Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

President Martha Pollack speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

November 13, 2019

Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity is a High Priority, Pres. Pollack Says. Flipped Classrooms Are Part of the Solution.

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While undergraduate education at Cornell may not be debt-free any time soon, President Pollack is putting increasing socioeconomic diversity at the forefront of her agenda.

This past year, the Cornell community has seen a range of initiatives addressing socioeconomic diversity from administrative driven programs to student-led projects. These include addressing food insecurity, cost of textbooks and general support for students of first generation and low-income backgrounds.

There is a disproportionate representation among income groups at Cornell. A study conducted by the The Equality of Opportunity Project released in 2017 revealed that 10% of the Cornell student body came from the top 1% income quintile, while only 3.8% of the student body came from the bottom 20%, for students born between 1980 and 1991.

“We’re not socioeconomically diverse,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in February of the undergraduate study body, 55 percent of whom do not receive Cornell grant aid. “We don’t look like the rest of the country and that’s why we’re trying to do whatever we can to try and improve that socioeconomic balance.”

Most recently, 45% of the class of 2023 has qualified for financial aid through demonstrated financial need.

President Martha Pollack confirmed the University’s ongoing commitment to increasing diversity within the undergraduate population, and said that the administration is seeking to address it on two fronts: actively recruiting those students and managing the cost that it will take to support them. There currently have been three “multi-million dollar” gifts given to this cause recently.

“When I’m on the road, it is always one of the first things I talk about, how important it is that we live up to our “any person” ethos, and how we need money for that,” Pollack said.

In addition to the institutional goal of addressing socioeconomic diversity, Cornell recently hired Jonathan Burdick to serve as the vice provost for enrollment, a new position he assumed in August. Using his background in admissions, he is overseeing the plan to increase socioeconomic diversity. Cornell hopes to announce new initiatives by the end of the academic year, Pollack said.

In addition to addressing the affordability of Cornell, another priority area is supporting a socioeconomically diverse student background. This includes looking at food insecurity, academic support and mentoring programs, which are run by Shakima Clency, Associate Dean and Director of First-Generation & Low-Income Student Support.

“So we are looking both for support in student life and support in the classroom. We want — I want — every single student to thrive,” Pollack said.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, said that the meal swipe donation program that Cornell began last semester, Swipe Out Hunger, currently has 3,000 swipes for those in need to use. The university sponsored food pantry that opened in collaboration with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier has been “well received,” according to Lombardi.

Support in the classroom is another facet of the ensuring diverse classes are given the resources they need. Flipped classrooms, a technique that involves active learning as opposed to solely delivering lectures, can be a solution. The preliminary data, published by discipline-based educational researchers, has shown that flipped classrooms help educational gains and build confidence in the classroom, according to Pollack.

“What we’ve seen is that in the classes where we’ve flipped the classroom, not only does everyone do better, but we close the performance gap between students of color, students from less resourceful high schools, you know, we used to see a performance gap,” Pollack said.

Recently, Cornell announced that Weill Cornell Medical College will be debt-free beginning with the class of 2023, a move that involved multiple contributions of tens of millions of dollars from donors, Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said.

The small size of the medical school also contributed to the feasibility of the measure. The Class of 2023 for Weill had 106 students, while 3,218 undergraduate students enrolled for the class of 2023.

When asked about reducing the loan burden of students in other areas of Cornell, Pollack said there is a trade-off to consider in increasing socioeconomic diversity and decreasing loans.

“You know, for every marginal dollar, we have to decide which of those two goals [to] put it to,” Pollack said. “And that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.”

The decision to move towards a debt-free medical college experience was considered because of the high cost of medical degrees and the range of salaries in different medical fields. Reducing debt burden post-college would allow people to take the path they wanted, according to Pollack.

Although reducing financial burden of the undergraduate Cornell education is Pollack’s “first focus,” she also wants to address the rising costs of the College of Veterinary Medicine, a field where post-graduate salaries are flagging.