March 12, 2008

Financial Aid Policy May Increase Diversity

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The new financial aid policy at Cornell — announced last month as several of the University’s peer institutions made similar changes — will have an impact on the University’s ability to recruit and enroll minority students, according to Avis Robinson, founder of the Washington Metropolitan Scholars program.
Washington Metropolitan Scholars is a non-profit organization that helps African-American high school seniors gain admittance to elite universities and finance their education. Cornell works with the program and regularly accepts its students.
While the main target of the University’s new policy may be low-income students, the policy may also aid Cornell’s attempt to create a more racially diverse campus. Robinson said the new policy will have a “significant impact” on the number of minorities who will apply and enroll at Cornell.
“What we have found at Washington Metro Scholars is that it only takes an additional $2,000 or $3,000 to really make high-achieving African-Americans go to a top-notch school like Cornell,” Robinson said, explaining that a relatively small difference can go a long way.
In late January, the University announced that starting in the fall of 2009 it would eliminate loans for students from families earning under $75,000 and cap annual loans at $3,000 for families earning under $120,000.
According to Tom Keane, director of Financial Aid for Scholarships and Policy Analysis, the new policy came together quickly although the University had been studying it for some time. The goal, he said, is to reduce the cumulative student debt from low income and medium income families.
Keane said, “It’s not an effort focused on any specific racial or ethnic group.” The recruitment or enrollment of minority students was a non-factor in the policy change, he added.
“We hope to get more low-income students,” Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, told The Sun last month. “We think the cost of paying for an education should be a partnership between the institution, the family, and the government. To the extent that families can pay and contribute we think it is important to do so.”
While the financial aid office has been presenting the details of the new policy to many groups within the University, including the Office for Minority Educational Affairs, Keane said he is not sure how far news of the new policy has spread, citing a lack of coverage of Cornell’s new policy from news outlets like The New York Times.
Keane also said the new policy has prompted “very little” response from individual families to the financial aid office.
Robinson said that many of the students she works with definitely know about the change.
“It seems like on paper that [the new plan] wouldn’t make that much difference, but to the families, it does,” Robinson said. “It really can be the lever for a family deciding to go to a local college versus a school like Cornell.”
Robinson said that the policy will also likely increase the number of students transferring to Cornell from a community college, which she said is a likely path for many minority students.
While Robinson praised the new policy at Cornell, she urged all schools to ensure that the rapidly increasing cost of tuition coincides with timely changes in financial aid packages.
She said the largest hindrance to schools offering larger financial aid packages was the size of their endowment. Robinson said that colleges should seek commitments from students to give back to the school after they graduate as a way to increase their endowments and, in turn, offer bigger financial aid packages.