February 21, 2008

Financial Aid Threatens Ivy Competition

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This is the second part of a three-part series in which The Sun explores Cornell’s difficulties in athletic recruiting because of non-competitive financial aid packages.

On Tuesday, The Sun reported that Cornell is losing athletic recruits to the other seven Ivy League schools because of better financial aid packages. The Sun also reported a fear around the conference that a gap is widening between certain Ivy schools’ abilities to attract recruits because of differences in financial aid packages, resulting in a competitive imbalance among the schools that is in violation of the Ivy League’s Statement of Principles.
As Cornell Vice Provost for Enrollment and Admissions Doris Davis pointed out to The Sun, Ivy League athletes are not treated differently than any other students in either the financial aid process or in academic standards for admission. There are no athletic scholarships and no free passes for anyone.
Financial aid in the Ivy League is “need blind,” meaning financial aid is calculated and awarded the same way — solely based on economic need — for every single student. Academically, according to Ivy League Principles, student-athletes must be “generally representative of their class and admitted on the basis of academic promise and personal qualities as well as athletic ability.”
“It’s not just an athletic issue, it’s a university issue, and the university is obviously aware of it,” said men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “How [other Ivies] are packaging all their students — not just their athletes — has drastically changed in the last two to three years.”
The Ancient Eight athletics conference was founded on a premise that, when choosing which Ivy school to attend, a prospective student should make the decision solely based on which school is the best fit, with finances not factoring into the decision whatsoever.
“The basic principle that started the Ivy League was that there would be no imbalance as far as financial aid policies,” said Penn Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky. “Aid would be given on need, but with the understanding that it would be more or less equivalent across all the schools.”
To accomplish this, before 1991, students admitted to more than one Ivy would have their best financial aid packages matched at each school, in order to make money a non-factor in the decision. That helped maintain the competitive balance of the conference for decades.
However, the U.S. Justice Dept. sued the eight Ivy colleges and MIT in 1989, alleging they violated the Sherman Antitrust Act as an illegal restraint of trade. Starting in 1991, Ivies stopped being able to match one another’s packages outright, and had to strictly use their own standard for calculating need.
“Once [package matching] was no longer the case, that’s when the beginning of this arms race [in financial aid] started,” Bilsky said.
Needs Analysis
As a consequence of the suit, there was no longer a league standard for “financial need.” Instead, each Ivy was empowered with deciding which students needed aid and how much they needed, as long as its needs analysis applied to every admitted student identically.
Harvard, Yale and Princeton hold three of the four highest endowments in the Ivy League, and the three highest endowments per student in the conference. With by far the most finances at their disposal, this “Big Three” can offer financial aid packages — to all students, athletes included — that other Ivies can only hope to provide.
Harvard spends $98 million in aid for an undergraduate body of 6,715 and will increase that total to $120 million per year in September. Cornell will spend $116.8 million on an undergraduate body of 13,510 — less money for twice as many students, assuming the figure remains constant.
“[Cornell’s] initiative is remarkable given Cornell’s size, and given the fact that we are already one of the most, if not the most socioeconomically diverse school in the Ivy League,” Davis said.
Harvard and Yale in particular are now guaranteeing aid to families with adjusted incomes under $180,000 and $120,000, respectively, which most other Ivies cannot afford to do. Furthermore, even compared to Cornell’s new policies, the amount of aid being offered to students by the “Big Three” is more substantial, applying to a greater number of income brackets and having fewer stipulations attached.
Even though the “Big Three” may be ahead of the rest of the league, Cornell is facing challenges from the other Ivies as well. For example, Cornell’s recently revised financial aid policy outlines a capping of loans by 2009-10 at $3,000 for families with incomes between $120,000 and $75,000, and removing them entirely below that threshold. In contrast,Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale will all remove loans for the next academic year.
“The fact that many of our Ivy institutions are reducing or eradicating student financial burdens is a very positive trend that has allowed more students to attend Ivy universities,” said Cornell Director of Athletics Andy Noel. “Unfortunately, the Ivy athletics playing field is being imbalanced as a result.”
Competitive Imbalance
While most of the 12 Cornell head coaches interviewed agreed these steps are positive in offering education to everyone, not just those who can afford it, many see them as an exploitation of athletic conference rules.
By providing its own broader and more generous standard of “financial need,” Cornell coaches, Noel and Bilsky agree the “Big Three” are establishing an athletic superiority in violation the Ivy Statement of Principles that mandate competitive balance.
Principle No. 4 states that each school “ought not merely to tolerate, but to value a balance of competitive success within the Group.” Principle No. 3 states that the members should compare themselves with one another for “for standards of competitive excellence” and should use this as the sole measure for success and failure.
And some Cornell coaches believe the competitive imbalance has already begun.
This past fall, Harvard, Princeton and Yale accounted for six of the eight Fall sports Ivy league titles. In one of the two sports where the “Big Three” did not top the league — women’s soccer — the Harvard and Princeton accounted for the rookie and Ivy League players of the year.
In winter sports, Harvard, Princeton and Yale also top the league in men’s and women’s hockey, men’s and women’s swimming and men’s squash. Princeton is the favorite to win indoor Heps, repeating as the men’s champion, and dethroning the Cornell women, who have won six straight titles.
“Before, we weren’t even in the same league as scholarship schools in terms of being able to offer competitive packages, but now we’re making a move and getting on the radar screen,” said Fritz Rodriguez, director of admissions and financial aid for the Yale Athletics Department, to the Yale Daily News.
As a number of Cornell coaches pointed out, that’s not a good thing, because even though schools like Yale, Harvard and Princeton can do it, the rest of the league cannot. So, not only are the “Big Three” now able to attract athletes from other Ivies, they may be able to attract top scholarship athletes from schools like Stanford and Duke.
“What Harvard is doing now, in many cases, they’re in fact giving a full athletic scholarship. [They’re offering this] to every student, but including student-athletes,” Bilsky said. “Harvard’s package, and Yale and Princeton’s packages are now getting so advanced that the schools are not going to be able to tell coaches in advance ‘we’ll match any package that anybody gives in the league.’”
Penn Director of Athletics Bilsky and Cornell coaches also fear that, with Harvard, Yale and Princeton able to offer such superior financial aid packages, it may draw students away from even looking at Cornell when looking at the Ivy League.
Finally, Cornell coaches pointed out that athletics is one area where students qualified to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale may decide to come to Cornell instead — a decision that rarely happens outside athletics, the coaches agreed.
Cornell Playing Catch Up
A number of factors go in to calculating “financial need.”
“We take individual circumstances into consideration,” Davis said. “Very generally, to calculate how much money a student needs to come to Cornell, we’re going to look at parents’ income, parent assets, liabilities as well. So, how much money does a family make? What are their assets? Investments? And what are their liabilities as well, as in, what is causing the drain on their resources?”
Numerous coaches at Cornell expressed concern to The Sun, however, that they can no longer tell recruits that Cornell can match any package the recruit received at another Ivy school because of the drastic differences in “needs analysis” calculations.
“That’s what I felt 10 years ago when I was hired: there was going to be this matching capacity,” said Jennifer Graap ’86, head coach of Cornell women’s lacrosse. “There was going to be this real sincere effort to help a young woman just do away with the financial concern. It was going to bring it back to the reality of what school did she want to go to, which major, which freshman dormitory, which lacrosse program? That was going to be the factor in her decision, not the dollars and cents. And we’ve just moved away from that in my 10 years here at Cornell. It doesn’t seem to be the case anymore that we are even closely able to say we’re going to match someone else’s package. We’ve actually been told that we’re in a position not to match other people’s packages.”
Noel confirmed that Cornell cannot match financial aid packages calculated by any other Ivy, not just Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The other schools are finding ways to catch up, but Cornell has not.
“It is routine that financial aid packages are 20 to 25 thousand dollars [more than Cornell’s packages, per year] over four years,” Noel said.
Cornell coaches and Noel believe the school is struggling to adjust its policies to catch up, however, as Cornell has a significantly higher undergraduate enrollment than its peers with the third-lowest endowment dollars per student. They believe Cornell can and will respond — but are unsure how.
“Cornell University is in a position of currently not being able to compete financial aid-wise for top athletics recruits,” said Cornell football coach Jim Knowles ’87.
PART 3: To read the final part of the series CLICK HERE.