On Tuesday evening, Student Council held a chat with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Bock ’90 on Swarthmore’s decision to eliminate loans from its aid package. Bock began the chat by discussing the decision to go loan-free, and then took questions from the group of students assembled. The discussion included everything from how the decision to go loan free was made and how financial aid will continue to evolve to how admissions is reaching out to students from lower-income backgrounds.
Bock made sure to explain that the financial aid office was not preventing students from taking out loans if they so desired. Instead, students would no longer be asked to take out a loan, and that gap in the bill would be filled by scholarships and grant aid from the college. “Loans have always been a self-help component of financial aid,” he explained, not a part of the Swarthmore scholarship. Bock said that the neediest of students on financial aid, which amounts to about a third of the aided students, never had loans as part of their self-help component. “We want to give the other two thirds the same opportunity too, now.”
Swarthmore announced its decision to go loan-free in the midst of an avalanche of other schools, such as Harvard and Williams, making the same decision. Some wondered whether the decision was influenced by a sense of competition. To those concerns, Bock admitted that there may have been some competitive pressures that influenced decisions, but that these pressures played only a minor role, and that “We did it because it was the right decision at the right time.” Bock pointed to the fact that “Swarthmore has kept its loans constant and low for the neediest students since 1981” as proof of Swarthmore’s long-standing commitment to generous financial aid policies.
“I don’t think we’re done in terms of financial aid,” he said. Now that financial aid packages have gone loan-free, Bock explained the next step was to discuss need-blind admissions for international students and re-consider summer earnings expectations.
Bock then opened the floor to questions, and the first came from Student Council President Peter Gardner ’08 who expressed concern on behalf of some students who felt that the community was not involved in the discussions to go loan-free, and that “the decision came completely out of the blue.” Bock responded by saying “I would argue there was [community involvement]. It wasn’t a long discussion, it happened fairly quickly, which I don’t think was a bad thing. When we reached out to students, faculty, staff, and alumni there were very few people, if any, who did not believe it was a step in the right direction.”
Example of changes in a student’s aid from the loan-free program. Source: the Financial Aid office.
Student Groups Advisor Paul Apollo ’09 wanted clarification on the policy regarding federal loans, asking if loans such as the Stafford loan would still be a part of the financial aid package. Bock replied that this would not be the case. “Students will still have the opportunity to borrow as they always have, but loans will no longer be a component of our need-based awards.” He passed around a chart [at right] which gave an example of how an average student may be affected by the loan-free decision, and urged students to read the FAQ section on the financial aid website regarding the policy for more information.
Ben Bradlow ’08 suggested that statistics show students from middle-class backgrounds benefit the most from policy changes like the loan-free decision, but that lower-income students do not benefit as much. “Are there accompanying changes that are designed to increase the number of poorest students who are eligible to apply here? And what exactly is the class priority at Swarthmore?” he asked.
Bock responded by first raising the question of what it means to be “wealthy” or “middle-class”. “Would you consider a truck driver or a secretary [to be in the] upper-income [range]?” he asked. “But the two can easily make 150K, which is in the upper-ranks of the U.S. income distribution. Is that a ‘wealthy’ family? Two teachers in the Midwest could each make 50K…are they in the wealthy elite?” Bock also pointed to families who have high incomes but are supporting several children in college at once as families the financial aid office would consider needy. “This was not a move to help the rich,” he said. “It was to be more equitable for all families who are receiving need-based aid.”
Bock also mentioned that the loan-free policy helped in outreach efforts to attract more low-income students. Though Swarthmore always gave the neediest students loan-free packages, they could not say so until this policy became universal. “Often the first question I would hear at a fair was ‘how much do you cost?’, and the neediest students would walk away when they heard the number. Now we say loan free and they stay to hear more.”
But despite these outreach efforts, Bock also pointed to the difficulties in attaining a high yield of low-income students. “We’ve never reached out more, but it doesn’t mean they are easier to find. Other selective schools are vying for them, too.” Merit-based scholarships designed to woo students to certain schools makes it more difficult for Swarthmore to compete for those students. “I can’t predict who will say yes to an offer of admission,” he said. “We can accept that diversity, but we can’t make them come.”
Bock stressed the importance of getting out the message to students from lower-income backgrounds that Swarthmore can be affordable. Part of that outreach effort includes a requirement that each admissions dean visit at least one community-based organization, like Questbridge or A Better Chance, which match up low-income, high-achieving students with selective schools such as Swarthmore. He concluded the talk by asking students to participate in that kind of outreach effort and to support the college’s efforts by actions such as donating to the 10:1 campaign.