December 10, 2020

DERY | Cornell Ought to Offer a Free Winter Session to Students

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With the semester’s courses coming to an end, and Spring’s pre-enroll period fast approaching, the winter session seems to remain lost in the fray, a mere afterthought for the many Cornellians who do not take part in the University’s annual course offerings during the winter break. The smaller class selection and seemingly condensed schedule, coupled with the rather hefty price tag that consistently hovers in the mid-one-thousands per credit, have made the winter session less than a lucrative offer for students not attracted by any of the rather niche offerings. However, at a time when our instruction infrastructure has undergone a top-to-bottom reform, it seems fitting that tis’ be the holiday season where we no longer let the winter session slip under the radar. Reform, at least for this upcoming winter break, is long overdue.

As it stands, Cornell offers typical winter session courses at $1,575 per credit hour, a small uptick from last year’s rate of $1,520 per credit. Yet, this price comes at a time when the winter session will be administered entirely virtually, unlike previous years where an in-person option was made available. Especially considering that other schools, like Notre Dame, have made winter session courses free to enrolled undergraduate students, it seems out of place that Cornell has kept their prices steady when all they have to show for it is a remote iteration of previous years. 

Quite frankly, the price tag would be expected if the winter session would be continued in-person; those who choose an on-campus version of certain courses could be met with some sort of additional fee — an option not mutually exclusive with offering greater discounts to students interested in pursuing remote options. And following a similar testing model of this past fall semester, this option does not seem at all far-fetched from a safety standpoint considering that the campus could be largely de-densified. Yet, instead, the multiple thousand dollar tuition barrier continues to make the winter session nearly irrelevant for many students looking to be productive over the break. 

At the root of the issue, and as observed this past summer by many students, the pandemic has made even more challenging the search for opportunities during school breaks. If we also appreciate the fact that we’re coming on the heels of a successful fall semester, following an at-times rocky transition to virtual learning in the spring, a low-cost or free winter session would be a true sign of good faith by the University, giving back to the students whose contributions made an in-person reality possible.

The main reason, then, why the University is sticking to its traditional price, is likely to accommodate for the financial burden that comes with the winter session. Yet, given that online courses have the potential to be fractionally less expensive for Universities than their in-person counterparts, freed from the need to accommodate students living on campus, it seems well in reach that the University could reasonably enact price reduction of similar measures. 

I spoke with a lecturer at another University in the Northeast about this topic, who says that a primary reason a free winter session is not feasible under current policy is that teaching faculty, at least in the lecturer’s institution, are bound to a yearly quota of what are referred to as on load courses they are required to teach; summer and winter courses do not count towards that threshold. This isn’t to say that a reasonable permanent fix to this obstacle would be to count winter courses towards this quota indefinitely, since they tend to be more compact in nature compared to a normal 14-week semester; however, an exception to such a policy seems commensurate as a gesture towards students who have had to make adjustments and sacrifices far greater in number and magnitude than what is being asked. Such a solution would allow the University to reallocate how they invest in certain courses taught year-round, instead of paying additional salaries for the winter programming. 

It almost goes without saying that the zoom infrastructure set in place since March has made the transition into teaching a remote winter session even smoother. Though smooth transitions equate to more efficiency and less mishaps for instructors and students, for the University, they translate a lessened blow to the checkbook. Among these possibilities, in addition to other benefits the University could provide to instructors to teach additional courses that would meet a higher demand if the winter session were made free, it becomes hard to pinpoint an exact reason why it is that low cost winter break course offerings — if only for this year — are infeasible. 

If anything, enabling a cost-free audit option for courses, which is currently disallowed by the University, or alternatively providing certificate programs that reduce instructors’ burden, seem to be appropriate measures the University could take to translate their words of thanks to us students into action. 

After all, this school year saw both students and instructors alike bend over backwards to make possible a successful in-person return, guided by the University’s many accommodations. In a year where accessibility to education was supposedly the name of the game, it’s a shame to see Cornell bring back the multiple thousand dollar tuition that makes the winter session an irrelevant tease for too many students.

Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.