Class awareness month may be winding down, but on Wednesday night Swarthmore Dean of Admission Jim Bock spoke to a group of students and faculty about Swarthmore’s admissions and financial aid policies.
College enrollment rates are considerably lower for low-income families than high-income families, and although the disparity has decreased since the 1980s, explained Bock, there is still much work that needs to be done.
Bock himself graduated from high school in 1986 and almost didn’t apply to Swarthmore because it was the most expensive school on his list. He was convinced not only that he couldn’t get in, but also that if he did manage to get in, there was no way his family would be able to afford it. In the end, Swarthmore’s generous need-based aid meant that Swarthmore was the only college he could attend. He graduated with $20,000 in debt, all of which he managed to pay back within ten years. Today the average debt for Swarthmore students on financial aid has been cut down to $15,000. “While we could be doing a lot better,” noted Bock, “Swarthmore has the lowest loan default rate of any college in the country. Swarthmore helps students earn the money they need to pay us back.”
Bock came back to work for Swarthmore admissions as the profession was “struggling” with these very issues of financial aid. Swarthmore has “the true luxury” of being able to afford a lot more than other schools; for as long as Bock has been here, the college has had a firm commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based aid. A recent development is the expansion of financial aid to cover study abroad programs, something Bock was unable to do in his time here.
Bock believes that one of the most important parts of his job is helping students understand that financial aid is available, and that Swarthmore is within access for everyone. He is proud of the fact that he heads an admissions staff which is 60% non-white and 30% first-generation college students. “I realized the other day that I’m the only white guy on staff! Start with a diverse staff, and you’ll get a diverse student body.”
Swarthmore has only ever offered one merit-scholarship, the McCabe Scholarship, established by Thomas B. McCabe ’15 before need-based aid ever existed and given to four deserving students from the surrounding Pennsylvania counties and the Delmarva Peninsula each year.
All of the other aid at Swarthmore is need-based; Bock believes strongly that since every student here deserves a scholarship, the college’s financial aid should be going to those who need it most. Over 50% of Swarthmore students receive need-based awards. This year the average award was $28,000 and the average grant portion was $24,616.The difference is made up through loans and work study, as “Aid is a balancing act.” Interestingly enough, Swarthmore’s yield rate for aided students is higher than that of non-aided students.
While Swarthmore’s need-blind admissions policy is a great thing, Swarthmore needs the full-pay students too. “It costs a heck of a lot more to increase our aided students by even 5 or 10 percent… it magically seems to even out every year at around 50%.” In the future Bock would like to endow Swarthmore’s financial aid budget, like Princeton has done. Princeton has eliminated loans from its aid package, and has diversified their student body considerably as a result. Princeton is the world’s only college or university with such a policy, and for good reason, said Bock, “They have more money than God.” Bock would like to see Swarthmore’s figure of $15,000 in loans over four years go down, “but it simply can’t at the moment.”
While Swarthmore has a long way to go, “we are in a unique position in the sense that financial aid at Swat is a sacred cow.” The financial aid budget is never up for debate, but always set aside and protected. “We will never run out of aid.”
Another unique feature of Swarthmore’s financial aid is that it also offers full aid to international students, who cost more because the federal government does not provide loans. Many colleges give international students no aid whatsoever and “only go for full-pay internationals,” but Swarthmore has a high yield on international students because it offers generous aid.
Bock also spoke briefly about spreading the news about Swarthmore to low-income families. With eleven traveling admissions officers, “there are lots of places we just don’t get to,” but Bock insists that 25-33% of the high schools officers visit be under-represented high schools or schools with high proportions of under-represented students. There are also many creative ways to get to students, such as talking to counselors from community organizations and organizations that focus specifically on getting low-income students to go to college.
“Every year,” concluded Bock, “the seniors accuse us of admitting dumber, less socially active, and less committed students, but it’s not true, and we’re not trying to change the culture of Swarthmore. We’re just trying to get the word out to more people who never considered it but would fit in here.” Bock stressed the need to educate students about small liberal arts colleges in general. “We do it best, but we’re not the only ones who do it well. I’d rather see someone go to Williams or Bates or Pomona than go somewhere bigger.”
During the question-and-answer period, many interesting issues were raised. When reading applications of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Bock stressed, “we have no cut-offs… in essays, we’re less concerned with polish than with ability to analyze.” He told the story of one student whose essay was better than all of his teacher recommendations combined. “The essay wasn’t very good,” remembered Bock, “but that said something powerful about his motivation.”
Questions were also raised about what happens when parents aren’t willing to pay and the middle-income group of students who can’t comfortably pay for Swarthmore but also don’t qualify for financial aid. While there’s much room for improvement, Swarthmore is getting better every year; Bock pointed proudly to the statistic that 41 out of 389 students in the class of 2009 are first-generation college students, and all of these U.S. citizens.