornell. She will graduate a year early with around $90,000 in debt in her own name.
While debt from her older siblings caused issues for Ricketts, having three younger siblings has caused issues for Bri Johnson ’21. Paying for Cornell is difficult for Johnson’s family; she said her family contribution is twice what the FAFSA estimates it should be.
To attend Cornell, Johnson said she has had to take out loans, and will also graduate with large amounts of debt. She said that has been a stressful decision for her and her family. She worries about whether her degree will be worth it, but tries not to think about it since there is not much she can do about it.
She works three jobs on campus, and says that her financial constraints have influenced her “tremendously.”
“My dad always tells me you should go into tech or IT, CS type thing because you make a lot of money,” she said. “You’re getting this much debt, you can’t afford to do what you like.”
Johnson decided to major in biology over environmental science “because [there’s] not much money in either but more money in bio.” And even within the bio major, she chooses to focus on biotech so she could potentially make more money out of college, even though she would rather focus on ecological biology.
However Johnson still worries for her three younger siblings, and whether her parents are spending too much on her and not saving enough for them. She said her younger sister, currently a senior in high school, didn’t want to go to an expensive school after seeing what going to an Ivy League school has meant.
“It makes me really sad to think about the fact that my sister might be limiting her educational choices because of the choice I made,” Johnson said.
And families will go to lengths to avoid taking on more debt. Brianna Douglas ’19 cuts costs wherever she can. She hasn’t bought a textbook in years, making use of library reserves and the Cornell Lending Library, but she said it would be easier to do well in classes sometimes if she could afford to buy a textbook.
Cornell is not alone in increasing the amount of debt its students have at graduation. Outstanding student loans in the United States are over $1.5 trillion dollars, according to the Federal Reserve.
However, some of Cornell’s peer institutions that have larger endowments per student, are better able to help students avoid debt. Harvard and Yale, with nearly $40 billion and $30 billion endowments, advertise that all their students have the option to graduate debt-free. Even Brown, which has a smaller endowment than Cornell, claims to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need without giving out loans.
Several recent changes suggest improvements in financial aid. Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in February that the University is putting $2 million into initiatives to boost socioeconomic diversity by encouraging lower-income students to apply. Cornell also increased the income bracket eligibility for reduced loans starting this academic year.
In addition, Corbett, who started as director in December, said that “the office’s physical space and its business processes are under review with the goal of improving the student experience.”
Corbett pointed out in the statement that “there are significant complexities in determining the distribution of financial aid funds.”
“We realize that the cost of higher education and college affordability is a concern for many students and families,” she said. “We also realize the incredible value of a Cornell education and how transformative the Cornell experience can be for students. In conjunction with our campus partners and based on the vision of university leadership, our goal is to make this experience a reality for all students regardless of their economic circumstances.”
Medina is still concerned about affordability. He said he graduated with around $100,000 in debt — 60 percent of which was private, but he counts himself lucky that he can pay back $1,000 a month and still afford his other expenses.
He still has up to eight more years left of paying off his student loans, but he’s hoping to pay them off sooner as his career progresses, because even though he’s “in a comfortable enough” financial situation, “I’m still very much so, getting by.”