Brian LaPlaca / Sun Design Editor

Cornell is considering a host of controversial measures as contingency plans, internal documents show.

February 26, 2017

Cornell Considering Need-Aware Admissions for Transfers, Additional Controversial Measures

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Cornell is considering reviewing the financial needs of transfer students as part of the application process, admitting more international students who do not need financial aid and graduating students with more debt, according to more than 30 pages of internal documents obtained by The Sun.

The task force behind the possible changes — named the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group — includes several top administrators, college deans and a few undergraduate representatives. The AFAWG has been meeting monthly since the fall and discussing possible ways to lessen Cornell’s cost of providing financial aid to students.

The AFAWG is considering nine possible options, including raising the number of admitted international students who will receive no financial aid, according to documents from their January and February meetings.

The text of this recommendation states that Cornell could raise or lower the number of no-aid international students accepted, depending on how much revenue the University wanted to make.

Last year’s announcement of the upcoming change to international admissions policy from need-blind to need-aware generated controversy among students. Yet one of AFAWG’s recommendations is to take a step further and make transfer admissions need-aware as well.

AFAWG documents also include two recommendations to change loan policy. One suggests changing the no-loan cutoff — the level of family income below which students will not receive loans — from $60,000 to $45,000 and increasing the maximum annual loan from $0 to $2,000 for those that are affected. The change would affect around 650 students and save about $1.3 million in grant-aid for the University, according to the document.

The other option lists a variety of changes that could be made to income cutoffs for maximum loan levels and maximum loan levels themselves, in effect increasing the amount of debt that students take on.

Barbara Knuth, dean of the graduate school, chairs AFAWG and was the only person on the committee to accept The Sun’s request for comment. In an interview with The Sun, Knuth said that although the documents use the word “recommendations,” she believes they are better thought of as “options,” since the group will not necessarily be recommending them.

She said that the recommendations will be presented to the provost as a “contingency plan” for a potential scenario like the economic downturn in 2008, when Cornell had to give grant-aid to more than 50 percent of its undergraduate students, much higher than the normal 42 to 44 percent.

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“That’s not sustainable,” she said, referring to 50 percent figure. “That’s where we don’t have enough tuition resources coming in to be able to cover the expenses of providing grant aid to that number of students.”

Some of the options would barely change financial aid policy, including the recommendation to continue asking for no parent contribution for students whose families earn less than $60,000 in annual income and less than $100,000 in assets.

This option is the only one that AFAWG has designated as having “high” desirability.

However, other proposed changes — whose desirabilities the committee has not yet determined — may have larger impacts, both on students at Cornell and the University’s image.

Need Aware

Cornell takes pride in its policy of need-blind admissions for the majority of its domestic students. But it is now considering reviewing the financial needs of transfer students in the application process, which the University already plans to do for international students in the fall.

Students expressed concern last year when the University announced it would review the financial needs of international applicants, saying it would encourage Cornell to admit more wealthy students.

Now, the AFAWG may raise the number of admitted international students who will require no financial aid.

“This option could be potentially turned up or down fairly quickly with more significant impact than other options and with potentially less negative public perception issues than other options that are more visible,” the document states.

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Knuth said Cornell moved from need-blind to need-aware admissions for its international students because the University sometimes ran out of the $12 million annual budget it had set aside for international student financial aid.

When this happened, Cornell could not fulfill the need for all international students and some students had to drop out, Knuth said. However, she did not provide any data on how many students have been affected by this shortage of financial aid.

Because international students cannot receive federal loans and do not qualify for federal work-study, they are some of the most expensive students to cover with financial aid. Knuth added that need-aware admissions does not mean the University is prioritizing students’ financial status over their merit in the admissions process, but she acknowledged that it remains a complicated issue.

“It takes some explaining and often in little sound bites the nuance gets lost,” Knuth said. “University resources are not unlimited and so that’s why there’s a budget set.”

Saim Chaudhary ’17 — an international student from Pakistan — said this change would go against Cornell’s founding principle of “Any person, any study.”

“It actually becomes ‘any person, who is rich enough to come to Cornell,’” he said.

Last year while serving as vice president for diversity and inclusion on S.A., Chaudhary co-sponsored a resolution that demanded Cornell reverse the change from need-blind to need-aware admissions for international students.

He said that when he and his colleagues discussed the issue with the administration last year, he never received any data supporting the University’s belief that international students were being forced to drop out because of their financial situation.

Chaudhary knows international students he believes would not have been admitted under the new policy who he said have “added a lot to the Cornell community.”

However, Knuth said that need-aware admissions is not necessarily “an evil thing,” pointing to data that indicates that the number of students who do not receive aid from Cornell is going up under need-blind admissions.

“In some ways these trends are occurring anyway,” she said. “Need-aware admissions gives you just a little more information at the time of admissions so that you can make sure you’re admitting people who truly have need and are deserving, as well as others who are deserving and don’t have need, so that you can use your resources appropriately.”

The University may seek to continue gathering information at the time of admission by becoming need-aware for transfer applicants as well. Its recommendation notes that, under a need-aware admissions policy for transfer students, Cornell could still choose to fund admitted transfer students at the same level during need-blind admissions.

Yet, Sagar Chapagain ’18, a transfer student on financial aid, called need-aware admissions a “terrible policy” and echoed Chaudhary’s statement that it would go against Cornell’s founding principles, adding that it may create inequality at Cornell.

“What happens is when you make [admissions] need-aware that means — in a very nice way — you’re saying we’ll accept transfer students who are relatively wealthy … but if your parents can’t pay then we might have to think about it,” he said. “Community college students, first generation students, students who come from humble backgrounds … they’re going to be hurt.”

“We can see the intention behind it,” Chapagain added.

When asked if Cornell would implement need-aware admissions for applicants who are not international or transfer students, such as domestic applicants, Knuth said that Cornell is going to do its best to remain need-blind for the majority of its applicants for as long as possible.

“[Expanding need-aware admissions] is not at all under consideration. That has not been proposed,” Knuth said. “Could anything happen in the future? Sure.”

Preferential Packaging

In addition to need-blind versus need-aware admissions policy, several options proposed by AFAWG have to do with “preferential packaging,” or altering the balance of the three components of financial aid packages — federal work-study, federal loans and grant aid — to benefit the recipient by giving them more grant aid.

At its January meeting, AFAWG discussed a proposed recommendation to offer some students — those who receive financial aid but are in higher income brackets than others — with high SAT scores these “preferential packages,” with the goal of increasing the yield among admits in the highest aided income bracket.

However, this recommendation was struck from AFAWG’s February report, because “nobody, literally nobody on the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group supported it moving forward,” Knuth said.

Despite the removal of that option, two others remain that include preferential packaging.

The first suggests continuing post-admittance preferential packaging for underrepresented minorities whose parents’ income is between $60,000 and $120,000.

The option explains that Cornell actively competes against other institutions for the “somewhat limited pool of high-achieving, middle income URM applicants,” and that this preferential treatment helps the University attract those students. The document shows that URM enrollment doubled over a decade — from 1,760 in the fall of 2006 to 3,118 in the fall of 2016.

While minutes from the Feb. 1 meeting suggest that members of AFAWG liked this recommendation, they voiced some concerns as well. Eliminating this program would save $2.73 million in grant-aid affecting around 1,250 students, “a substantial cost savings that could meaningfully contribute to Cornell’s efforts to limit total grant aid expenditures,” the report reads.

The second proposed policy change suggests eliminating preferential packaging for URM families with incomes of over $120,000.

Knuth said that preferential packaging is one of a few ways that Cornell seeks to improve its minority enrollment. However the report explains that in 2013, Cornell began to eliminate certain preferential loan reductions for URM students, saving almost $6 million in grant aid.

This change led to “no discernible negative impact on Cornell’s ability to recruit and yield URM students,” according to the report.

Loans and Debt

As going to college has become more and more expensive, national student debt has skyrocketed, hitting $1.31 trillion at the end of 2016. That has not stopped the AFAWG from considering options to increase the amount of loans that Cornell students receive.

Although the committee is concerned about giving students more debt after they graduate, Knuth pointed out that Cornell students that graduate with debt have on average less in student loans to pay back than the average private university. However, Cornell students on average have higher debt than most other students in the Ivy League, according to data from The Institute for College Access and Success.

“We are concerned about loan levels and want to avoid high debt,” she said.

Loans can present a problem to students on financial aid. Lindsay Vinarcsik ’18, who had to drop out of Cornell for a semester because she could not pay for tuition even with financial aid, said that she feels the amount of debt she will have after graduation has limited her career choices.

“I don’t want a big-paying job,” Vinarcsik said. “I have a lot of stupid altruistic ideological aspirations, and none of those are going to be accessible when I have to be paying off all of this debt.”

Knuth said that there are different repayment plans for federal loans that allow loans to be forgiven at a certain point so that people do not get discouraged from doing public sector or public service work. However, Vinarcsik had to take out private loans —which do not have the same repayment plans —when her financial aid package was not enough to cover her expenses, and Knuth admitted that most people are not aware of the federal programs that help people like Vinarcsik.

What’s to Come

AFAWG members will continue to meet over the next several weeks, both among themselves and with other shared governance organizations around campus. The group will continue to alter the options as it receives input. Knuth said that she does not anticipate AFAWG assigning final “desirabilities” for each option until March 22, if not later.

Most recently, the AFAWG added an option to reevaluate how the financial aid office calculates need. Knuth said that there is no one correct line that separates need from no-need, since many different criteria determine how the University calculates that line. However, Cornell could reevaluate how it treats the different criteria to see if there are aspects of the current methodology that should be changed.

She added that although Cornell’s endowment is over $6 billion, Cornell’s endowment per student is lower than many of its institutional peers and the lowest in the Ivy League. She attributed the low ratio to the large undergraduate population, among other factors.

“Cornell delivers a really excellent education, but it’s not cheap,” she said. “If it was cheap, it wouldn’t be as excellent.”

She said that the group will assign a level of desirability to each option, with a high desirability meaning it is more likely to occur, while some options may be excluded from the list altogether.

After, the group will submit the options to Provost Michael Kotlikoff, who commissioned the AFAWG, and the options will be discussed at the Board of Trustees meeting in March.

Read the full AFAWG “February Report for Discussion” below.