At Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting, representatives and students questioned Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment, regarding extended delays in the distribution of financial aid money.
The assembly also approved a resolution calling on the University to officially recognize National Day of Remembrance for the U.S. Indian Boarding Schools, debated Professional Fraternity Council diversity reporting standards and heard election results from the S.A. freshman and transfer races.
For the past two years, some students’ financial aid has been delayed for months into the semester. According to Burdick, at the time of this S.A. meeting, roughly 630 students — 7 percent of students receiving aid — still had not received their aid and another 600 had not had their financial aid award appeals processed. With more appeals to arrive, the S.A. condemned these shortcomings in its first meeting of the semester.
Financial aid delays have increased stress for affected students, as well as worsened a student employee shortage. Logan Morales ’22, a student manager in two dining units on campus, said he can’t hire students who have employment holds placed on their accounts because their aid packages are still under review.
“There’s an understaffing crisis in dining units, and I cannot hire people who have holds on their accounts,” Morales said. “One person I was going to hire told me that their hold was resolved but they’re still waiting for it to be removed from the system… so I can’t put them into the payroll.”
Burdick began his testimony on a somber note.
“We’re not succeeding in financial aid. We haven’t been succeeding in financial aid for a while, in numerous conditions,” Burdick said.
According to Burdick, half of the outstanding aid packages are being reviewed by individual counselors, and the other half are held up due to paperwork issues — such as discrepancies between tax and FAFSA/CSS data — which Burdick said has been communicated to affected students.
Burdick also said that the majority of students with outstanding aid have received an estimate, which doesn’t give them access to their funds, but acts as a credit on their bursar bills, covering expenses like housing and tuition and prevents the accumulation of late fees.
In response to daily hardships faced by students whose aid has been delayed, like being unable to pay for housing and groceries, Burdick said the financial aid office has already waived registration and late fees, and would prioritize the cases of students facing emergencies like eviction as well as using emergency funds as stop-gap measures when necessary.
“If anybody is facing a consequence [of delayed aid] where they don’t have the money they need to pay those basic bills on a monthly basis, they absolutely should be coming to the financial aid office,” Burdick said.
In his preliminary remarks to the assembly, Burdick characterized the financial aid office as having been in a state of crisis for many years.
“When I arrived in [the financial aid office] in 2019 at Cornell, Cornell was already in what I would characterize as a financial aid crisis, not in the sense of spending or ability to fund students, but we had had some years of not understanding fully, and certainly not implementing fully, our responsibilities with compliance to the federal government,” Burdick said with regard to accurately reporting aid distribution.
Burdick blamed the current crisis primarily on a lack of personnel in the financial aid office. He told the assembly that at one point during the summer, 16 of the financial aid office’s 33 paid positions were vacant.
Since then, Burdick reported that 12 vacancies have been filled, with two more hirings in progress. A new director of financial aid has been hired and the position of deputy director for undergraduate student services has been created and filled.
On financial aid policy, Burdick sometimes agreed with the S.A. outright and condemned University policy. When Joseph Mullen ’24, vice president of internal operations, called a University policy preventing students from taking campus jobs while their account is on a financial aid-related hold “ludicrous,” Burdick agreed.
“I just found out about that policy last week, and I asked people who are experts in my area ‘Why do we do this?’ and nobody had a good answer, so it’s sort of lost in the mists of time why that’s the policy,” Burdick said. “My inclination is to think that’s something we need to change.”
But Burdick also defended the financial aid office staff and, in response to a question from Morgan Baker ’22, vice president of finance, about holding the office accountable to deadlines, said he believes the problem isn’t the current employees.
“People have been working very hard. We have people who’ve done thousands of reviews just on their own, just to make sure that we got out as much as we could,” Burdick said. “But the collective resource that the financial aid office needed has been missing for at least a year.”
Ultimately, Burdick said that most outstanding financial aid awards would be released in the first weeks of October, with the beginning of pre-registration for Spring courses in November serving as a hard deadline to release all aid.
In addition to discussions about financial aid, the S.A. also voted on Resolution 30, which calls for Cornell University to declare Orange Shirt Day as an official day of recognition and solidarity with Indigineous children who were victims of United States and Canada’s residential schools.
The resolution passed with a vote of 17-0-1. The U.S. unofficially recognizes Sept. 30 as a national day of remembrance for the still-unfolding atrocities committed against Native American children at these schools: conversions to Christinanity, mental, physical and sexual violence, including the gravesites of upwards of 6,500 children recovered at these schools.
“I find it necessary to bring awareness to the issues that directly impact universities’ Indigenous students,” said Yanenowi Logan ’22 .“We have an inherent obligation to our communities and ancestors to not allow this to be swept under the rug.”
Through this resolution, all students are encouraged to wear an orange shirt on Sept. 30 to honor the Indigenous children who never survived these institutions.
Pareesay Afzal ’24 contributed reporting.