ITHACA, N.Y. — Every year, Cornell University announces tuition increases to a predictable chorus of media handwringing.
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I’ve been guilty of some of those alarmist headlines myself, which normally go something like: “Cornell Raises Tuition AGAIN?!?.”
The problem is that simply highlighting the bottom-line tuition number — now a whopping $48,880, for those keeping score at home — dramatically oversimplifies the underlying complexity in order to get a cheap sensational shock.
More importantly, doing so leads readers astray from the real story: That Cornell — like other elite universities — has followed through on genuine commitments to reducing the cost of tuition for low- and middle-income families.
A new chart from the Office of the Cornell Provost makes this clear. (The chart was included in a presentation this month to the university’s Faculty Senate.)
Here it is:
A few takeaways from it:
— Many are seeing real tuition increases
I don’t want to suggest that the growth of tuition is pure fantasy: For a large number of families, the price of Cornell really is rising quickly.
As the chart above shows, high-income earners face an increasingly high price tag for Cornell. In 2005, the median cost to attend Cornell for those without any aid hovered a little above $50K/year. Just 10 years later, it’s now closer to $65K/year — and that’s with inflation factored in.
Many students at Cornell come from families with extreme wealth, and it seems safe to say that this upper-echelon won’t really feel the pinch of an additional $10K/year. But if you’re not quite in the super-elite yet above the threshold for financial aid — $200K/year, let’s say — paying for Cornell appears increasingly painful.
— Reality does not match reality
Still, this nuanced picture is at-odds with public perception, which suggests that Ivy League schools continue to jack up tuition to the detriment of low-income families.
Business Insider’s Peter Jacobs does a nice job of summing up the divide: “At the core of this misunderstanding is an often striking difference between a college’s sticker price — the full cost of tuition and fees often most visible on a website — and the net price — what families actually pay after financial aid and grants …
“The Ivy League schools offer particularly generous need-based financial aid packages to students, thanks to their large endowments. On average, around half of students at those eight colleges receive financial aid, with an estimated average aid package of $40,000 for the 2012-2013 academic year.”
That’s clearly true for Cornell as well: The graph shows falling overall price tags for every income bracket at $120K/year or under, with the median cost for the lowest income bracket — under $60K/year — falling to around $7K/year.
Cornell tuition for under $10K/year? Now, that’s a discount.
— Ivy Leagues still struggle with economic diversity
But just because the cost of tuition is falling for lower income brackets does not mean that more poor students are actually enrolling.
Top-ranked colleges have seen “virtually no change” in the number of lower income students from the 1990s to 2012, according to a recent New York Times story. That was despite an overall increase in the number of students enrolled.
“Similar studies looking at a narrower range of top wealthy universities back those findings,” The Times reports said. “With race-based affirmative action losing both judicial and public support, many have urged selective colleges to shift more focus to economic diversity.”
Why is that? Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, told The Times that the idea that colleges are increasingly expensive may be just as much of an obstacle as the price tag itself:
“Cost remains a barrier, but so does perception, (Schapiro) said, adding, “It’s a psychology and sociology thing, as well as a pricing thing.”
College presidents like to say that consumers should not be scared off by high sticker prices, around $60,000 a year for top schools. But those are the numbers that draw national attention, concealing a much more tangled picture, in which true costs are hard to discern, hard to compare and wildly variable.
— So, where does Cornell fit by that metric?
How does Cornell stack up in terms of achieving economic diversity?
A separate New York Times story from this April gave numbers that were not encouraging.
It found that far from increasing, the number of students at Cornell receiving Pell grants had actually fallen recently:
“Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.
Not only has Cornell appeared to struggle to increase socioeconomic diversity, it’s also decidedly middle of the pack by this metric, according to The Times’ David Leonhardt.
Leonhardt found that that about 16 percent of Cornell students receive Pell grants — better than Dartmouth (13%) or Northwestern (14%), but behind comparable schools like Emory (20%), NYU (22%) or Vassar (23%).
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