This is the first part of a three-part series in which The Sun explores Cornell’s difficulties in athletic recruiting because of non-competitive financial aid packages.
One Cornell recruit faced the decision of a lifetime: come to one of the top athletic programs in the country and pay full tuition, or go to a competing Ivy League school, with a program of lesser athletic status, and pay half the price. The decision was easy: the recruit chose not to pay.
Cornell is losing athletic recruits to other Ivies at a record rate, primarily due to large discrepancies in financial aid, according to information obtained by The Sun. Cornell coaches and Director of Athletics Andy Noel confirmed an abnormal, widespread loss of recruits in this year’s class, and that non-competitive financial aid packages compared to all the Ivies — not just Harvard, Yale or Princeton — appeared to be the biggest reason.
A number of cases across men’s and women’s teams were confirmed where differences in aid packages between Cornell and other Ivies amounted to tens of thousands of dollars per year. Noel stated that the information obtained by The Sun was not a series of atypical cases, and that significant discrepancies have come up across a majority of Cornell’s 36 athletics teams this year.
“This is a problem that’s not isolated to specific sports,” Noel said. “Without a doubt, there are multiple situations across multiple teams where recruits are being offered financial aid packages at other Ivies that are not allowable by our policies.”
Coaches, directors of athletics and student-athletes contacted by The Sun across the league unanimously agreed that financial aid is among the most important components in attracting recruits. Most agreed it is by far the most important factor.
“Among athletes looking at Ivies, there is no question that the level of financial aid offered and the way it is packaged makes a significant difference in college choice,” said Noel, a 30-year veteran of the Ivy League as a coach and administrator. “The financial aid package is the most significant variable in the recruitment of top candidates.”
In all, 12 of the 31 Cornell head coaches were interviewed, and all but three said they are experiencing a problem recruiting athletes competitively against the other Ivies, especially Harvard, Yale and Princeton, because of differences in financial aid packaging. The few that declined did not disagree a problem existed. Two claimed to not seek recruits also being pursued by other Ancient Eight schools, while one agreed but had not experienced it in his program yet.
“It’s not what has happened so far, it’s what is going to happen,” said wrestling head coach Rob Koll, an Ivy coach since 1989. “And, you know, it doesn’t need to be a floodgate where you’re losing five athletes a year: it could be one top recruit a year over four years, and that’s the difference of first and third in the Ivies, or fifth. It can be very subtle.”
Ivy Problem, Not Just Cornell
Although Cornell may be losing out to every other Ivy school in the battle for financial aid and recruiting, that doesn’t mean the other Ivies aren’t losing out as well.
Across the league, a fear has arisen in coaches and Athletic Directors that financial aid packages for recruits at Harvard, Yale and Princeton have improved so dramatically that a competitive imbalance will soon exist in the Ivy League — a violation of the Ivy League Statement of Principles.
With endowments that dwarf the rest of the league’s, Harvard, Yale and Princeton not only can offer more aid than other Ivies, they can offer it with fewer strings attached — such as no work study or loans — and to students in far broader income brackets. This allows them to attract recruits more effectively from other Ivies or even scholarship schools.
Many coaches noted that these changes in aid packages have been occurring slowly over the years, but became far more drastic in the past year as the financial aid offerings improved.
“How they’re packaging all their students — not just their athletes — has drastically changed in the last two to three years,” said men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer ’86. “In the last two or three years, we’ve lost kids who obviously received better financial aid packages to other Ivy League institutions. It’s a new phenomenon for everybody involved, and it’s something we’re trying to adjust to and get more information on.”
“We have numerous cases [of recruits now being lost due to far superior financial aid at other Ivies] and they spread the gamut of all sports,” said Penn Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky. “There’s no trend that I see that indicates it’s being done as a strategy [for specific sports].”
Directors of Athletics at other Ivy schools declined to comment or did not return calls made by The Sun.
In order to try to overcome the competitive imbalance, Noel believes that other Ivy schools are finding creative ways within Ivy policy to catch up to Harvard, Yale and Princeton temporarily, while Cornell — which has not — is being left behind.
“This challenge is not just isolated to candidates only recruited by Harvard, Yale and Princeton. We are noticing that other Ivy schools are adjusting their packages in order to compete,” Noel said, noting that Cornell had not adjusted yet. “There is no other conference of which I’m aware where the financial aid packaging is so divergent. … It’s very important that the league recognize this as an element that directly undermines the competitive balance within Ivy League athletics.”
Noel also stressed that he believes Cornell will find a way to catch up so it can remain competitive.
Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans, although declining to comment on the current state of the problem, believes that drastic variation in financial aid packages that Ivy League schools now offer could create a competitive imbalance in the conference.
“It’s fair to say that folks who care about Ivy athletics are asking if there will be effects in competitive balance from the current round of changes,” Orleans said. “I certainly feel that it’s a discussion we need to begin.”
Yesterday, the Ivy league announced Orleans’ retirement, effective June, 2009.
Despite a growing and fairly widespread fear that has been reported in other newspapers around the Ivy League, not everyone believes that financial aid will lead to a competitive imbalance. Some want to see where the next few years of recruits go and how teams fair before declaring that a problem exists.
For Bilsky and many at Cornell, they believe by then it will already be far too late.
“Imagine what would happen … if you could go to Harvard for free, but everywhere else you have to pay,” Bilsky said. “It’s not very difficult to realize that would [destroy the league’s balance].”
Examples of non-competitive Cornell financial aid packages come from across men’s and women’s sports, from all different teams and in competition with financial aid packages from across the Ivies.
One of the most successful men’s team coaches at Cornell in recent years, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how a top-ranked recruit wanted to apply to Cornell. The recruit received significantly lower aid at Cornell, however, and decided to look at his second-choice Ivies with better financial aid.
“Cornell’s looking at the family incomes was drastically different than both Columbia and Penn’s, making Columbia $20,000 and Penn $30,000 better, per year, which, unfortunately, makes it a very easy decision on which place you should go, regardless of how much you love it,” the coach said. “For the first time … it has gotten to the point in our recruiting that I’m getting kids that are coming and saying ‘gee coach, I love Cornell, I think you’re the right coach and I think your program will fit me the best, but I just can’t afford it.’ I think that’s a legitimate gripe.”
In another case, a women’s team coach, who sought anonymity out of fear of punishment from the University, was recruiting a student-athlete who ranked among the best in North America and declared Cornell as her top-choice school. Upon seeing another Ivy’s financial aid package though, after having spent a great deal of time lauding Cornell, the recruit decided to go to the other school.
“I’ve had recruits tell me they wanted to come to Cornell, but their financial aid packages at the other Ivy League schools were much better, and that they couldn’t justify — even though they wanted to come to Cornell — the difference in the financial situation for them to come to Cornell,” said the coach, who is looking to rebuild his program. “This is the year that we really wanted to back that [last recruiting] class up, and have a strong foundation. Now we’re losing some big kids because of finances. … Right now, compared some of the other Ivy League schools, we are at a competitive disadvantage because of financial aid.”
These two instances are a microcosm of the problem: the programs being affected may be doing well or may be rebuilding, they may be big or small, or men’s or women’s teams. But the losses in recruits that coaches are experiencing due to financial aid won’t be felt for another few years, if not more. Put into perspective, the recent success of athletics teams — such as Cornell men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling and hockey — is a result of recruiting from 2003-07.
Women’s lacrosse head coach Jennifer Graap ’86 stated she feels awkward telling recruits to look at the Princeton Financial Aid Estimator website. She wondered, “Why doesn’t Cornell offer that?”
“Even with the financial incentive of in-state tuition, we’re still losing out,” she said. “We’re still losing [recruits] to Penn … Dartmouth.”
Graap has also lost recruits to Harvard and Princeton strictly because of financial aid, and it was the Princeton case that stuck out the most.
“[This athlete] wanted in-state option at Cornell. … Their package was still better to go to Princeton than it was to be in-state coming to Cornell,” she said. “So [Princeton] already had to cover that gap of, say, $13 to $15 thousand. Not only did [it] cover that gap, it was cheaper to go to Princeton. So they covered it, and gave an extra $3 to $4 thousand.”
Football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has experienced a number of issues when going up against other Ivy League schools. Knowles, in his first year in charge of Cornell football, took the team from last place to the top-half of the league for the first time in conference history. But he has found financial aid to be severely limiting his ability to recruit against other Ivy schools.
“To me, football is the one place where everybody wants to win. So, football can be a great window to what’s happening,” Knowles said. “[Our packages] are consistently beat by three-quarters of the others [beyond Harvard, Yale and Princeton].”
In one recent example, a “top-priority football recruit” was estimated as having no need at Cornell, but roughly $25 thousand of need, per year, at an Ivy League competitor. The recruit eventually decided not to apply to Cornell.
“Have we lost a couple kids? Yeah, we’ve lost a couple kids because of better financial aid packages,” said Schafer, the winningest coach in Cornell men’s hockey history. “I know that we’ve lost battles to Harvard, Dartmouth … specifically Harvard, we’ve lost a couple battles with financial aid.”
In another instance, men’s swimming head coach Joe Lucia, a 21-year veteran of the Ancient Eight, detailed how a recruit emailed him saying he would not even consider Cornell because he got a much better financial aid read at Harvard. Lucia’s fear, however, is not that he will lose recruits being sought by Harvard.
“I’m concerned about Columbia, Penn, Brown, Dartmouth,” Lucia said. “Now, if they’re going to match, and be giving much better financial aid, we’re going to really have trouble competing with them, because those are our main competitors.”
PART 2: To read the second part of the series CLICK HERE.