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Most Students Who Turn Down Cornell Attend Non-Top Schools

Back in August, MetaEzra was the first to break the news that Cornell would begin matching the financial aid packages for students accepted at other Ivies. At the time, we noted that the policy was both a merit-aid policy in disguise and an attempt to get around the Ivy League's crack-down on Cornell's enhanced need-based aid offerings for athletes. And now the Chronicle is reporting about the latest evolution in Cornell's financial aid policy:

"We're explicitly saying if you have a better aid offer from another Ivy institution, bring it to us, and we'll give you more grant aid. It won't be loans," said Tom Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis.

"While we do not have hard evidence that financial aid was the primary factor, we think it is safe to assume that net price could be one of the top five factors," Keane said.

Cornell has no way of knowing how many students will take the university up on its offer. Thus, the range of anticipated costs is wide, from $800,000 to $1.8 million in the first year, and $2.8 million to $7.2 million over four years. Cornell has not yet announced its plan to pay for the added costs associated with the policy; Keane said fundraising is likely to play a role.

Without the new policy, some families would have paid up to $100,000 to attend Cornell rather than one of its competitors. For example, a family who earns $250,000 a year would not have qualified for aid from Cornell to pay for the $55,000 price tag. But the same family would have paid less than half that, or $25,000, for its student to go to Harvard, Keane said. "Now, we're saying that student will pay $25,000 to go to Cornell and get $30,000 in aid," he said.

The article is noteworthy not only for discussing how much the new plan may cost the University, but also for explicitly detailing where students who turn down Cornell end-up attending. Here's a chart I put together:

It's impressive to note that the majority of students who turn down Cornell do not end up attending other 'top schools'. Of course, this is a pretty limited definition of top schools, and excludes places like Northwestern, Berkeley, Williams, Chicago, or Notre Dame. But so does the new financial aid policy, for the likely reason that those schools don't offer better need-based financial aid, but better merit-based financial aid. And Cornell can't compete with merit policy offers as an Ivy League rule.

Based on the cost of the policy in the first year of ~$1.3 MM, and assuming an average increase in grant money per student of $20k it looks like Cornell is expecting around 60 students to take advantage of the new policy, or around 1 percent of RD acceptances and 3 percent of RD matriculates.

Taking a step back, however, it's important to put the cost of this program relative to other initiatives: is it more important to Cornell to attract students who otherwise would have attended Penn or Yale based on cost alone, or instead, should Cornell be deploying the additional $1MM a year into better facilities and programs?

Put in a more anecdotal way, I don't think anybody who is interested in theatre is going to turn down Yale for Cornell in light of Yale's pre-existing strength in the theatre arts Cornell's cuts in its own theatre department. But re-investing the money in Cornell's theatre program might help Cornell improve its draw among students considering a place like Northwestern or Vanderbilt. And strengthen the educational offerings for the rest of Cornell's students as well.

Of course, you can make the opposite argument for a program that is stronger at Cornell than at Yale, like engineering -- maybe Cornell will end up getting more Yale engineers because now they can go to a better engineering school at the same price.

But it seems like the true intent of the program is to level the playing field for students who aren't making a decision based on strict academics alone. Like athletes. Which is what we have been saying all along. Because we're not about to get any Harvard politicos, Yalie artists, or Penn entrepreneurs anytime soon. But we just may get their wrestlers.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on December 11, 2010 (#)

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