May 22, 2014

More Cornell students graduating with less debt

More Cornell undergraduates are graduating without loan debt, fewer have to borrow to pay their education expenses, and there is less debt overall among those who have borrowed.

While 71 percent of students nationwide in the Class of 2012 graduated with debt, according to a report from the Institute for College Access and Success, only 45 percent of Cornell students earning bachelor’s degrees left with debt in 2012 and 2013.

“Thanks to the ambitious financial aid initiatives the Cornell leadership instituted in 2008, we are bucking the national trends on student debt,” Vice Provost Barbara Knuth said. “Our students are making wise, and reasonable, investments in their education, while Cornell grant aid supports a sizeable component of students’ educational costs.”

Nationwide, graduates had a mean cumulative loan debt of $29,400 in 2012. Mean debt amounts for graduating Cornell students dropped from a high of $23,936 in 2007 to $20,557 in 2013, according to the Common Data Set report prepared by the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

“Even more impressive is the drop in the number of students borrowing,” said Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis – from 54 percent of graduates in 2005 to 45 percent last year, or “about 200 fewer students graduating with debt,” he said.

To help reduce student debt, Cornell caps loan amounts based on total family income. An Award Match Initiative also helps keep Cornell competitive in undergraduate recruitment and enrollment by meeting the loan levels in financial aid offers made by other Ivy institutions as well as Stanford, Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, replacing loans with Cornell grant aid in some cases.

Cornell offers initial loans to students with total annual family incomes above $60,000, with annual limits ranging from $2,500 up to $7,500 for higher income groups, Keane said. Students from families with a total annual income under $60,000 will have no student loans as part of their initial financial aid package, reducing the debt owed by the student and/or family after graduation.

During the Great Recession in 2008-09, Cornell enhanced financial aid for low- and middle-income students.

“At the end of the day, my decision about where to attend college was dictated by the aid I received,” said Jessica Reif ’14, an ILR student who served on the Student Assembly Financial Aid Review Committee. “Cornell’s grants to students from both low- and middle-income backgrounds make it possible for more students like me to say ‘yes’ to Cornell and still graduate with minimal debt.”

For 2013-14, “7,290 [51 percent] of our 14,309 undergraduates were awarded need-based aid by our office,” Keane said, and 7,048 [49 percent] were awarded grant aid. The average grant awarded was $35,626, he said.

Cornell’s overall spending on financial aid is increasing about 18 percent annually, Keane said.

Cornell awarded a total of $238 million in grant aid for 7,379 students in academic year 2012-13, he said. In 2011-12, the financial aid expenditure was $224 million, benefiting 7,318 undergraduates.