The College Cost Dilemma, Part 4: Student Perspectives

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.”

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  1. 0
    Sarah says:

    “Laura Talbot can say atrocious things as there is no evidence or witnesses, except for the word of a student.”

    And she certainly has said atrocious things. The more I hear about her, the more I feel that she, as an individual, ought to be fired. I feel as though she has done very few constructive things for the Swarthmore community, and especially those receiving financial aid. She has no interest in helping students.

  2. 0
    Michael says:

    The thing that makes international applicants different in terms of financial aid is that they are not eligible for Federal aid/grants and are not eligible for most of the outside scholarships US students apply for. They cannot legally work off-campus as well, unless they apply for the OPT, an one-year paid period given to all Non-Residential Aliens to be trained off campus, which many students use to find jobs after they graduate.

  3. 0
    Michael says:

    Not to mention many international applicants come from families that make way little in the US standard. Many colleges, including Brown, Duke, Stanford, Dartmouth (Highest at $75k), Harvard, Yale, provide a ‘Zero Parents Contribution Line’ for families with low income, mostly at $60,000. This means that for these applicants, the parent contribution at these schools will be 0. Yes 0. For all I know, most competitive international applicants fall under this category.

    Good website to compare financial aid policies:

  4. 0
    Michael says:

    For international students, applying to college and requesting for financial aid just make your life sucks. If you never noticed, the need-blind policy many Swatties benefited from does not apply to students with a Non-US passport (aka Non-Residential Aliens). Only a few number schools provide need-blind admission policy to internationals. Unfortunately, Swarthmore is not among one of them. Only MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Williams College and Middlebury College, Dartmouth offer need-blind admission to international students, joined now by yet another of our closest rival, Amherst College this month. I cannot mention what kind of role competitive international students play on a campus like Swarthmore’s. Well, after all it’s about money and competition isn’t it?

  5. 0
    Amanda Winters says:

    “Let’s not even get into the feelings of guilt and awkwardness in talking to parents about payments they cannot afford.”

    Ha… Yeah. I can’t even communicate the kinds of strain this issue has put on my relationships with my parents. They know how much stress I feel about this, and I know their circumstances and the guilt they feel about it. God forbid I bring it up in conversation, because nothing good can ever come of it. So I can’t talk to my parents, I can’t talk to the college, and I can’t talk to my friends because most of them can’t relate and will just feel guilty because they got off comparatively easy. It’s a really wonderful situation to be in, let me tell you.

  6. 0
    Angela says:

    FYI all: Class Activists/ Class Awareness Month is holding an open meeting on last day of classes, May 2nd, 12:15-1:15, in the IC to discuss goals and policies we wish to pursue next year. Financial aid is definitely a hot topic. Attendance does not mean commitment! We would like to hear the opinions of other students on what they feel are issues and what they would like to see changed, so we can set an agenda for next year. (I’m guessing anyone who has read this far would be interested in discussing these issues.)

    Anyways, I believe that there needs to be more transparency in the financial aid decisions. It seems as if we sent a couple pieces of paper into the financial aid office, and they spit back a number. If they made public (or at least shared with the individual family involved) their decision process, we probably would have less feelings of outrage and inequality. Also, their “hand would [actually] be tied” in making reasonable and accurate financial aid decisions.

    Family situations need to be conveyed through words and conversations. Why don’t families have the option to have an open conversation with a committee in fin aid, or at least an opportunity for dialogue with fin aid?

    From my multiple attempts, there seem to be only two ways for students to convey need. If there are others, I apologize for my ignorance.
    1) Financial aid form. Since there are so many students with insufficient financial aid decisions, even with a complete financial aid form, the numbers on the form obviously do not accurately reflect financial situations. The unreflected factors are complicated and require dialogue between the family and financial aid office in order for the financial aid office to completely understand and account for in decisions.
    2) Meeting with Talbot. These one-on-one non-recorded conversations are supposed to give us advice and support. Laura Talbot can say atrocious things as there is no evidence or witnesses, except for the word of a student. And, these students, as entering freshmen and generally those seeking for help, are entirely vulnerable to the advice given at these meetings. Where else are we to seek advice? Our parents? Let’s not even get into the feelings of guilt and awkwardness in talking to parents about payments they cannot afford.

    Also, even if there are other ways to get money, people from poor families are not familiar with the idea of “oh, if I push hard enough, I can get it.” People say that there is so much money lying around you can just take. But, where? The school definitely does not provide any education in this area.

  7. 0
    Lauren Stokes ( User Karma: -1 ) says:

    What seems to be necessary is a survey of all students receiving financial aid which collects demographic and economic data (are parents divorced? how many siblings and what are their financial needs for education? There are other questions that need to be asked as well, but I can’t think of them all right now. This is a job for the people designing the survey), as well as questions about the students level of satisfaction with their financial aid package (did you have to take out more loans? was the department responsive to changes in your financial status? etc.)

    Statistics students looking for a senior project, take note!

    Most of the horror stories I have personally heard have been about divorced or estranged parents whose circumstances aren’t taken into account, but I would be really interested to know just what Nathan says–are these isolated incidents (the sheer number suggests no) or are there blind spots in the decision-making processes and patterns in who gets sufficient aid and who doesn’t?

  8. 0
    Amanda Winters says:

    Nathan is right that these stories do not tell us much about the nature of the problem. They do indicate, however, that there IS a problem, and I think that’s all people have been trying to get across. Those of us who have been struggling are tired of hearing the college toot its own horn about how generous financial aid is and how it meets the “demonstrated need” of *every* student – basically denying that people like us exist or suggesting that our problems aren’t really real.

    BTW, I would also like to mention that while the no-loans policy is a step in the right direction, it won’t eliminate student borrowing, even significant student borrowing, as the college keeps wanting to suggest. If this policy had been in place when I started here it would have significantly reduced the amount I had to borrow, but I would still have had to borrow well over $20,000. Not a few of us have to borrow in excess of the amount already “included” in the financial aid package, nearly always because of impossible demands on our parents’ resources, and the new policy won’t eliminate this unmet need.

  9. 0
    Angela says:

    Laura Talbot’s first response, after multiple stops at the fin aid office in request for a meeting, after explaining to her how I was working 60 hrs last summer to cover the first part of the college payment plan, how I had maxed out my student loans, how my parents who don’t have any retirement funds and both in debt were both taking out more money to afford my education, her first response was “I hate to tell you this, but there is nothing I can do to help you. Maybe you should consider transferring to a state school – it is really your decision.”

    This face of Swarthmore = classist? Maybe.

    Also, multiple requests of multiple people for clarification of how they arrived at their aid decision and how much they expected of each parent (divorced for the past 10 years) were completely turned down on the argument of “confidentiality,” even with my parents on the phone.

    Transparency in financial aid? Nonexistent.

  10. 0
    Nathan La Porte says:

    What seems to be missing from this discussion of financial aid is actual data about who is being done disservices by the Financial Aid office. Right now, we have a collection of horror stories and a collection of happy stories, but no way to analyze these stories for trends that would help the Financial Aid office do a better job. Are these horror stories a case of institutional decision-making not being 100% perfect, or is there systematic failure to address the needs of a particular group?

    If it is the former, then the Financial Aid office needs to focus on the process of appealing decisions to ensure that mistakes, when they are made, are able to be corrected. If the latter, however, then it should be possible to fix the problem once we know what socioeconomic classes it occurs in.

    What seems to be necessary is a survey of all students receiving financial aid which collects demographic and economic data (are parents divorced? how many siblings and what are their financial needs for education? There are other questions that need to be asked as well, but I can’t think of them all right now. This is a job for the people designing the survey), as well as questions about the students level of satisfaction with their financial aid package (did you have to take out more loans? was the department responsive to changes in your financial status? etc.)

    Once we have data, then we can systematically see what the Financial Aid office can do better, rather than relying on anecdote after anecdote (the plural of anecdote is not data).

  11. 0
    Sarah says:

    The “horror stories” you have told are ones that have ultimately worked out. Students should be aware that other students have, because of financial aid difficulties, been driven from Swarthmore for a semester, or permanently. The financial aid office, it seems, does not always help when begged, and in fact seems at times to harm.

  12. 0
    Amanda Winters says:

    Since we’re talking (it’s about time), I have to put some of my own grievances out there:

    The year that my parents divorced (without attorneys), my mother worked overtime to try to save money to pay off enough of my dad’s share of the equity on our house so that she could still afford the mortgage and she and my two younger siblings wouldn’t have to move (possibly to an even worse school district). My father, meanwhile, had to spend that money to establish himself in a new residence. We explained the situation on the financial aid form. Swarthmore, however, took the increase in her income as an occasion to lower my financial aid by several thousand dollars. We talked to the financial aid office by phone and tried to get them to reconsider, but got the standard, “it’s the formula, our hands are tied” answer (ridiculous). I was so upset (because I was already having to borrow heavily and it seemed to add insult to increase of injury) that I broke down and cried. Of course we couldn’t come up with the money and I had to borrow more. In retrospect, I should have pushed harder and talked to the deans like Gabriel did, but this was the summer after freshman year, and because I did not come from a privileged background, I was not yet sufficiently educated in the workings of classist institutional structure. I have since heard several other stories of people in perfectly understandable situations who had their cases reconsidered, but only after significant wrangling. Isn’t this precisely what makes the situation classist?? People from less-privileged backgrounds don’t feel empowered (or alternately, entitled) to confront authority structures they depend on in this way. When your situation is tenuous, you learn early on not to “bite the hand that feeds you.” This ensures that only the privileged will get full and fair consideration. A wonderful system, isn’t it? The school gets to save a little money here and there and avoid the difficult process of having to adapt policies to fit individual circumstance on the backs of those it is supposed to be helping.

    Of course the school helped me, and helped me a lot. But the college promised to meet my full “demonstrated need,” and I’m still graduating with $40,000 in debt. This has real, practical consequences for my life after graduation. Ironically, last summer I had a (very generous) Summer of Social Action Award, funded by the Lang Center, to intern at a nonprofit. This was a very valuable experience for me, and I wanted and still want to do nonprofit work. The problem is that essentially all nonprofit jobs open to the newly graduated pay subsistence level salaries. I have no problem living a subsistence level lifestyle, but I can’t possibly hope to work one of these jobs, support myself, and make payments on my student loans (I did the math). I suppose I could bartend on weekends, but I doubt that my mental health would survive. The sadly ironic thing is the way that the generosity of the college and its forward-thinking alumnus Eugene Lang has in some respects been rendered null by the short-sighted, formulaic rigidity of financial aid, and its unhelpful attitude of approaching all applications with inflexible skepticism – assuming that we’re trying to somehow “cheat,” and on that basis laying claim to everything it can and refusing to budge until we howl with injustice. That’s how you run a bankruptcy court – not an office whose goal is supposedly to help us be able to afford Swarthmore.

    I could go on with more stories, but I think I’ve made my point. Just one more thing: Did you know? Moving off campus is a great way to save money! (FinAid knows this too, and will suggest it if you ask the right questions.) This is a great way to ensure that those who are already struggling and feeling alienated from the institution as a result (and the greater community that doesn’t share this experience) will feel coerced to move off campus, where they will be even more alienated, and to top it off, isolated and marginalized! Brilliant!

    Oh, my Swarthmore education has been valuable indeed. I’m sorry to say that one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is the fundamental rule that every institution (as we understand the word) works for its own interests as much as the interests of those it is supposed to serve. We can bury it under infinite sanctimonious rhetoric about ethical intelligence, but even an “ethically intelligent” institution can be classist. The unintelligent thing would be to sit back complacently congratulating ourselves, not acknowledging the many ways we have yet to live up to that ideal.

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