September 13, 2012

The Problem With “Need Aware” International Admissions

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Over this past summer, Cornell abruptly announced that it will cut back on undergraduate financial aid by lowering the ceiling of the loan-free income bracket from $75,000 a year to $60,000. This is the direct result of the University deeming the current financial aid program to be no longer “sustainable” as the expenditure has consistently grown annually since the financial aid initiative back in 2008 under the tenure of Provost Biddy Martin. It could have been devastating news for the half of the Cornell undergraduate population who were receiving need-based grants from the University, yet fortunately, they were able to find relief reading the “fine print” that assured no change on current financial aids for continuing students.

This was a smart move on the administration’s part for they probably wouldn’t want to provoke campus-wide protests. Entering students, on the other hand, may have felt some sweat trickling down their backs, since the new financial aid program may decrease their aids. For many of us, that would mean getting deeper into debt, and it will take us extra months and even years to pay off that extra amount. Yet, can you imagine having to pay every dollar of tuition for all four years of your undergraduate career? As a matter of fact, that’s what 80 percent of international students here at Cornell do every semester, not getting a penny from the financial aids office. And no, it’s not because our families make over $200,000 a year or have some enormous assets like the richer half of the “American” students at Cornell who are not eligible for any aid. Obviously some international students are very well-off, but most of us do not receive any aid despite our moderate income simply because we made a deal with the “devil” upon our admissions to Cornell.

Most of you are probably very proud to attend this institution which advertises itself as open to “Any person … any study” and its need-blind admissions that enables competent applications from any financial background to gain admissions. Well, it turned out that it’s only half-true. While Cornell’s motto and its egalitarian ideal is very much in practice for American students or those with green cards (permanent residency). For international students, it is not need-blind, but “need-aware.” Universities throughout this nation have created this tricky term to lure more international applicants, but what this policy entails is that when international applicants display any financial need, the system makes those applicants compete for a very limited amount of financial aid designated for international students. If you are not selected as one of those few outstanding applicants, you cannot be admitted to the University even if your qualification is on par with other admitted students, for the U.S. government requires a proof of sufficient finance in order to attain the student visa, F-1. Since you have declared your own lack of funding by applying for financial aid, we have no choice but not to grant you admissions, the University likes to say.Now, the catch is that the criteria for selecting aid recipients include geographical diversity. Cornell’s undergraduate international student population is highly polarized with the two most common nationalities comprising almost two thirds of international populations. (Korean students make up 30 percent, Chinese students make up 29 percent). Because I had no eye-catching record of some international Olympiad award or such, and without any geographical advantage, I could have been easily replaced with another Korean student with lot more money and perhaps, a slightly lower test score.I do admit coming from Korea, a highly-developed, fully democratic nation, I probably still could have attended a decent institution back home, though certainly not of the same caliber as Cornell. On the other hand, for students coming from Africa, it would be lot more challenging to find an institution that compares to Cornell. At the end of the day, however, it is not my fault that I’m Korean. I did not choose to be born in East Asia and put myself in an inherently more competitive environment.What enables this flawed system to continue and has allowed universities to keep taking advantage of international students, however, is ironically enough, our own academically-oriented East Asian culture. Nevertheless, it should be appalling to all of us that this institution which supposedly celebrates diversity of every form and has the single most egalitarian motto of all higher learning institutions has “strategically” targeted our culture and has taken advantage of it. Cornell has a huge number of Asian students. Yes, it is also due to the fact that Cornell has a very renowned reputation in Asia, in some cases even higher than institutions that would normally be considered more prestigious than Cornell in the U.S. Yet, the question lingers. Does Cornell really welcome Korean and Chinese students or is it simply interested in our money?

Don Oh is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. He may be reached at do95@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semster.

Original Author: Don Oh