Is Cornell Losing Middle-Class Students?

Cornell faculty and administrators gathered Wednesday evening at a faculty event titled “Cornell’s Financial Aid Policies: Unimaginable Outcomes?” to discuss the University’s financial aid policy and alternatives policies.

The muddled conclusion appeared to be that Cornell’s financial aid policies are hurting middle-class students, and that Cornell will likely see declining enrollment of middle- and upper-income students if policy is not changed.

According to charts shown at the meeting, students coming from families in income brackets below $120,000 are actually spending less in tuition than they were more than five years ago, when then-President David Skorton lobbied the Board of Trustees to increase financial aid after the 2008-09 Financial Recession. The Board acquiesced to an additional endowment distribution of $35 million per year from FY10 to FY15 for financial aid purposes.

Cornell Median Cost

The chart clearly shows Cornell is becoming increasingly reliant on squeezing as many dollars as possible from the richest of families to subsidize growing financial aid allocations. All the while, students whose families earn too little to comfortably pay in total Cornell’s $60,000+ yearly bill, but too much to qualify for enough aid (or any at all) to make it feasible, are either bearing as much as they can or very soon will as well. These groups are represented by the yellow and purple lines. In reaction to this, Professor Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, said he fears soon Cornell will no longer be a viable option for families who earn between $75,000 and $200,000.

Cornell Middle Class Enrollment

The charts above tell a slightly different tale, one of increasing enrollment from the $75,000-$120,000 range and decreasing of flat enrollment for all levels above and below. Much of the stalled or declining attrition rates begin in 2013, when the University changed its financial aid policy to lower the zero family contribution threshold to $60,000, increased work-study expectations and loan caps, decreased parent contribution reductions, and discontinued preferential loans reductions.

The other topics discussed focused on the trade-off between financial aid and other university spending, notably faculty salaries, and how financial aid policy can be modified to increase student quality at Cornell.

Currently, Cornell’s fastest growing spending category is facilities expenses, which includes maintenance and utilities costs for the campus’s increased number of buildings and upgrades over the years, while faculty salaries have grown at less than 1% per year since 2010. On the income side, Cornell is becoming increasingly reliant on gifts to short up the operating budget as state appropriations decline and net undergraduate tuition climbs slowly due to increased financial aid allocations.

Interestingly, in perhaps what can best be described as in an abashed manner, some presenters including Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, and Board of Trustees member Barton Winokur ’61, spoke about the trade-off between Cornell’s goals to enroll a diverse student body—diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background, etc.—and the intellectual quality of the student body. Ehrenberg spoke of Cornell’s lowered enrollment of National Merit Scholarship Finalists and Semi-Finalists over the years compared to institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, and Winokur of his experiences serving as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Brandeis University, where he instituted reforms to financial aid policy that, according to him, increased the school’s competitiveness and maintained desired levels of student diversity. Winokur explained that by slightly reducing aid to the lowest income families and slightly increasing to higher-income families, Brandeis was still able to admit nearly as many lower-income students as desired and the attrition rate for higher-income families that might have been lured to peer institutions or even higher-ranking ones like Cornell increased.

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut conclusions here. However, Winokur’s discussion of his tenure at Brandeis was especially notable if it was truly as successful as he purported it to be. Other than that, it looks like Cornell will continue to limper along until either a major crisis or the crushing weight of reality compels significant policy changes.

2 Comments on Is Cornell Losing Middle-Class Students?

  1. Looking at the charts in this article striked me. That’s why Macy and Nordstrom are struggling! Their middle and up middle class customers population are shrinking. Their customers are struggling paying or saving for their kid college tuitions which will piles on the top of their own student loans. One day beautiful Nordstrom and Macy will disappear alone with the American middle class.

  2. wow, that seems to be an alarming trend. As a parent of a 1st year Cornell student, I am that “SQUEEZED” family; one income, upper middle class whom can no longer shop at Nordstrom, and finds himself at big box stores weekly for food and basics.

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