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.”