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Cornell University and Ithaca College are two of the higher education institutions impacted by the Supreme Court decisions regarding affirmative action and student loan forgiveness.

July 20, 2023

Cornell, Ithaca College Respond to Landmark Supreme Court Higher Education Cases

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When the Supreme Court announced its two historic decisions regarding affirmative action in admissions and student loan forgiveness at the end of June, the higher education landscape was changed indelibly.

The court’s conservative majority decided both cases with six of the court’s nine votes. Two companion cases involving the University of North Carolina and Harvard University dealt with affirmative action, while the state of Nebraska won its challenge of President Joe Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan. 

The Supreme Court’s admissions decision overturned the precedent set in 1978 and struck down affirmative action, ruling it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment. This means colleges and universities that accept federal funding of any kind — which includes both Cornell and Ithaca College — can no longer use race as a factor in admissions decisions. According to officials from both schools, the ruling will not change the way they conduct admissions decisions.

According to The New York Times, the decisions are likely to cause student populations at top universities such as Cornell and Ithaca College to become more white and Asian and less Black and Hispanic. Cornell’s factbook states its current undergraduate population is 32.7 percent white, 24.8 percent Black, Hispanic, or indigenous and 26.3 percent Asian or Asian-white, with the remainder made up of international students or those of unknown race.

Ithaca College’s factbook, meanwhile, states its current undergraduate population is 72.4 percent white and 23.2 percent BIPOC — with no further information available — with the rest being either of unknown race or ethnicity or international students. 

Both Cornell and Ithaca College have issued statements from their presidents — Martha E. Pollack and La Jerne Terry Cornish, respectively — regarding the decision. 

In her statement, Pollack expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision and emphasized Cornell’s commitment to diversifying its campus.

“When universities are free to admit broadly diverse classes through an individualized and holistic application review process, they are intentionally creating a student body with the potential to create a spark of insight, to advance knowledge, and to challenge one another and thereby strengthen an argument or call an assumption into question,” Pollack said.

A representative from Cornell declined to comment further regarding any potential changes to its admissions process, saying Pollack’s statement was all Cornell would be sharing at this time. 

Cornish’s statement echoed Pollack’s, reinforcing Ithaca College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in its admissions process, though she also stressed that Ithaca College has not been considering race as a factor in its admissions process. 

“Ithaca College has been and will remain committed to being an institution that is welcoming and inclusive in recruiting, admitting and retaining a diverse student body,” Cornish said. “Providing an educational experience and fostering an environment that prepares our students for a diverse world is core to Ithaca College’s values, and we reaffirm our steadfast support for our BIPOC students.”

According to Dave Maley, Ithaca College’s director of public relations, the school utilizes an equity framework to further increase diversity on its campus, and it does not have different admission standards for different backgrounds. As such, Ithaca College believes it unnecessary to change its admissions process.

“We do not anticipate the need to make any changes as a result of the Supreme Court decisions in these cases,” Maley wrote in an email statement to The Sun.

In other SCOTUS decisions that impacted college students, the court ruled that the Department of Education does not have the authority to cancel up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 — commonly referred to as the HEROES Act.

President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief program relied on the HEROES provision that grants the U.S. government the ability to modify student loan programs in response to national emergencies — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Six states raised objections to Biden’s move, successfully arguing in the eyes of the court that the Secretary of Education does not hold the necessary authority to cancel some portion of student debt in this case. 

Cornell’s annual tuition before financial aid is $65,204 for endowed colleges and for non-New York state residents at contract colleges and $43,888 for New York State residents at state contract colleges, which make up four of Cornell’s colleges and receive significant and steady funding from the state. Ithaca College’s annual full-time tuition is $50,510.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 31 percent of Cornell undergraduates receive federal loans, and students who borrow graduate with a median of $14,000 of total debt. At Ithaca College, 71 percent of undergraduates receive federal loans and borrowers graduate with a median of $24,000 of total debt.

Cornell officials declined to comment regarding the case.

Maley, from an IC standpoint, affirmed support for the Biden administration’s federal student loan forgiveness plan as it would aid students and families burdened with college debt.

“Ithaca College is very supportive of measures that can address student debt and improve access to a college education, and it is unfortunate that this measure is no longer an option,” Maley said. “We look forward to learning more about the new student debt relief plan that is being proposed.”

Maley also described that students with financial aid packages containing loans can access loan exit counseling with Ithaca College’s Office of Student Financial Services throughout their last semester at the college. During this period, students are informed of the different repayment options offered by the Department of Education.

According to Maley, Ithaca College regularly looks for methods for making the school more affordable and accessible. Most recently, Ithaca College implemented the Ithaca Commitment which encompasses a four-year financial forecast and increase cap, a streamlined financial aid system and IC Advantage — a pass/fail virtual summer class offered at no additional cost to incoming students.

Maley also noted that incoming students generally receive more institutional aid in financial aid packages than in federal loans, with around 93 percent of students receiving some form of aid directly from Ithaca College.

Despite the Supreme Court’s strike down of the loan forgiveness program, on Friday, July 14, the Biden administration stated that 804,000 borrowers would see their student debt forgiven, for an accumulated $39 billion in relief.

The debt cancellation is driven by a series of adjustments to the student loan system’s income-driven repayment plans, where borrowers are able to get any remaining student debt canceled after making payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on when they originally borrowed money and their type of payment plan.

The Biden administration decided to count payments for borrowers who had paused payments in certain deferments and forbearances and for borrowers who had made partial or late payments. Through these concessions, many borrowers who had payments that were not previously accounted for will meet the requirements for forgiveness.

“For far too long, borrowers fell through the cracks of a broken system that failed to keep accurate track of their progress towards forgiveness,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

Jonathan Mong and Julia Senzon are reporters from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at the Ithaca Voice. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Voice.