February 17, 2009

Financial Aid Policy Targets Select Students

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The concept of need-based aid has long been a hallmark of Cornell’s financial aid policy. However, the University’s most recent financial aid policy, which in part reflects its desire to more aggressively recruit some select students, has raised controversy.
Last November, Cornell announced a new financial aid policy with three main components. For students with family incomes below $60,000 and assets below $100,000, the first component promises to eliminate parental contributions. For students whose families have annual incomes above $120,000 but still need financial aid, the second component promises to cap need-based student loans at 7,500 annually. The third component addresses these selected students who will receive higher-quality aid, such as in grants rather than in loans.
With the smallest endowment and the largest student body in the Ivy League, Cornell administrators are looking to recruit students who are considered “enrollment priorities” more aggressively by providing better financial aid packages.
“We implemented this new financial aid initiative in order to become more competitive in our recruitment and enrollment of all students, particularly students who are a university enrollment priority,” Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, stated in an e-mail.
A student becomes a University “enrollment priority” based on several criteria, including academic excellence, athleticism and race, Davis explained.
“Some of the students who are selected will be ‘college scholars’; the selection of college scholars is done by each college … Other students may be selected because they are an enrollment priority, such as students of color, athletes, and students from farm families –– these are just a few examples,” Davis stated in an e-mail.
Many of the other Ivy League Schools were either unable to or chose not to comment on Cornell’s new financial aid policy. Columbia spokesperson Robert Hornsby explained in an e-mail that “we do not comment on another school’s policy.” As for Columbia’s own financial aid policy, Hornsby did state that Columbia offers “no academic, athletic or talent-based institutional scholarships.”
Cornell administrators maintain that the University does not offer scholarships either, since students who are receiving this merit-based aid are students in need of financial assistance.
“Cornell does not award financial aid based on merit, and neither does any of the other Ivy League schools,” Davis stated in an e-mail. “Any student who qualifies for financial aid receives need-based financial aid. Again, we do not award merit-based financial aid.”
Ryan Lavin ’09, president of the S.A., said that while all students who qualify receive need-based aid, he noted that aid for select students who are enrollment priorities is calculated by a different formula.
Lavin, who also works in the University’s admissions office, said that he was not speaking in any official capacity, but rather on his own behalf.
“While … before [one] would say that the University gives 100 percent need-based aid to all students, this formula is different for selected students, who seem to now be getting 110 percent of their need,” Lavin said. “The financial aid policy has always been very formulaic and I think this new program changes the tone of University policy.”
Lavin said he would urge Cornell administrators to recognize some of the consequences of this new policy. With such a new policy, two students with the same need might be getting different financial aid packages, he said.
“While this is a very important effect that we must recognize as an institution, this new policy aligns with our goals and principles. We want to recruit great athletes and underrepresented parts of society and this program does that. This recruitment tool of selecting students for better aid has been long overdue,” Lavin said.
In terms of the new program’s adherence to the bylaws of the Ivy League, which regulates the athletic competition amongst the Ivies, states, “Athletes shall be admitted as students and awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.”
Davis, however, asserts that Cornell University’s new financial aid policy does not violate the bylaws of the Ivy League since there are other students who are not athletes being selected.
Cornell competes against other Ivies with immensely greater financial resources. While other Ivies can provide athletes and other enrollment priorities with better financial aid packages on par with other students, Cornell’s new program of differentiation is much needed for the University to aggressively attract recruits, according to several members of the athletic department.
Steve Donahue, Cornell’s men’s basketball coach, explained that, “Over the years, we have lost a few [recruits] to other Ivies like Harvard Princeton, Yale based on financial aid.”
With the entering Class of 2012 featuring less than 140 students who defined themselves as African American, the lowest number in a decade, the new financial aid program will not only be used to recruit athletes.
Leon Lawrence, associate director of the Office for Minority Educational Affairs hopes that this new financial aid policy will help attract underrepresented minorities to Cornell.
“There is general concern about the low enrollment number of African Americans for the Class of 2012,” Lawrence stated in an e-mail. “It is important to note that not all students of color have financial aid needs. OMEA, as a part of the Provost Office, is working hard to see increase in enrollment of students of color in general, and African American, Latino/a, and Native American students in particular.”
The active recruitment of minorities with better financial aid packages as incentives is a contentious issue.
“Any time an institution decides to treat students differently, whether it be by through admissions or financial aid, I believe this is, by definition, a discriminatory action,” said Roger Clegg, President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. “Whether it’s illegal or not depends on a faintly subtle distinction how mechanically race is being considered. But my own view is that whether it is illegal or not, it is unfair and divisive to treat students differently based on race.”
Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, opposes Clegg’s viewpoint, seeing Cornell’s new program of opening its doors to a more diverse group of students as a step forward for social justice.
“Although I do not know the specifics of the policy, I would have to commend Cornell,” Wilcher said. “Financial aid is the key element in enabling a diverse student body to exist. Race is not just a skin color, but an experience and lack of opportunity.”
Regardless of whether members of the Cornell community support or oppose the new policy, Lavin believes that the University has acted honorably in its presenting this new initiative to the entire community, enabling students to engage the ethical questions it raises.
“The University is not hiding or tricking the community,” Lavin said. “The financial aid program was released for everyone to see, discuss and debate.”