September 8, 2010

Aiding the Decision

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In an effort to remain competitive, Cornell announced a new financial aid policy that will match the aid packages offered to accepted students by other Ivy League universities. This policy comes after the Accepted Students Questionnaire showed that students who declined Cornell’s acceptance offer most often chose other Ivy League schools or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke or Stanford due to better financial packages.Especially given the current budgetary restraints facing the University, Cornell’s continued efforts to make college more affordable and compete for high quality students is a step in the right direction, and hopefully an example that other colleges will follow. Cornell’s commitment to financial aid — commended by President Barack Obama in a speech at the University of Texas-Austin — has allowed the University to continue to enroll students from diverse economic backgrounds despite the harsh economic climate facing middle- and lower-class families. This initiative is a positive step in the expansion of Cornell’s broader financial aid program. But while we support the underlying premise behind this new policy — financial aid packages should have minimal influence on accepted students’ choice of which school to attend — we are wary of potential caveats that may inhibit or counteract the success of this well-intended aid policy.Cornell’s new financial aid policy is designed to match the parental contribution and loan level offered to incoming students who have also been accepted to other Ivy League universities. However, not all universities calculate aid packages using the same formulas. As a result, two accepted students with the same economic background could end up paying very different tuition prices to attend Cornell dependent on the other schools to which they have been accepted. For example, a student accepted to both Cornell and Harvard would likely be granted a more generous financial aid package than a student accepted at Cornell and Georgetown, calling into question the extent to which this policy adheres to the Ivy League’s prohibition on merit-based aid. Additionally, students who are accepted through early decision will not have the opportunity to see their aid packages benefit from this initiative.Given the size of their endowments, Harvard, Yale and Princeton have typically been able to provide their students with more financial aid. Though it is certainly commendable that Cornell aims to increase their aid packages to better compete for students, it would also be appropriate to direct this policy toward students accepted at institutions such as Northwestern and Georgetown. Plenty of colleges outside the Ivy League, Duke, Stanford and MIT compete with Cornell for students, and those students should also be eligible for the same benefits.Equity will always be an issue when it comes to the dissemination of financial aid. The University’s newest initiative — which seems to privilege students who are accepted to other Ivies — indeed introduces another concern about fairness into the system. However the initiative also makes Cornell more affordable for more people, and keeps it competitive with other top institutions — two goals it will need to achieve as schools become increasingly more expensive and more selective.