September 10, 2012

Alumnus Donates $20 Million to Bolster Financial Aid, Cornell Sports

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Big Red football enthusiast Arthur Wolcott ’49 has donated $20 million to the University’s financial aid program — an act that he hopes will allow Cornell to competitively recruit student-athletes being courted by other Ivy League universities.

The donation, announced Sunday evening, will help fund the University’s Award Match Initiative, which guarantees accepted students that Cornell will match need-based financial aid packages they are offered by other Ivy League schools, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. The initiative made its debut in Fall 2011 after a University survey showed that students rejecting Cornell’s offer of admission most often chose to attend peer institutions offering more generous financial aid packages.

Wolcott’s gift comes on the heels of changes to the financial aid program the University announced this summer. Those changes, effective next fall, will squash Cornell’s no-loan guarantee for all families making under $75,000 a year.

While the Award Match Initiative applies to all eligible students, one group stands to benefit in particular: student-athletes. Wolcott is a lifelong Big Red fan.

“Athletics is important in building the Cornell University brand,” Wolcott, who was described as a “loyal and generous supporter of Cornell’s athletics program,” said in a University press release Monday. “If we neglect athletics, we will miss the opportunity of attracting outstanding people. We should compete against our rivals in a way that will make athletics very important while continuing to make academics most important.”

Andy Noel, director of athletics and physical education, said in an interview Monday that Wolcott’s gift will help ensure the survival of a financial aid program that “saved the Ivy League from splitting into the ‘haves’ or ‘have-nots’ based on the generosity of financial aid packages.”

“From working here for the past 13 years as director, I have been a part of many heartbreaking recruiting losses based on financial aid,” Noel said. He added that, in the past, the size of Cornell’s endowment —  the third smallest in the Ivy League, according to Forbes — has prevented the University from offering as generous an aid package to athletes as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. In addition, Noel said that Cornell has one of the most needy undergraduate students both in the nation and in the Ivy league, “causing our financial aid dollars to be spread across a much higher number of students who qualify for more aid.”

For “many, many years,” Noel said, such athletes would end up enrolling in an Ivy League rival that offered more aid than Cornell — and then, ironically, end up playing against Cornell throughout their college career. The disparity in aid packages between Ivies is so great that in the most extreme cases, the same student could be offered aid packages differing by $25,000 per year, Noel said.

But with the launch of the Award Match Initiative, which has allowed Cornell to match its peers’ aid packages, the University has matriculated 122 student-athletes in the last two years, according to Noel.

“Three, four years ago, we wouldn’t have matched those top athletes. For financial reasons, we lost a terrific cohort of Cornellians — students who wanted to be here but in some ways were forced to pick another school because of their family’s financial considerations,” Noel said. “I am thrilled that President Skorton supported the Ivy match program and am thankful that Ivy presidents understand that financial considerations must be minimized if the Ivy League is to be fair with respect to recruiting.”

But Noel said that allowing Cornell to match other schools’ aid packages will not only benefit student athletes. He pointed to Spring 2010, when Cornell’s men’s basketball team, defying all odds, fought its way to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

“Top sports forecasters on ESPN, ABC, NBC, CBS … when interviewed, they’d say that the team to watch is Cornell. Who’d have ever thought?” recalled Noel. “[Alumni] were sending me these articles from Kentucky, Seattle and Washington … saying this is really a national phenomenon. It’s good to have Cornell’s name in such a positive way.”

Besides generating excitement among students, alumni and the national press, athletic competition, Noel said, is beneficial to universities because it adds value to students’ educational experiences.

“There’s an awful lot of education that occurs in the field of competition, whether it is in a swimming pool, on a track or in a football field,” Noel said. “If it’s successfully undertaken, it takes execution, it takes patience [and] it takes the resilience of not doing as well as you’d hope to bounce back and try again. I think there’s a very significant educational benefit in athletics for the participant.”

Wolcott’s donation, which Noel said will help Cornell provide such opportunities for student-athletes of limited financial means, is just one of several he has made to the Cornell athletics department. According to Noel, Wolcott was also “instrumental” in supporting the expansion and refurbishment of Schoellkopf Memorial Hall and the replacement of the field turf at Schoellkopf Stadium.

Still, in a University press release, Wolcott described his latest act of generosity, the $20-million gift, as “just the beginning” — not the last donation that should be given to Cornell’s aid program. To propel Cornell’s award match initiative to success, he said, “we need to raise significantly more.”

“Others are going to have to step up and support it, too, if they want Cornell to have a fighting chance against our peers,” Wolcott said.

Original Author: Akane Otani