January 19, 2009

Davis Expounds on Changing Admissions Process

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Cornell hopefuls for the class of 2013 have turned in their applications, and it is now up to the admissions office to determine who will receive acceptance letters. The Sun sat down with Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, to find out about this year’s crop of potential Cornellians, the changing face of early decision and what is next for financial aid.

The Sun: This year is riding on the heels of last year’s record high number of applicants ever to Cornell. But, with a financial crisis also threatening to deter many college hopefuls, do you think the number of applicants will be up?
Doris Davis: We think. What I think will be the true test is if the applicants have a broader range of economic diversity. That is one of the goals — for students whose families that, because of the economic crisis, think that they can’t afford to come to Cornell — [end up applying].
In the fall, as a pilot program, we hosted two financial aid workshops in New York City — one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan at the Cornell Club. In both, it was standing room only. It was students and parents who came out on a Sunday afternoon to learn more about financial aid at Cornell. Those financial aid workshops were so successful that we already know we are going to be doing them in the spring and next fall. So getting the word out to families about our financial aid programs is absolutely one of our top priorities.
Sun: How have other universities been affected by the financial climate?
DD: What we’ve been hearing reported in papers is that most of the flagship state universities have been way up in applications [at places] like University of Michigan, University of Virginia and University of California. Students who are residents of those states now have a much more affordable choice given the economic crisis.
We’ve also read early on — there was a report in The New York Times — that highly selective schools like Cornell and the Ivy League schools would still see an increase in applicants. Even with the economic crunch, parents and students realize that attending a school like Cornell is an investment. And that long term, you don’t want to sacrifice students’ long-term career and personal goals because of short-term economic challenges. So people might be willing to do more in the short term to make it possible for their son or daughter to go to a place like Cornell. So, we’ll see. The economic crisis is not going to affect all families and all students in the same way.
Sun: This year’s early decision class, in addition to having a record number of applicants, also saw an increasing percentage of the class admitted early. Why was this?
DD: Last year, I think it was about 35 percent of the class admitted early decision. This year it’s about 35 to 36 percent. It’s nothing that we manage to a science. We don’t tell the colleges there’s a number we admit. We don’t have quotas, but we do want to make sure that the number doesn’t rise in a sharp way. I think there is kind of a self-monitoring [system]. They know that we don’t want to admit what some Ivy’s were doing eight or nine years ago, which was admitting half the class early. We’ve never been that high. We have a sort of understanding that we don’t want to have [those] numbers go way beyond what it’s always been. In the time I’ve been here, it’s been between 34 to 36 percent.
Sun: A few years ago, Cornell was pondering getting rid of early decision altogether. Now, the increase in acceptances through early decision seems like a step in the opposite direction. Is the elimination of early decision still a possibility?
DD: I think for now we’ve put the idea to rest. At least for now, we are comfortable with the percentage of the class admitted early. We recognize that students who are admitted early decision represent a portion of the class, but they don’t represent the entire class. Our goals remain constant, and that is to enroll the best and brightest students, and to also have socio-economic diversity, even though on the admissions side we are need-blind.
What’s really going to be interesting is that when Harvard announced that they were eliminating their early decision program, they said it was for the time being, and they would reevaluate after three years to see if the elimination of their early program had any effect on the composition on the overall class. One of the real tests will be in another year or two if Harvard then definitively says yes, we’ve eliminated early [decision].
I’ve been working in admissions for over 25 years now. There’s been an evolution of early programs. Harvard’s decision, I felt, represents this continuing evolution, and I didn’t feel it should necessarily represent this permanent change in practice at any one institution because I can almost guarantee you that in another five to seven years, someone is going to change again.
Sun: In the spirit of the evolving early decision programs, do you think Cornell’s early decision process will see any changes?
DD: I don’t think so. But, you know, who knows? Every year brings unexpected developments and we are constantly assessing the appropriateness of our admissions and financial aid programs.
Sun: Early decision is often thought to be a process that favors wealthier applicants who don’t need to compare financial aid packages. As it stands now, do you think Cornell’s Early Decision program allows for socio-economic diversity?
DD: That is absolutely correct, and it would be a major concern were it not for the fact that Cornell’s financial aid programs make Cornell’s ability to recruit low-income students very competitive. For example, if a student comes from the lowest income, if the family income is below $60,000, [there are] no parental contributions. If a student comes from a family where the family income is below $75,000, there are no student loans. For a student to know that you can go to Cornell and have no loans and your parents have no parental contributions, that student can take that assurance and look at other schools and see how it would stack up. We want those students to feel that they have the same ability to apply early, as opposed to students who could just pay for those costs.
Now where we still have challenges, and where we’re making great strides is in what we call the middle-income family — the family whose income is above $75,000. Right now, the lowest income students should absolutely feel that early decision is a viable option for them.
Sun: Will the next financial aid initiatives be targeted towards middle-income families?
DD: Absolutely. One of our top priorities, for understandable reasons, has been the lowest income students, but we are absolutely committed to students who come from along that economic spectrum. And so we have addressed the need of students in the middle income through loans where we have reduced and capped loans.
Admittedly, it’s going to be more difficult for us because of the economic crisis, but it’s not something we are going to give up on.
Sun: The beginning of this year marks nearly a full year since Cornell announced that it would reduce and cap loans for low and middle-income students. How has that worked out?[img_assist|nid=34198|title=Early Decision Statistics|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
DD: We absolutely saw immediate results. Students who were at Cornell saw the results as well in terms of the reductions of student loans.
One of the hopes is that when students graduate from Cornell, they make career choices based upon their interests, and not based upon the loans they have to pay back.
In the first phase of the initiative, we didn’t address loans for families [whose incomes were about] $120,000. So in the second phase, we addressed it by capping loans for those students.
Sun: It has been said that one reason Cornell announced its second phase of the new financial aid plan in October is because it was losing many of its athletes to schools with bigger financial aid programs. Is the newest plan helping in the recruitment of athletes?
DD: We’ll see. [One phase is] to reduce parental contribution for select students whose incomes are above $60,000 a year. And those students may include students who are of an enrollment priority. Some of those students may be athletes and some may be mathematicians and physicists. So there are a range of students who are going to qualify for those enhanced initiatives. And that piece, we will see, because those students [effected by the new plan] come in fall 2009.
Sun: Last year, Cornell announced that it would allow applicants to apply to two different colleges within the University. How has that changed the admissions process?
DD: In the class of students who came in the fall of 2008, there are about 65 students who were admitted through their alternate choice college. One of the reasons why we implemented primary/alternate was to more accurately reflect the experience of Cornell students. When students come to Cornell, you’re not limited to one college, you’re life doesn’t exist solely in one college. We see that when students apply to Cornell, that they have a range of interests.