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NPR Confuses the Cornells

The folks over at Cornell Insider picked up on an interesting NPR story that tracks how well college graduates pay back their student loans.

The NPR story cites the fact that Cornell has the second highest loan repayment rate in the Ivy League, at 82 percent, falling only to (who else?) Harvard's 84 percent.

That's all well and good, save for the fact that NPR reported on the Cornell in Iowa. You know, the one where students only take one course at a time and the topography is flat and without any intersecting hydrological features?

Cornell's actual repayment rate is 73 percent, which puts us in fourth place in the Ivies (ahead of Dartmouth, Brown, Penn, and Yale, but behind Columbia, Princeton, and of course, Harvard) and also ahead of some of the Big Red's other peer schools, like Chicago, Northwestern, Duke, and WashU.

The bigger question is what exactly these numbers tell us. I'm not certain they tell you much without taking what the students are studying, their debt load, and the familial backgrounds of the students.

Family backgrounds are important because a student from a family with higher income can reasonably expect to 'lean' on their family for loan payments if time gets tough. Cornell tends to have more economic diversity than its peers, so Cornell looks even better with this taken into consideration.

At the same time, debt load is important too -- the higher the debt the more the monthly payment. Paying off $150,000 in debt is a lot harder to do than $60,000 in debt. The NPR story doesn't really talk about this, even though it's an important angle to their 'public v. private' Ivies comparison. Public school graduates will see lower debt loads. The same principle would apply for Cornell's contract colleges.

We also know that Cornell tends to be more of a pre-professional place than a lot of our peers, so it would make sense that Cornellians might have better job prospects upon graduating. On the flip side, the consideration might only matter for future engineers, farmers, or hotel managers, tilting the scale in Cornell's favor due to those students, but telling us nothing about the marginal liberal arts student at Cornell vis-a-vis Brown or Dartmouth.

Tellingly, Carnegie Mellon, a Cornell-peer but heavily concentrated in business and engineering education, has a repayment rate of 80 percent. Besting all but Harvard.

And Cornell College.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 22, 2010 (#)

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