This is the fourth article in a series on the price of attending college, both in general and at Swarthmore. So far, our series on financial aid has dealt primarily with how aid works on the institutional and administrative levels. In this story, we will delve into personal stories about financial aid from Swarthmore students.
Also see the first article, an introduction, and the second, on endowment spending, and the third, on financial aid.
Swarthmore was recently named the best value in education by Kiplinger’s magazine, which does evaluations of financial aid programs at universities and small liberal arts colleges around the country and compares them to the quality of education the institution provides. Kiplinger puts out a top 100 list of these “best value” colleges, which included peers such as Williams and Amherst. According to the article, “Although Swarthmore makes a point of allocating virtually all of its aid to families with need, a few endowed scholarships awarded on the basis of merit give it a razor-thin advantage in our rankings over Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass. Laura Talbot, Director of Financial Aid, explained that this advantage probably came from the one merit-based scholarship the college awards, the McCabe Scholarship, which four students receive each year.
Though Talbot said that she was not convinced of the utility of ranking systems, she believed Swarthmore had a special advantage over other schools because it was more sensitive to family’s special circumstances, and was not bound by rigid formulas that other schools may have to hold to because of limited resources.
Marshall Morales ’08, however, disagreed with the assessments made by the Kiplinger article. “My consistent understanding from others on financial aid is that it rarely is as picture-perfect as they love to frame it,” he said in an e-mail. According to Morales, the college “needs solutions that fight the rampant inbred classism at Swarthmore, rather than simply throwing money at the problem. There remains no guarantee for students from my background that they will receive the financial and institutional support they need.”
Morales also stated that low-income students were not consulted in the decision to go no-loans. “How do they expect claiming to make a no-loans policy to work without speaking to lower-income students?” he asked. “They seem not to care about our opinions, only to prop us up as positive indicators of their idealism.”
President of Swarthmore College, Al Bloom, responded in an e-mail by explaining that he brought proposals for the loan-free financial aid package to the planning committee on admissions and financial aid, which included student representation, and that the committee enthusiastically supported the plan.
In response to Morales’ statement regarding the administration’s idealism, Bloom stated: “We all derive satisfaction from actions that create better institutions and a better world, but that satisfaction does not diminish the good those actions generate. In fact, shouldn’t we always try to align what gives us the most satisfaction with what does the most good?”
Despite Kiplinger’s glowing assessment of Swarthmore’s financial aid program, there are still students that manage to slip through the cracks.
Gabriel Zacarias ’09 had difficulties with the financial aid office when he applied for aid last year: the award letter listed an expected parental contribution that was larger than his mother’s average gross income. “Unfortunately, my dad was in the process of losing the house that he owned that his parents lived in, so he was not able to help out either,” Zacarias explained in an email. “Swarthmore, in its infinite wisdom, considered the second house equal to cash sitting in a bank and thus charged basically full-price, minus the scholarships I had received on my own.”
When confronted with the possibility that Zacarias’ family would not be able to come up with the expected contribution even by taking out loans, Talbot suggested he take a semester off. “Not only was this an appalling suggestion from a woman who had access to millions of dollars earmarked for students, but this would also threaten all my other scholarships that I was receiving,” he said. When Zacarias and his mother asked to speak with deans, however, the financial aid office reconsidered their offer. “Eventually, our parental contribution was about $2000, down from $23000. Yes, they reconsider when they feel they have to. Nonsense.”
Stephanie Duncan ’08 had similar difficulties with her financial aid package. “The financial aid office deemed my parents able to contribute $15,000 a year, when my parents, who declared bankruptcy in 1998, can’t even qualify for a loan, and so I’ve taken all the loans out myself.” When Duncan’s parents lost both of their jobs at the end of her junior year, the financial aid office was unwilling to reconsider her package for her senior year, basing their decision strictly on what her parents had made the year before.
But for every horror story, there are students who are thrilled with the aid that they are receiving. Kevin Kim ’11 described the financial aid office as “very generous and very helpful.” With the Alfred Bloom Scholar award, as well as outside scholarships and grants, Kim explained that he is paying next to nothing for his Swarthmore education. “My last tuition statement was about $122. So I’m very happy with my aid award. I am a satisfied customer.”
Carlo Felizardo ’11 also has had similarly positive experiences. “It definitely meets my needs for college, which is great, because I’m going to college simultaneously with my twin brother,” he said. “So it was really great that Swat gave me the financial aid package that I got — if there was anything I wanted to change about it, it would be that they should have eliminated loans in financial aid maybe just a year earlier.” But overall, Felizardo characterizes his experience with financial aid as “just amazing.”
But the questions still linger for students who believe that Swarthmore has asked them to pay more then what they could afford. “I guess the ultimate question is, was it worth it? That is to say, was the personal/academic gain worth over $60,000 in personal debt?” Duncan asked.
For Duncan, the answer is yes. Despite the difficulties her family has faced with financial aid at Swarthmore, Duncan says she places a high value on the experiences she’s garnered at Swarthmore, and that none of them would have been possible without Swarthmore’s connections. “Research trips abroad funded by Swarthmore (Eugene Lang, actually), hook-ups through Swarthmore professors with other academics and working professionals, a whole lot of personal attention, a stellar education and a truckload of cultural capital: these are exactly the things I needed to create a better situation for myself (better than the one I am coming from).”
Despite the positive feedback the financial aid office has garnered, the program is still far from perfect. Everyone from Director of Admissions and Financial Jim Bock to students running for Student Council elections have voiced a need for the continual expansion of financial aid to include elements such as need-blind admissions for international students or to reconsider self-help components.
Samantha Griggs ’11 believes that these self-help components are one of the biggest problems with the financial aid program. “I think they go against the College’s ideals and founding. It is unfair to expect some students to work 7-8 hours per week in addition to their academic and extracurricular activities,” she said in an e-mail. “Work-study makes socio-economic class more apparent at Swarthmore.” Griggs believes that students should be allowed to work on campus as an option “but including it in their financial aid package is unfair. At the very least, the hours required are completely unrealistic for the typical Swattie.”
Despite the misgivings of some students towards the financial aid program, most agree that the move to no-loans is a big step in right direction. “I would say that I represent exactly that kind of student who is going to gain a lot by the elimination of student loans, and in this new loan-less era, Swarthmore is going to be a total score for talented working class kids from Bumfuck, USA,” says Duncan. “Too bad I missed that loan-free (sun-drenched, banana-laden) boat.”Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.