The Cornell Promise is a campaign aimed at bringing immediate financial aid relief to students who need additional resources to complete their education in troubling times brought on by the pandemic.

Cornell Promise helping students through troubling times

Due to the pandemic, the University Budget Office projects that up to 3,000 Cornell undergraduates will experience unanticipated changes in their financial situations over the next few years.

Each 1% increase in the national jobless rate is projected to add 275 to 300 students to Cornell’s financial aid rolls. These students and their families face challenges due to lost income or jobs, meaning they have fewer or no means to meet their previously arranged financial aid obligations to Cornell.

“Families who have faced unemployment are uncertain what their 2020 income will be, and some families are anticipating future reductions in income,” said Diane Corbett, director of Financial Aid. “In addition, summer employment was an issue for some of our students and others are concerned about finding jobs for the fall and upcoming spring semesters.”

Since March, the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment has seen a significant increase in financial aid appeals, a trend which they anticipate will continue. University budget models forecast an average increase in financial aid need of $25,000 per year for each of these 3,000 students. Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment, predicts a $250 million impact from increased financial aid and deferred enrollment over the next three years.

“No matter what happens in these economically troubled times, Cornell will sustain its financial aid commitment,” Burdick said, noting that Cornell is firmly committed to need-blind admission for domestic applicants, and to meeting the full financial aid need of all undergraduates.

To maintain that commitment and meet the radical increase in need, this spring Cornell launched the Cornell Promise, a multi-faceted campaign aimed at bringing immediate financial aid relief to students who need additional resources to complete their Cornell educations.

Early in the pandemic, when it became clear that businesses were struggling and many people were being laid off, Cornell leadership pivoted and made financial aid a top fundraising priority.

“Cornell’s foundational commitment to be a university where ‘any person can find instruction in any study’ is the bedrock of our identity,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack. “Even with the extraordinary financial challenges we are facing as an institution, our first responsibility is to our students.”

In an April 7 statement to the Cornell community, Pollack promised that “we will do everything possible to enable all current and newly admitted students to complete their Cornell educations, despite the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“We may not all be together,” she wrote, “but we are Cornell. And together, we will keep Cornell strong.”

Gifts to the Cornell Promise Annual Fund for Undergraduate Scholarship will be used exclusively for undergraduate scholarships, to ensure that current students will be able to complete their Cornell educations. The Cornell Promise fundraising effort is part of the university’s overall response to the pandemic’s economic impact; other measures include hiring and pay freezes, targeted cuts in university spending, employee pay and/or benefit reductions, and increased use of the university endowment.

“We need the support now, to fund our financial aid commitments to students whose need has increased since they last applied for financial aid,” Burdick said. “The need is much greater than we can raise money for, but every dollar we raise reduces the need to make further cuts in the university that might impact the quality of the academic programs.”

Alumni, parents and friends can participate by giving to any of the Cornell Promise annual funds, or by making a named scholarship gift ($25,000 or more). The goal is to raise the necessary funds by the end of 2020, to ultimately support 500 students per year over the next three years.

“Since May, we’ve received more than 1,300 gifts totaling $24.8 million,” said Fred Van Sickle, vice president of Alumni Affairs and Development. “Our alumni know better than anyone what a Cornell education means, and they’ve been incredible about stepping up to ensure that the education of current students isn’t interrupted or ended. The need right now is tremendous, but Cornellians are an amazing family and they are rising to this challenge.”

Trustee Emeritus John E. Alexander ’74 said the trustees had discussed the urgent need for additional Cornell scholarship resources at their meeting in spring 2020.

“My wife Elaine (’77) and I realized immediately that many families would be devastated by the economic and health impacts of COVID-19,” he said, “and that Cornell’s response would have to be swift if these families were to both survive and thrive.”

In July, a $5 million gift from David A. Duffield ’62, MBA ’64, to the College of Engineering established the Duffield Family Cornell Promise Scholarship, providing financial assistance to undergraduate engineering students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cornell Promise crowdfunding campaign, part of the larger campaign, launched Aug. 9 and is seeking donations of any amount. In its first month, the campaign received nearly 800 gifts totaling almost $100,000. The goal is to rally 1,000 donors by the end of the campaign on Sept. 19 to send students a strong message of support from the Cornell community.

Visit the crowdfunding site to make a gift and view undergraduate scholarship and college results in real time.

Gifts are welcome throughout the fall; for more information, contact Kristen Ford, associate vice president for alumni affairs and development.

Linda Copman is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Ezra magazine.

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Abby Butler