January 19, 2020

BETTEZ | The Quiet Classism in Engineering

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As the add/drop period continues and students consider the classes they’ll dedicate their time and energy toward, an element to class selection weighs more heavily on some more than others: the hidden costs that are barriers to taking the classes. Classism is inextricable from the American collegiate system, for which there is little Cornell’s College of Engineering can do to dispel. But for the changes it is capable of, Cornell can do better to ensure that all students are capable of taking all classes within the College regardless of their background. Any student who earns a spot in the engineering school should be capable of taking any of its classes.

The Ivy League university we attend surrounds us with such unusual wealth that it’s easy for the professors and administrators to forget that the perceived minor expenses of their classes aren’t just making an insignificant dent in the pocket of a Canada Goose or Supreme jacket. Their decisions could force a student to choose between their next meal or heating their apartment for the coming month and succeeding in their classes, a special kind of cruelty for the students who have worked so hard to get to where they are.

Many considerate professors of courses like CS 2110: Object Oriented Programming and Data Structures have done away with textbooks and opt to offer course material solely through their own lectures or distribute them for free through their own website. But still a significant number of Cornell’s engineering classes force students to dish out money beyond the exorbitant tuition and rent costs needed simply to remain at Cornell.

Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the required physics classes that all engineers must complete come from a place of thinly veiled greed. In the Cornell Store, the cost of the course notes, lab manual, and lecture questions for the PHYSICS 2214: Oscillations, Waves, and Quantum Physics class required for my major, electrical and computer engineering, sums to $121.50. These materials are reworked by the professor every semester to ensure that students can’t pass their useless old class materials onto their friends the next semester, forcing every new class to buy the materials over and over again. When I took the class, they didn’t even allow us the dignity of stapling our course notes together or even hole-punching it, giving us a giant stack of printer paper costing $67.

Even classes with the dignity to not force students to buy egregiously overpriced pieces of printer paper often have hidden costs. Some of the most popular electrical and computer engineering classes, such as ECE 3140 and ECE 4760, which both culminate in creative final projects, expect students to shell out their own money to realize their graded designs, paving a smoother path to success for the rich and limiting the creativity of  its food-insecure students.

More insidious and hidden is the classism in education quality that’s assumed of all of its students. Many students in the engineering school were fortunate to receive world-class high school education in international schools and private schools. Those who attended public schools, once they overcome the disadvantage of fewer resources, worse guidance counselors and less individualized attention to get into Cornell, continue to be penalized for their lack of wealth long after they get their acceptance letter. I was lucky enough to attend a solid public school in rural Massachusetts, the state with the best public school system in the country, and still spent my first two years here frequently struggling to catch up academically.

In my introductory to engineering class in my first semester, a class with no college course prerequisites, I spent the entire second half of the semester teaching myself physics E&M (Electricity and Magnetism) through online videos and old textbooks the professor gave me to keep up with the class. I took the highest physics class my high school offered my senior year, a physics mechanics AP class, and still spent that semester going to my professor’s office hours twice a week so he could re-explain concepts to me once I had taught myself enough E&M after lecture to grasp them. My sophomore year, the professor for the introductory circuits class for my major, ECE, blew through the basics of circuit analysis so quickly that I was completely lost for the first half of the semester. When I tried to go to his office hours to ask for help on the basics on how current and voltage behave in a circuit, his look of utter shock, like I was the dumbest person he’d ever encountered, almost made me drop my major right there.

Coming from as fortunate of a background as I do, I can only wonder how much worse it must be for the students. I don’t think any of the engineering college’s professors or administrators come from a place of malice to undermine the chance of success of its lower income students, only ignorance. Classism is the “prejudice or discrimination based on class,” and making the lives of low-income students needlessly more difficult is a prime example of it. The college can and should do more to create an equitable environment as suitable to everyone’s learning as possible by eliminating the hidden costs of classes wherever possible and ensuring that students from all educational backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mbettez@cornellsun.com. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.