July 29, 2020

BARAN | Cornell Should Discount Our Tuition

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The past few months have been filled with weighty decisions and harsh truth. Calamity, fear and frustration have seemed inescapable features of life. Amidst all of this, Cornell has pledged to make us pay more money to go to school. That’s right. Cornell has continued with its planned tuition increase at a time when students and their families are more likely than ever to be struggling financially. This move not only shows grave insensitivity towards students, but it also is simply nonsensical. Cornell should reverse this decision and, instead, discount our tuition.

Even a cursory examination of Cornell’s reopening plan for this semester should indicate that charging full tuition is highway robbery. Any way you cut it, we are paying more for less. Cornell is charging more money for a hybridized education. And while “hybridized education” is a pretty phrase, what it inevitably means is an inferior education.

I will say that Cornell is doing a fantastic job of making the most out of a bad situation. A hybrid education is certainly better than no education or a completely online education. But here’s the thing. It’s not better than normal. And we’re paying more for it. We shouldn’t pay more for an inferior product.

In a normal semester tuition includes a slew of benefits that aren’t factored into the cost. The ability to form study groups with peers, joining and participating in valuable clubs and extracurriculars and getting in-person help on problem sets are among these benefits. Even the freedom to move about and converse with others can be included in this list. Because these activities have no actual dollar value, their near-disappearance causes no decrease in the amount we pay. Cornell should recognize these benefits as part of the tuition value and cut it accordingly.

And keep in mind that this hybridized education is a best-case scenario. The idea of paying more to go to school only becomes more ridiculous as one closely reads Cornell’s reactivation plan and considers the state of the pandemic. There is an entire section of the reactivation plan dedicated to a complete shutdown of in-person activities “if necessitated by widespread COVID-19 transmission.”

Last time I checked, the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down. Despite all of the safety measures in place on campus, I find it very difficult to imagine there not being “widespread COVID-19 transmission” at Cornell this fall. We’re all Cornell students, be realistic. Do any of us really believe that people aren’t going to immediately begin socializing in large groups with minimal safety precautions? Give any of the student public health warriors a couple shots, and watch their mask disappear.

The only logical conclusion for me is that a complete shutdown of in-person activities is very likely. We’re heading for a repeat of what we experienced in March. Only this one will probably happen much earlier in the semester. This means that we’ll be paying more for a form of education that’s inferior to the one that was already not ideal. Cornell knows this full well. Are we all delusional?

What I’m suggesting here isn’t crazy. Williams College and Princeton University are offering students 15 percent and 10 percent tuition cuts, respectively. Georgetown University is providing a 10 percent discount to those who decide to complete their studies from home this semester. By not following the example of its peer institutions, Cornell is hurting its students and itself.

What message does Cornell think it’s sending by raising tuition for a hybridized semester? To me, there are a couple. They both make me question the system of higher education and the value of my university. The first is that a hybrid education is equivalent to an in-person one. Regardless of whether or not Cornell believes it to be true, that is the opinion it’s projecting. The second is that the primary object of a Cornell education is not the content but the resulting pedigree. Together, these messages signal to me that the education I’m receiving is easily replaceable by online classes, taken at Cornell or elsewhere. The value I derive from attending Cornell, then, mostly comes from the writing on my diploma.

The saddest thing about the thoughts I’ve expressed in this column is that none of them will amount to anything. Nothing will change. And, sickeningly, that makes complete sense to me. I’ve read enough about the finances of higher education to know that despite skyrocketing tuition and an enormous endowment, Cornell operates within a very tight margin. I’m confident that this tuition hike makes perfect financial sense. The University, most likely, has little choice in the matter, especially considering the added costs of re-opening during a pandemic.

Unfortunately, the culture we’ve built around higher education stipulates a continuation of the current system, no matter how disillusioned some of us have become with it during this pandemic. I’m taking a leave of absence this semester because I think the state of a Cornell education is absolutely ridiculous right now and simply not worth paying for. I know I’ll return because a Cornell degree is just too sweet to pass up. But you know what? The fifteen-plus community college credits I plan on collecting this semester will transfer because, in the words of the CALS Student Services Office, they are equivalent (or close to) the rigor of Cornell credits.

The only way for Cornell to stem this trajectory of disillusionment and injustice to financially disadvantaged students is to do everything it can to discount our tuition. These are not normal times. Any sort of tuition cut would do wonders for many families and help the mental health of students who are now questioning the value of their education.

 

Christian Baran is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs biweekly this summer.