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Students Speak Out at SDS Panel on Financial Justice

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November 7, 2008

On Wednesday night, a student panel on issues of financial justice at Swarthmore convened in Bond Hall to discuss class and financial aid issues at Swarthmore. The primary sponsor was Students for a Democratic Society, which is just beginning an “SDS Week of Education” on issues of college accessibility.

All three of the students—and much of the audience—had concerns about financial aid at Swarthmore, particularly about the fear that surrounds it and about the lack of transparency and understanding.

The first question posed by moderator and SDS member Andrew Petzinger ’09 was how class affects student experience at Swarthmore. Grace Kaissal ’10 said, “I think when Swat advertises itself as being equitable, that’s true for social life… but when you are forced to leave the bubble it’s different.” She also pointed to the difference “in how you interact with the administration at Swat… people who come in from poor backgrounds can feel uncomfortable for having to confront someone about their problems.”

Dina Kopansky ’11 pointed back to Kaissal’s statement about leaving the bubble, saying that “even picking a major makes people think about how to pay off their debt… it’s hard to have the competing values of exploring your passions and thinking about ‘How am I going to afford paying my debt and helping my parents pay theirs?’”

Candice Nguyen ’11 said, “you cannot compare a student who has never had to think about money and a student who needs to work 20 hours a week to send home a check.” She continued, “the pressure on students who feel the burden of their education experience academics very differently… they might be more worried about having a manageable debt than getting good grades.”

A follow-up question about specific policies that could be changed brought Kaissal to the idea of “reimbursement” pervasive around money at Swarthmore. “We’re willing to give you money, but it’s under an assumption that you pay out of pocket first… it assumes you have the money already.” She also worried about students who don’t get textbook allowances until a few weeks into the semester, when “you’re already starting behind.”

Nguyen pointed to financial aid policies which discourage students from getting outside scholarships and “don’t treat your family as a unit… the student contribution is capped and the parental contribution can be exponentially larger… I send home a check to my family as often as I can, and these policies don’t treat families like families.”

Kopansky also pointed to what she saw as a problem with how debt is evaluated. “They say they’re not trying to make a judgment call, but they are.” She also worried about the school asking people to take out private loans when not everybody has the credit to qualify, and about when packages change from year to year. “If you think you can pay for it with the package you get when you first apply, you come here… but you can’t see what’s happening in the future, and by the time you do, your family has invested resources and emotion in this step into your education.”

Petzinger then asked the panelists why schools don’t address these problems.

Nguyen responded that “Maybe I’m very cynical but I think we live in a capitalist society and there are very few checks on education cost…. I don’t feel like the US values education or recognizes that it is the great mobilizer, especially for first-generation Americans… we will continue to pay, even if we can’t afford it, because it is just so important.”

Petzinger then asked the “1.4 billion dollar question… What would have to happen to make Swarthmore more financially accessible?”

All three students emphasized transparency and accountability. Kopansky said “you should know what factors are going to be taken into consideration… so that if one of those things changes you know what’s going to happen, you shouldn’t be caught blindsided after your freshman year.” Nguyen made the point that when students don’t get enough funds, “that becomes an isolated incident that happens behind closed doors… the way we can make change is by reframing this as a systemic problem that affects our whole community… I do think the administration knows what’s going on… [but] they see it as inevitable.”

Kaissal talked about having personal meetings with the administration, and Nguyen picked up on this theme, saying “to ensure that everyone is held accountable for what is said behind closed doors, you might consider bringing a friend you trust with you.”

One student asked if a policy where families would be guaranteed to pay no more than a certain percentage of their income would help, and Nguyen said that in her transfer process, “One school that I’ve been really interested in because of their package is Yale,” which has a similar policy. “If you had some sort of knowledge about what to expect… people could sleep at night.”

All three students also described the paranoia felt by some students on financial aid. Nguyen said that many students had e-mailed her saying that while they wanted to get involved with Swarthmore Financial Justice, they are terrified that their package will go down mysteriously if they do. “Students don’t feel empowered to speak up… that’s a scary situation to be in.”

Kaissal also described feeling powerless in conversations with the Financial Aid Office. “you fill out the FAFSA… [but] there’s an assumption you already know these things about finance. I wish somebody would break it down… everyone could have a conversation with the Office in the first two weeks… what don’t you understand, we’ll explain it to you.”

9 Responses to Students Speak Out at SDS Panel on Financial Justice

  1. Swattie Expat

    November 7, 2008 at 8:01 am

    WARNING: Incoming Generalisation!

    How funny it is that the people yelling that Swat should be more affordable, why can't we afford this nice thing, why do our dorms suck, etc. are usually the same people demanding we waste money on things like excessive wages for unskilled workers, paying more for energy than we need to, and so forth. If we're going to prioritise, I would suggest people focus on stopping the flow of funds into useless gestures before we start talking about allocating what we have to certain pursuits.

    That said, college is expensive, you should have to pay for it. Education is already a huge progressive tax, we shouldn't make it even moreso. If you and your family cannot come up with whatever measly amount you're expected to gain after scholarships and financial aid (another article on this topic said the cap on student contributions was $3,500) then, I'm sorry, you can't afford to go to a school that costs $75,000 or so a year per student. I'm sorry if I think getting up to a 95% subsidy eliminates your right to complain and ask for more.

    Life isn't free, neither Barack Obama nor Jim Larimore are going to hand things to you, get used to it.

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  2. Dr House

    November 7, 2008 at 8:16 am

    The leadership of Swarthmore is as stupidly idealistic as you guys are, which is why any financial transparency won't change a thing, except maybe when you realize your costs can go down, like Swattie Expat said, by eliminating things that the college pays more for than it needs to. We over-staff student workers a lot (although they get paid shit anyway, half of them don't need the money and spend it on booze and pizza anyway), we overpay our non-student unskilled workers (Living wages? Come on, half the workers at Sharples are our age and make more than us usually doing something less skilled than our campus jobs, like scooping food). I know you guys are stupid, but I am sure even you can scoop food onto peoples' plates.

    There are several trade-offs that can be made… cutting costs, admitting more rich kids to pay full tuition to subsidize poorer kids, or magically making the budget transparent and realizing that we have a mysterious "Project Raven" that is sucking up an oddly large amount of our budget with nobody willing to tell us what it is and it leaves no paper trail to follow other than a mysterious bank account in the Caymans.

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  3. A student

    November 7, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Way too much anger on this thread.

    That said, I am confused by the call for "accountability." Accountability to whom? To the student body? To the board? To the alumni? To the people paying tuition? So far I have yet to see a practical solution to the problem of students unhappy with their financial aid. Less ranting, more suggestions, please.

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  4. L

    November 7, 2008 at 10:44 am

    … can we not call people "stupid" as a way of dismissing their arguments before we engage them?

    that's all.

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  5. Dr House

    November 7, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize cutting costs on things we don't need at Swarthmore for educational purposes was an impractical solution. My ranting ways are incorrect, I have seen the light, lets plant a money tree and let it grow with our hope and ideals and childrens' laughter. That is a nice happy solution, and nobody had to be called stupid or make any trade-offs. Or, even better, we could have a BAKE SALE! That would be so much fun!

    On the contrary, don't dismiss my arguments just because I call people stupid, because they (meaning you) are.

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  6. Yves

    November 7, 2008 at 11:30 am

    I mean, if you're going for internet masturbation, be my guest (it's hard for arguing on the internet to be anything but, including my own comment here), but crafting a strawman (ex: I haven't been here this semester, but I don't see any indication that "living wage" movement has seriously existed since I came to Swat in Fall '06) and then railing against how "stupid" it is isn't going to impress or convince anyone but yourself and whoever else is involved in your virtual circlejerk. I mean, Jesus, I agree with you & expat on some of the points you have hidden in all that hate, but your attitude frankly makes me want to reject you outright. Which is cool, again, if you're mostly interested in wowing yourself and your friends with your rapier wit. Not cool if you, you know, want anyone who isn't already 100% convinced of your viewpoint to consider agreeing with you.

    Either way, type on, brotha.

    (I also have to boggle at calling Swarthmore students "stupid"–if the students at this school are your idea of stupid, the real world must be fucking unbearable for you, dude.)

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  7. Swattie Expat

    November 7, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    "I also have to boggle at calling Swarthmore students "stupid"–if the students at this school are your idea of stupid, the real world must be fucking unbearable for you, dude."

    For my part, all I have to say is that there's a reason my name isn't Swattie at Swat. And I do find the real world unbearable most of the time, good observation. However, there are a lot of people in the real world that would be more sensible than Swat with their money.

    Also, the fact that the living wage issue isn't a big deal is itself the issue. We should REPEAL THE LIVING WAGE and other pet projects of the so-called progressives and put Swarthmore's (that's your, mine, and everyone's) money to better use. The living wage is just one example of this not being done.

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  8. Current Student

    November 7, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I get the impression from this threat that political initiatives are the most expensive discretionary expenses at the school, so I'd like to see the evidence of that.
    Then I'd like to hear what the phrase "put to better use" refers to specifically, and why it is the case that these are self-evidently "better" than initiatives for energy efficiency, ethical spending, or wages such that the majority of workers (who do not work in Sharples, nor are half the folks working in Sharples our age) do not need to take on additional jobs to make a living.
    Also, I wonder why it would be necessarily bad to make higher education more accessible if there were a way to do so without hiking tuition for wealthy students, especially since tuition is already being hiked yearly at rates well above inflation and has been for over a decade, and its not because of progressive initiatives on the behalf of students. That actually seems to be the reason that there are moves at colleges across the country to freeze tuition hikes: specifically so that colleges don't wastefully spend on the tabs of students under the assumption that less privileged students will simply assume huge amounts of debt, but instead look to be frugal, with the economic needs of students in mind.

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  9. Current Student

    November 7, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Correction: the first sentence should read "from this *thread*" not, "threat".

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