February 18, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Full Aid for Every Admitted Student with Need

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Following last Thursday’s announcement that starting this Fall, Cornell will be need-aware when considering international undergraduate applications, concerns have been raised about the policy change potentially leading to a decrease in the economic diversity of Cornell’s international student population or a decrease in applicants. There are misperceptions that this is a budget-cutting move. In reality, this change in policy will enable admissions committees to act affirmatively based on more complete information to admit truly high-achieving, low-income applicants from around the world. Admissions officers will have more accurate and robust information about which applicants are low-income. This will, therefore, have the ability to act affirmatively with explicit consideration to achieving economic diversity goals for our undergraduate international student population, rather than engaging in practices suggested in Wednesday’s editorial such as inferring “a student’s financial situation from where one was raised or a parent’s level of education” which are questionable indicators of family income status.

With the change in policy, Cornell will be able to offer full financial aid to meet the demonstrated financial need of every admitted student, domestic or international. Under the current policy, Cornell is not able to offer any financial aid to many admitted international students who have applied for financial aid, creating a great deal of uncertainty for applicants who do not know if they will be selected for aid when admitted to Cornell. Under the new policy, Cornell will award financial aid that meets full need for all admitted students with demonstrated need and will actively select for admissions students from low-income backgrounds who will enhance the geographic diversity of our student community. Rather than waiting until the back end of the admissions process to determine which admitted international students with need will receive financial aid, those decisions will be made at the front end of the admissions process. At that stage, admissions officers will have better information to be able to act affirmatively on the applications of truly low-income students, thereby ensuring that every admitted student with need will be awarded financial aid that meets their full demonstrated need. Currently, Cornell enrolls aided students from over 50 countries; we do not anticipate that number will decrease. In fact, through acting affirmatively, we are aiming to increase the number of countries represented by our aided students.

In addition, Cornell has no plans to decrease the international financial aid budget, which is currently $11.53 million annually. This budget typically increases each year to keep pace with increases in tuition, housing, and dining. Under the new policies, more of that budget will be available for international students because undocumented students with Deffered Action for Childhood Arrivals status will move out of that financial aid pool and into the funding pool available for U.S. citizens and permanent residents.  Cornell invests heavily in each aided international student. Because they are not eligible for federal and state aid, the current average Cornell grant award for aided international students is $54,900, compared with the average Cornell grant award for a domestic student of $35,964.

When our admissions officers travel internationally with peer institutions, many of which are need-aware, they observe the following. International applicants and their families know that only a small number of elite U.S. institutions offer substantial amounts of international financial aid, and Cornell is among this group. Need-aware, elite institutions that grant substantial financial aid garner significant positive interest from these international students and families. Given the difficulty of gaining admission to these elite universities, it is reassuring to families with need that they will receive financial aid if admitted (something that Cornell cannot currently guarantee). Only a very small number of international students are admitted to the very few institutions that have both need-blind admissions and guarantee financial aid to every admitted student with need (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton). International students realize that they are vying for admission and aid to a small number of schools in the United States with substantial (more than just a few scholarships) aid budgets, and that most of these schools are need-aware. In fact, Cornell’s current policy is difficult to explain (why would we admit students, then not provide funding if they need it?) and only becomes a harsh reality when students with need are admitted and are faced with the issue of not being selected to receive aid.

With our new policy, every admitted student — international or domestic — who has demonstrated financial need will receive financial aid that meets their full need at Cornell. That’s the clear message that will attract applicants from all socioeconomic and geographic spheres.

Barbara Knuth is the Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School. Responses may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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