How one college shaves $$$ off cost of education

Cornell University has a new financial aid program - one with a work ethic.

The program is unique among high-cost colleges. Already universities around the country are taking note to see how they might adapt a version of it to their campuses.

Called The Cornell Tradition, the program is the first to provide work-study fellowships from private sources to repay student loans. Beginning in the 1983- 84 academic year, fellowships will be granted to Cornell students who qualify for financial aid and who are willing to work more than the 10-12 hours a week now required as part of the aid package. Students who are accepted will receive up to $2,000 to replace loans that now average about $2,350 a year, according to Cornell financial aid officials.

Usually, money for college work-study programs comes from government sources. The Tradition allows the university greater control over its financial aid program at a time of diminished federal funds and increased competition for those funds.

The program was set up by a group of Cornell alumni and friends, who are providing $7 million in seed money. It will spend more than $1.4 million a year over the next five years to reduce the amount of money students have to borrow for college expenses. It also will subsidize summer jobs in both the private and public sectors.

''Increasing costs and decreasing federal support are threatening the university's ability to maintain the enrollment of outstanding men and women with diverse economic, social, and ethnic backgrounds,'' says university president Frank Rhodes.

With tuition alone at selective private colleges averaging $8,000 to $12,000 a year, Cornell officials and alumni were concerned that only the very rich (or the very poor who qualify for government assistance) would be able to attend.

''Many students currently graduate with substantial debts,'' says James Scannell, dean of admissions and financial aid. ''In the 1980 graduating class, about half our students had an average student loan debt of $4,000. By 1986 we see this figure rising to $13,000.''

Cornell officials explain the highlights of the program:

* Loans for nearly 500 students may be reduced by as much as $2,000 a year. It will be possible for today's freshmen at Cornell to reduce the average $13, 000 debt at graduation to less than $5,000 through Tradition resources. Cornell officials say the program will give students more freedom to pursue opportunities that meet their personal career goals and commitments without the need to pay off large loans.

* A network of some 500 summer jobs will be developed through Cornell alumni groups. Tradition funds will be available to subsidize 20 to 80 percent of a student's wages. All subsidized jobs, public or private, must be newly created positions.

The reason for this, says Scannell, is that ''many students simply couldn't find work that paid what they expected last summer to offset their loans. We want to create new work opportunities and not subsidize already existing ones. We hope the subsidized summer work will also help insulate the program from downturns in the economy.''

Jobs during the academic year are reserved for those students qualifying for financial aid. Students receiving financial aid already work 10-12 hours a week. Work for the Cornell Tradition program during the academic year will be in addition to this.

* Students working at a Tradition job during the summer will be given a living allowance. This will let some 400 students save their earnings to pay for expenses during the next term. And it allows them to choose a lower paying, but more career -- related, job.

* There is no competition with other schools for scarce federal, foundation, or corporate donations. Cornell's program relies solely on private contributions from alumni and friends. The original group of donors will also match dollar for dollar any further contributions to the grant.

''Students will look at the net cost of going to college upon graduation, not just the sticker price to get in. If a college can provide a financial aid package that leaves a student less in debt at the end of four years (as opposed to) a lower tuition cost but little or no chance for assistance, many students will take the former,'' says Mr. Scannell.

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