October 27, 2013

Need-Blind Admissions Is Critical to University, Cornell Trustees Say

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Despite costing money, Cornell’s need-blind admissions policy has had an invaluable impact on the student population’s socioeconomic diversity, University trustees and officials said at a panel Friday.

“If all you wanted to do was raise the maximum amount of money possible … you’d eliminate financial aid and just let in rich students,” Prof. Michael Lovenheim, policy analysis and management, said.

But the money the University has to spend to continue being need-blind is worth it when considering how important it is to admit a diverse student body, Lovenheim said.

Provost Kent Fuchs echoed Lovenheim’s sentiments, saying the money the University spends on aid is more than compensated by the ability to foster intellectual growth among diverse students.

“If our primary metric — our goal — in being one of the world’s top research institutions is the financial payoff, then it’s not worth it,” Fuchs said. “Even if we haven’t benefitted financially as an institution, we’ve made an impact on the world.”

Cornell is “one of a handful [of institutions] with need-blind admissions,” Fuchs said. One-sixth of the University’s students come from families with incomes of less than 60,000 dollars, he added.

Trustees lauded the University’s admissions and aid policies, saying it is admirable the University sacrifices revenue to ensure that students of all economic backgrounds can attend.

“I think we at Cornell will continue to be that little speck in higher education that will continue to be need-blind,” Trustee Rana Glasgal ’87 M.Eng. ’92 said.

Despite the University not considering students’ economic backgrounds when admitting them, panelists said that Cornell still faces challenges in its admissions — with many students who are eligible for full financial aid not realizing they can afford a Cornell education.

“A lot of low-income, high-ability students … are not aware that the 60k a year tuition does not apply to them and, in actuality, Cornell might be cheaper than a state school,” Lovenheim said. “This information gap that is occurring is very correlated with socioeconomic status.”

It is also problematic that higher education places a burden on upper to middle income families, who often receive little to no financial aid despite not being able to comfortably pay tuition, panelists said.

“Why are we willing to make the price of tuition affordable for one group of people but unaffordable for someone else?” Trustee Robert Katz ’69 said.

Even with the challenges it has faced in admitting students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, the University’s financial aid policies have already dramatically changed the income distribution of the student body, Katz said.

“The income distribution of our students is shifting more and more to students that come from relatively modest backgrounds,” he said. “Today, over half of our students … are receiving an average of $34,000 in aid.”

Ultimately, panelists said the University must continue asking how it can efficiently allocate its revenue to meet the needs of its students.

“If you have the academic standing of Cornell … it’s going to cost us money. Where do we allocate our infrastructure effectively to achieve our goals?” Glasgal said.

Trade-offs will occur as the University considers how to balance tuition, financial aid and the diversity of its students, said Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations.

“We can’t afford to be world-class in everything,” he said.