Cornell is considering a host of controversial measures as contingency plans, internal documents show.

Brian LaPlaca / Sun Design Editor

Cornell is considering a host of controversial measures as contingency plans, internal documents show.

February 26, 2017

Cornell Considering Need-Aware Admissions for Transfers, Additional Controversial Measures

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Cornell is considering reviewing the financial needs of transfer students as part of the application process, admitting more international students who do not need financial aid and graduating students with more debt, according to more than 30 pages of internal documents obtained by The Sun.

The task force behind the possible changes — named the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group — includes several top administrators, college deans and a few undergraduate representatives. The AFAWG has been meeting monthly since the fall and discussing possible ways to lessen Cornell’s cost of providing financial aid to students.

The AFAWG is considering nine possible options, including raising the number of admitted international students who will receive no financial aid, according to documents from their January and February meetings.

The text of this recommendation states that Cornell could raise or lower the number of no-aid international students accepted, depending on how much revenue the University wanted to make.

Last year’s announcement of the upcoming change to international admissions policy from need-blind to need-aware generated controversy among students. Yet one of AFAWG’s recommendations is to take a step further and make transfer admissions need-aware as well.

AFAWG documents also include two recommendations to change loan policy. One suggests changing the no-loan cutoff — the level of family income below which students will not receive loans — from $60,000 to $45,000 and increasing the maximum annual loan from $0 to $2,000 for those that are affected. The change would affect around 650 students and save about $1.3 million in grant-aid for the University, according to the document.

The other option lists a variety of changes that could be made to income cutoffs for maximum loan levels and maximum loan levels themselves, in effect increasing the amount of debt that students take on.

Barbara Knuth, dean of the graduate school, chairs AFAWG and was the only person on the committee to accept The Sun’s request for comment. In an interview with The Sun, Knuth said that although the documents use the word “recommendations,” she believes they are better thought of as “options,” since the group will not necessarily be recommending them.

She said that the recommendations will be presented to the provost as a “contingency plan” for a potential scenario like the economic downturn in 2008, when Cornell had to give grant-aid to more than 50 percent of its undergraduate students, much higher than the normal 42 to 44 percent.

“That’s not sustainable,” she said, referring to 50 percent figure. “That’s where we don’t have enough tuition resources coming in to be able to cover the expenses of providing grant aid to that number of students.”

Some of the options would barely change financial aid policy, including the recommendation to continue asking for no parent contribution for students whose families earn less than $60,000 in annual income and less than $100,000 in assets.

This option is the only one that AFAWG has designated as having “high” desirability.

However, other proposed changes — whose desirabilities the committee has not yet determined — may have larger impacts, both on students at Cornell and the University’s image.

Need Aware

Cornell takes pride in its policy of need-blind admissions for the majority of its domestic students. But it is now considering reviewing the financial needs of transfer students in the application process, which the University already plans to do for international students in the fall.

Students expressed concern last year when the University announced it would review the financial needs of international applicants, saying it would encourage Cornell to admit more wealthy students.

Now, the AFAWG may raise the number of admitted international students who will require no financial aid.

“This option could be potentially turned up or down fairly quickly with more significant impact than other options and with potentially less negative public perception issues than other options that are more visible,” the document states.

Knuth said Cornell moved from need-blind to need-aware admissions for its international students because the University sometimes ran out of the $12 million annual budget it had set aside for international student financial aid.

When this happened, Cornell could not fulfill the need for all international students and some students had to drop out, Knuth said. However, she did not provide any data on how many students have been affected by this shortage of financial aid.

Because international students cannot receive federal loans and do not qualify for federal work-study, they are some of the most expensive students to cover with financial aid. Knuth added that need-aware admissions does not mean the University is prioritizing students’ financial status over their merit in the admissions process, but she acknowledged that it remains a complicated issue.

“It takes some explaining and often in little sound bites the nuance gets lost,” Knuth said. “University resources are not unlimited and so that’s why there’s a budget set.”

Saim Chaudhary ’17 — an international student from Pakistan — said this change would go against Cornell’s founding principle of “Any person, any study.”

“It actually becomes ‘any person, who is rich enough to come to Cornell,’” he said.

Last year while serving as vice president for diversity and inclusion on S.A., Chaudhary co-sponsored a resolution that demanded Cornell reverse the change from need-blind to need-aware admissions for international students.

He said that when he and his colleagues discussed the issue with the administration last year, he never received any data supporting the University’s belief that international students were being forced to drop out because of their financial situation.

Chaudhary knows international students he believes would not have been admitted under the new policy who he said have “added a lot to the Cornell community.”

However, Knuth said that need-aware admissions is not necessarily “an evil thing,” pointing to data that indicates that the number of students who do not receive aid from Cornell is going up under need-blind admissions.

“In some ways these trends are occurring anyway,” she said. “Need-aware admissions gives you just a little more information at the time of admissions so that you can make sure you’re admitting people who truly have need and are deserving, as well as others who are deserving and don’t have need, so that you can use your resources appropriately.”

The University may seek to continue gathering information at the time of admission by becoming need-aware for transfer applicants as well. Its recommendation notes that, under a need-aware admissions policy for transfer students, Cornell could still choose to fund admitted transfer students at the same level during need-blind admissions.

Yet, Sagar Chapagain ’18, a transfer student on financial aid, called need-aware admissions a “terrible policy” and echoed Chaudhary’s statement that it would go against Cornell’s founding principles, adding that it may create inequality at Cornell.

“What happens is when you make [admissions] need-aware that means — in a very nice way — you’re saying we’ll accept transfer students who are relatively wealthy … but if your parents can’t pay then we might have to think about it,” he said. “Community college students, first generation students, students who come from humble backgrounds … they’re going to be hurt.”

“We can see the intention behind it,” Chapagain added.

When asked if Cornell would implement need-aware admissions for applicants who are not international or transfer students, such as domestic applicants, Knuth said that Cornell is going to do its best to remain need-blind for the majority of its applicants for as long as possible.

“[Expanding need-aware admissions] is not at all under consideration. That has not been proposed,” Knuth said. “Could anything happen in the future? Sure.”

Preferential Packaging

In addition to need-blind versus need-aware admissions policy, several options proposed by AFAWG have to do with “preferential packaging,” or altering the balance of the three components of financial aid packages — federal work-study, federal loans and grant aid — to benefit the recipient by giving them more grant aid.

At its January meeting, AFAWG discussed a proposed recommendation to offer some students — those who receive financial aid but are in higher income brackets than others — with high SAT scores these “preferential packages,” with the goal of increasing the yield among admits in the highest aided income bracket.

However, this recommendation was struck from AFAWG’s February report, because “nobody, literally nobody on the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group supported it moving forward,” Knuth said.

Despite the removal of that option, two others remain that include preferential packaging.

The first suggests continuing post-admittance preferential packaging for underrepresented minorities whose parents’ income is between $60,000 and $120,000.

The option explains that Cornell actively competes against other institutions for the “somewhat limited pool of high-achieving, middle income URM applicants,” and that this preferential treatment helps the University attract those students. The document shows that URM enrollment doubled over a decade — from 1,760 in the fall of 2006 to 3,118 in the fall of 2016.

While minutes from the Feb. 1 meeting suggest that members of AFAWG liked this recommendation, they voiced some concerns as well. Eliminating this program would save $2.73 million in grant-aid affecting around 1,250 students, “a substantial cost savings that could meaningfully contribute to Cornell’s efforts to limit total grant aid expenditures,” the report reads.

The second proposed policy change suggests eliminating preferential packaging for URM families with incomes of over $120,000.

Knuth said that preferential packaging is one of a few ways that Cornell seeks to improve its minority enrollment. However the report explains that in 2013, Cornell began to eliminate certain preferential loan reductions for URM students, saving almost $6 million in grant aid.

This change led to “no discernible negative impact on Cornell’s ability to recruit and yield URM students,” according to the report.

Loans and Debt

As going to college has become more and more expensive, national student debt has skyrocketed, hitting $1.31 trillion at the end of 2016. That has not stopped the AFAWG from considering options to increase the amount of loans that Cornell students receive.

Although the committee is concerned about giving students more debt after they graduate, Knuth pointed out that Cornell students that graduate with debt have on average less in student loans to pay back than the average private university. However, Cornell students on average have higher debt than most other students in the Ivy League, according to data from The Institute for College Access and Success.

“We are concerned about loan levels and want to avoid high debt,” she said.

Loans can present a problem to students on financial aid. Lindsay Vinarcsik ’18, who had to drop out of Cornell for a semester because she could not pay for tuition even with financial aid, said that she feels the amount of debt she will have after graduation has limited her career choices.

“I don’t want a big-paying job,” Vinarcsik said. “I have a lot of stupid altruistic ideological aspirations, and none of those are going to be accessible when I have to be paying off all of this debt.”

Knuth said that there are different repayment plans for federal loans that allow loans to be forgiven at a certain point so that people do not get discouraged from doing public sector or public service work. However, Vinarcsik had to take out private loans —which do not have the same repayment plans —when her financial aid package was not enough to cover her expenses, and Knuth admitted that most people are not aware of the federal programs that help people like Vinarcsik.

What’s to Come

AFAWG members will continue to meet over the next several weeks, both among themselves and with other shared governance organizations around campus. The group will continue to alter the options as it receives input. Knuth said that she does not anticipate AFAWG assigning final “desirabilities” for each option until March 22, if not later.

Most recently, the AFAWG added an option to reevaluate how the financial aid office calculates need. Knuth said that there is no one correct line that separates need from no-need, since many different criteria determine how the University calculates that line. However, Cornell could reevaluate how it treats the different criteria to see if there are aspects of the current methodology that should be changed.

She added that although Cornell’s endowment is over $6 billion, Cornell’s endowment per student is lower than many of its institutional peers and the lowest in the Ivy League. She attributed the low ratio to the large undergraduate population, among other factors.

“Cornell delivers a really excellent education, but it’s not cheap,” she said. “If it was cheap, it wouldn’t be as excellent.”

She said that the group will assign a level of desirability to each option, with a high desirability meaning it is more likely to occur, while some options may be excluded from the list altogether.

After, the group will submit the options to Provost Michael Kotlikoff, who commissioned the AFAWG, and the options will be discussed at the Board of Trustees meeting in March.

Read the full AFAWG “February Report for Discussion” below.

  • CUAlum ’15

    Of course, nowhere in this report will be any recommendation to get rid of the countless unnecessary Provosts and Vice Provosts and Deans of this and that who rake in six figure salaries while doing little for students or the university. Or what about getting rid of the older expensive faculty who produce no research and put no real effort into teaching anymore? Nope. The Administration will fall back on the usual talking points about why all these people are necessary because they can just keep dumping the costs on us.

    • ’16 alum

      It’s very, very difficult to get older professors to leave the university. They’re generally tenured and have specific contract termination dates that aren’t really negotiable at this point. One thing they can offer them is early retirement with a retirement bonus, but oftentimes professors do not want to do that. This is something that they did after the 2008 economic recession, and it saved money. I agree that there are definitely old, struggling professors who don’t teach well and probably don’t publish as often as they used to, but it’s much more complicated than “you’re too expensive to pay; we don’t need you anymore. Go retire now.”

      • Grad Worker at Cornell

        I would add that there are also many Cornell professors who are being put on early retirement who are still effective teachers, mentors (for undergrads, grads and younger faculty) and scholars, even if they don’t publish as much as they did when they were young. The tenure system has many flaws, but “kicking out the oldsters” is also plain “old” ageism, found in every industry.

        But it is being done. But I would argue that using this money-saving tactic as a first, or even second or third, resort should be looked at with some circumspection. Expenditures should be cut first in areas where they cannot be proved to support and improve the educational and research mission of the university. Even if older faculty aren’t teaching or publishing as much as they used to, they are still faculty and contribute to the mission–and attract students who care about their education. Should these faculty be put on the chopping block before high-level administrators, who–if this report with its worrying implications is any indication–have not been “administering” well enough to keep Cornell as “excellent” as it should be, despite their numbers?

        Maybe Cornell ought to consider getting back to basics–Any Person, Any Study–and consider spending its money to attract students who care about that, rather than contributing their tuition dollars to growing the Cornell bureaucracy.

  • The fund raiser

    Maybe they could recapitalize the endowment by selling the NYC tech campus. Its dollar value has gone up quite a bit without making the University a better place.

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  • Jaime82

    Sorry but I have a real problem as my wife and I are working hard at our jobs, paying our state and government taxes, to put our son through CORNELL without a dime in aid. How is it ok for an international student to be given money- oh yes, I guess we’re both working 60-80 hours per week busting our behinds to pay for the international students too. All so messed up.

    • Jo09

      Jaime82, totally agree with you. It’s unreal how hard working parents aren’t getting a dime for aid while struggling to pay the tuition bill at the same time we are footing the bill for these intl students. Rough to open the tuition bill every year and submitting an appeal that is not even considered by the university.

      • Local student

        1. All non-New York State residents are foreign students on the state side of the university.

        2. I don’t understand your self-pitying xenophobia. If you want your child to get a quality education, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for she or he to meet someone from a foreign country who doesn’t have wealthy parents. Admittedly, some students have their education funded by their national government, but they are few and far between. Good on you for working hard, and avoiding the debt many people will take on to attend school here, but that is no excuse for being intolerant of foreign students just because they are not from the U.S.

        3. FYI–lots of very hard-working parents ARE getting financial aid…because they don’t make nearly what you do. You should consider yourself fortunate. As my grandmother used to say: I should have such problems!

    • Voice of reason

      Your xenophobia is pathetic. International students don’t get financial aid from your taxes or state funding or whatsoever but from alumni (who in most cases are international themselves)! And the total amount of financial aid they get is very little; only a minority of them get financial aid in a process that is already need-aware. If you read the article (instead of letting your xenophobia blind you), you’d see that Cornell wants to take more international students so that it has to give LESS aid in general – since it would take wealthy international students who don’t need financial aid using its need-aware policy. In all honesty, this xenophobia is very saddening; it’s working against yourselves.

      • Jamie82

        “The university sets aside 12 million in financial aid for international students” WHERE does it say the 12 million come from only alumni? I’m not xenophobic, just making a statement about the cost of footing the bill for students from other countries. If you consider parents who are working hard at several jobs to meet the cost of tuition “lucky” then yes we are. Please stop the nasty accusations and one day when you’re actually working hard and trying to pay college tuitions you may understand.

        • Local student

          Actually, I am working hard and my wife does as well. And, like you, we are paying our daughter’s college tuition. Unlike you, we have to take out loans, much less than some, but more than others. So, I guess we have more in common than you thought.

          Neither the previous poster nor I were trying to be nasty, only to point out what you apparently can’t or won’t recognize in yourself.

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  • Hank

    I have a solution! Eliminate free tampons in mens bathrooms ( I mean people who self identify as male).

    • CornellStudent’18

      You do realize that free tampons are NOT available in women’s restrooms and gender neutral restrooms on campus. If you have seen free tampons in restrooms on campus it is purely because of student organizations and activist groups putting them there…not because the university gives enough of a shit about the education of their over 50% female student body to provide free tampons for the ‘surprises’ that frequently distract female students as well as cause them to miss classes.

  • anonymous

    I’m envious of the students who are able to attend Ivy League schools like Cornell. As a child, I dreamed of attending one of them because I was tired of attending schools with mostly low-income students who weren’t interested in learning new things at school, and of being bullied. It was also a little lonely, learning and completing assignments by myself because most of the students didn’t care.

    After reading interviews and watching a guest lecture, online, of psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams, I’ve been inspired to learn more about sexualities. His wisdom has made me wish I was a student at Cornell; as a would-be first generation college student, it’s inspiring to learn from, and hear thoughts from educated people—something that my parents who couldn’t afford college degrees couldn’t give me.

    But, I didn’t think I’d be given much financial aid at these colleges, since my brother wasn’t given much at his local state university, despite earning the highest SAT math score in his high school and taking a few AP courses. It makes me wish I were born from an upper-middle class family, so that I would’ve been able to attend these Ivy League schools with educated students and life/job opportunities.

    • Hank

      Go join the armed services and then come back and apply to Cornell. You’ll appreciate it more and will be a better financial position. However, your desired major is crap. Study something worthwhile.

  • Enough with all the damn handouts

    By the way Jamie, I highly doubt that any other country in the world allows our students to go to their universities for free .In fact, I am not aware of any.

    • CornellStudent’18

      The fact of the matter is that the motto of Cornell University is “Any person..any study” and need-aware admissions as well as meager financial-aide undermines this message. You have a right to your opinion and I sure as hell would like better financial aide instead of graduating with 30k in loans, but I signed up for “Any person… any study” and ultimately this is critical to the education at and prestige of Cornell.

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