October 14, 2020

FOX | Hybrid Semester Threatens Cornell’s Claim to Nonprofit Status

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I’m spending the month of October in Michigan, a key swing state among a small cohort sure to decide both the presidential election and control of the Senate. While this is the priority I chose to set for myself this semester, I remain enrolled as an online student taking a full credit load at Cornell. The readings are immersive and the lectures are informative. Given that most of my peers living in Ithaca have only one or two in-person courses, the class component of my education this semester is not too dissimilar to theirs. Still, without the ability to study in groups, engage in free-flowing conversation and take full advantage of university facilities, a pressing truth becomes clear: This is not worth the money.

The rapid rise in cost of higher education has been driving these considerations for years. At what point, many ask, is college simply too expensive? Student loan debt topped $1.6 trillion in 2020. This number is going nowhere but up. Colleges engage in an endless arms race with one another to attract students at these high costs with fancier amenities, which in turn only push their price tags further into the sky. Appreciating the education but seemingly needing the degree, we hand over what is asked of us — with varying levels of financial aid — every year. But the pandemic has shaken the paradigm. The worth of higher education must be reexamined.

Four consecutive questions present themselves:

  1. If Cornell charges full tuition (and in fact raised it) for an online semester, is the school implying that the value of the education is unchanged despite the dominantly online nature of hybrid courses?
  2. If the value is unchanged, why not keep the option for remote learning permanently, turning Cornell into a continually hybrid institution?
  3. Does Cornell consider its education to be fundamentally good, and expanding its availability to more students therefore also fundamentally good?
  4. If Cornell remains a hybrid institution, why not expand its enrollment dramatically?

These questions do not have easy answers. If the quality and value of college education is somehow diminished when remote (as is my experience), then it should cost less. But, if I am mistaken, and the value is indeed the same, we are brought to question 2.

Should remote learning be made a permanent option? If quality and value are indeed unchanged, the hybrid model must become permanent, especially to increase accessibility for students who live far from Ithaca or whose households are of limited means.

If quality and value are unchanged and remote education is made permanent, Cornell will have to ask itself if its offerings are a product sold for a reasonable value on the free market, or a societal good. If it is a product, its value is increased by limited admission simply through the basics of supply and demand. However, if society is made better by being populated by Cornell graduates, Cornell’s mission must be to grow its total number of graduates as much as possible.

One could argue that our stringent admissions policies are necessary to ensure only the best and brightest earn the few coveted spots at our school. However, the Cornell University rejection letter clearly states: “Cornell’s admission selection process was especially competitive this year. As the number of well-qualified applicants to the university has increased, we have had to deny admission to many candidates who could no doubt take advantage of a Cornell education.”

Our university is openly rejecting many applicants who our admissions department openly recognized as qualified to study here. This says nothing of the countless high schoolers discouraged from applying in the first place thanks to our low acceptance rate.

So, if more Cornell graduates is good for society, we should dramatically expand our enrollment to include all qualified applicants, understanding that a large number of students will spend most or all of their college experience online. If our university refuses to do this, they are either admitting that their education is a product sold for a profit, or admitting the diminished value of remote learning. Cornell must prove our degree is more than just a product sold for profit by either expanding enrollment or slashing tuition for the duration of hybrid learning.

Cornell cannot have it both ways. Nor can the numerous other universities confronting the same dilemma. The rising cost of education is unsustainable; Covid-19 has proven to be an opportunity for paradigm shift across society. Whether through reduced costs, a move toward the hybrid model, increased enrollment or a reassessment of the entire system of elite education, change is coming.

Elijah Fox is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at efox@cornellsun.com. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.