April 7, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Summer Contributions, the Elephant on the Bursar

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People are dying, businesses are bankrupt and summer is canceled. Many students at Cornell have already had their hard-earned summer employment opportunities stripped from them and others are biting their nails, awaiting most likely the same fate. Coronavirus has imploded numerous summer prospects for students without even addressing the economic element. Because of this, there should be no more student summer contributions.

Due to the ruination of companies’ profits, corporate entities are continuing to shed students’ summer opportunities as more and more economic uncertainty arises. This leaves behind a vulnerable demographic of students: low and middle-income. After realizing they (nor their families in relation to them) will not be receiving money from the stimulus check (as they are dependents but over the age of 18), they are faced with the reality of losing the money that would have kept them afloat during the summer, as well as prevent that insidious bursar hold.

Essentially, this is low/middle-income students who lost their summer opportunities being left hanging in relation to Cornell’s student summer contribution. This is a non-transparent, unexpected portion of Cornell’s financial aid package in which the university expects you to secure a high-paying summer opportunity that allows you to not only save a few thousand dollars to pay for your education during the year, but also to house, clothe and feed yourself. Obviously, this is ridiculous as many of the paid opportunities are in hyper-expensive places like New York City or the Bay Area. If you are not privileged to live near enough to your opportunity to stay at home, you are in serious trouble. Other elite private universities (like Princeton) have done away with the summer contribution without needing a calamity like the coronavirus to present a convincing case.

In anticipation of covert conservatism coming out of the wazoo, I would like to usher everyone to stop using the poverty porn narrative that low-income students should be grateful to be at elite institutions. The students were rightfully admitted and found work to allow them to pay the portion they “owe”; their financial aid package does not justify people claiming that students should be grateful for the aid they receive and happily take out loans. Not to advance stereotypes of different demographic minorities (as I am one myself), but we know that black and brown people are generally the lowest-income in the United States, and it would be reasonable to assume that they are the students who are receiving financial aid at Cornell (of course not all of them).

Truthfully, elite private universities like Cornell are profiting immensely off students, regardless of their ability to pay. Ivy League universities receive enough tax subsidies that it equates to almost $60,000 per year per student (regardless of socioeconomic status); this does not include money from individual donors wanting to support specific disadvantaged groups and other sources (such as foundations or charities). I can, with unwavering certainty, testify that when that is taken into context, combined with Ivy League endowments and clout to receive money, they can afford to fund this student summer contribution charge.

Furthermore, Ivy Leagues need black, brown, rural and disadvantaged and marginalized students on their campus to protect the forward-think reputation that ultimately fuels their income and prestige. This elite status is the reason that the wealthy send their children to attend. Thus, ironically, it is only possible to maintain Ivy League prestige and endowments if these same universities fund disadvantaged and marginalized students.. At the end of the day, the socioeconomic elite’s tuition money is not paying for these students’ education; it is their desire to stay elite that does.

Going back to the matter at hand, the summer student contribution needs to be abolished, not just for this summer, but permanently. It is causing a host of problems for students, ranging from financial, to emotional, to even physical.  American citizens of all age groups who went to university in the U.S. have racked up a staggering $1.6 trillion dollars in debt. It is such an issue that presidential campaigns are promising to erase part or all of it to gain nationwide support. This fact alone is justification as to why we cannot expect students (or their parents) to take loans to alleviate this student contribution levy. After all, why would anyone want to see a fellow Cornellian trapped into a vicious cycle of debt?

A rumbling belly, a head hung in defeat when there is no free computer access,  looking out the window of your deserted dorm during Thanksgiving Break — these experiences have a significant effect on your educational experience. Countless researchers in education claim that these types of events affect your sense of belonging and engagement on-campus, serving as a crucial part of your development as a student and person. Beyond this, there are more specific and easy-to-understand costs that low and middle-income students who rationally deny loans will not be able to afford: textbooks, toiletries and the bus. Living without these is disastrous to a student.

While Cornell has excelled, setting standards in many capacities  (such as the Architecture and Hotel Administration programs), it has fallen behind the best in terms of financial aid. This is a great opportunity for Cornell to not only help its students perform better and be financially stable, but also to reform their financial aid package and become a leader in that space.
Benjamin Fields is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinio@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.