President Hunter R. Rawlings III was getting sick of hearing discouraged college students and administrators voice their concerns about the deterioration of need-based financial aid.
In the six years that he’s been president at Cornell, he has visited top colleges across the country, and, he said, the stories were all beginning to sound the same: frustrated by the disparity in aid packages, people were calling the process “mystifying and bewildering.”
That’s why he organized the presidents of 27 other top colleges and universities in an effort to boost financial aid for needy students. The announcement, which was made over the summer, aims to increase consistency by standardizing the guidelines for determining aid eligibility.
“We need to restore confidence in the process of determining family contributions, and we need to do so before the American public’s confidence in the financial aid system erodes further,” Rawlings said on the day of the announcement.
The commitment is also an effort to stifle a trend towards merit aid, which has increasingly attracted students over the last ten years.
As more colleges use merit aid to lure coveted top students, it has become harder for middle-income students to afford elite institutions because of soaring tuition costs and limited aid packages, Rawlings said.
In a radical reversal, the guidelines state that financial need should be the principle determinant in aid awards. This way, students can make college decisions based on the quality of the school and the goodness of the fit.
The calculated need each family receives will be consistent among the 28 schools, but the packages will differ, based on how the schools treat the student contribution portion.
The difference in packages allows for competition among top need-based schools, and lately there has been plenty of competition, said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics.
Conspicuously absent from the group are Harvard and Princeton — two of the wealthiest schools in the country, who have defined financial need more generously than any of the 28 schools are capable of doing, he said.
By drastically reducing student loans or eliminating them altogether, Harvard and Princeton have set the stage for financial aid wars across the country, he added.
Ehrenberg said the new effort was “admirable,” but he could not predict whether the recommendations would stop schools from using financial-aid to compete for students.
All 28 signatory schools practice need-blind admissions, meaning students are admitted regardless of their ability to afford tuition.
Rawlings helped hold the group together by acting as chairman, and he worked continuously with other presidents for two years before he helped devise a national solution, said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.
“It took a lot of hard work and some arm-twisting,” the 6-foot-7-inch-tall Rawlings said with a laugh. “But in the end, we got more signatures than we expected.”
The new policy will take Cornell and other schools a year or longer to put into place, Rawlings said.
But most of the principles are not new for Cornell, a school that is more liberal in its aid than most colleges, he added.
The guidelines direct schools to consider the cost of living for students in more expensive cities; reduce the amount families are expected to contribute to students’ tuition; deal more reasonably and consistently with the financial resources of students whose parents are divorced or separated; and make allowances for parents lacking retirement accounts.
Rawlings said he is expecting more schools to join the group once school starts.
But for now, he admitted he’s just content to work with the crucial 28 to make financial aid easier to understand and more beneficial to students and families.
“It was getting harder for the neediest students to feel that their needs could be met,” Rawlings said. “Hopefully this group will make a difference. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.”
Archived article by Jennifer Roberts