Financial Aid Q&A Addresses Some Student Concerns

Class Action Month sponsored an open discussion on financial aid with the Financial Aid Office and other administrators today, answering any questions students asked. Director of Financial Aid Laura Talbot did most of the responding, but President Al Bloom and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Bock also spoke. The questions covered most of the topics brought up in recent discussions of financial aid.

Both the organizers and Talbot wanted to make it clear that if students had any questions that weren’t answered at the discussion, or if there were more personal questions, students should feel comfortable in coming to the Financial Aid Office and talking to Talbot or another financial aid officer.

Anonymity and Worries of Retribution

Some students, in venues ranging from signatures on the Swarthmore Financial Justice petition and comments on the Gazette to the recent testimonies posted in Parrish, have expressed worries that complaints or “stirring up the muck,” as the linked commenter put it, will lead to reductions in that student’s financial aid package.

Talbot said that these sentiments made her “very upset,” and stressed more than once in the discussion that “no matter what’s going on, Financial Aid is trying to help.” She said that if she were at a school where people she knew were experiencing problems with financial aid, she would certainly sign a petition. “Go ahead and use your name,” she said.

Outside Scholarships

One of the early questions regarded obtaining funding for outside scholarships. A student said, “It seems like the school should be encouraging people to get outside scholarship money, but the way the system is set up, students don’t really seem to get any benefit out of them.” She then asked if there would be a better way to organize the scholarship system, so that students have more incentive to bring outside money into the system.

Talbot responded by laying out the way that the current system works. The first $500 of any outside scholarship is counted directly as part of the student’s contribution, money which would otherwise be earned from a campus or summer job or maybe borrowed. Any scholarship money on top of that goes half into the student’s contribution, half into funding the Swarthmore scholarship. So if a student gets $1,000 in scholarships, the expected “self-help” contribution is reduced by $750, but the Swarthmore grant is also reduced by $250.

Said Talbot, “I know that on an individual basis, it doesn’t feel good if you got this scholarship and so there’s less in aid for you.” Even so, she said, “We’re all in this together…we expect students will do the best they can in looking for outside scholarships, so we don’t mean for our policy to cause incentives or disincentives in that regard.”

The Idea Behind Financial Aid And Student Need

More than once, Talbot laid out the fundamental concept behind Swarthmore’s financial aid policy (along with that of most of our peer schools). As she put it, paying for school is “first the family’s responsibility, but we’ll fill in the gaps if the parents’ capacity, and the student’s capacity, doesn’t meet our costs.”

[Paying for Swarthmore] is first the family’s responsibility, but we’ll fill in the gaps if the parents’ capacity, and the students’ capacity, doesn’t meet our costs.

The Financial Aid Office gives out exactly the amount that they determine a family needs, without factoring in how much money they have in their budget to give to other students. If they spend more than their expected budget, there is a rolling fund to pull from; in years when they don’t spend as much as expected, they put the excess into that fund.

The basic financial aid calculation is done through the College Board’s PROFILE service, as it is at most of our peer schools. The Department of Labor decides on a number with which a family of a certain size can live comfortably; any resources on top of that are treated as discretionary income, most of which is expected to go to paying for college. After this baseline is calculated, however, the Financial Aid Office takes into consideration a variety of factors, including (but by no means limited to) siblings’ educational expenses, healthcare costs, retirement planning, and the like.

One thing that the office does not take into account, however, are parents’ choices on how they spend their money.

Depending on a family’s spending, Talbot said they might be able to pay based on the past (their already-extant assets), the present (their current income), or the future (by borrowing). If two families have exactly the same incomes, assets, and critical expenditures, Talbot said, they will receive the same expected contribution. If one has been living well within its means and saving, while another has been borrowing to buy nonessential things, the first would probably be able to pay mostly out of savings and current income while the latter would have to take out loans.

Similarly, if a students’ parents are not willing to pay, that is not taken into account. In these situations, Talbot said, students might be able to take out enough loans to pay their expected share; otherwise, they simply will not be able to attend. It is an unfortunate situation, she said, but it’s not fair to others to take into account parents who simply do not want to pay their share.

Sometimes, Talbot said, students and families decide that they cannot afford the contribution that is expected of them. In those cases, there is an appeals process, in which the entire application is re-read and re-judged. Because it is the same office reading the application, though, the decision is unlikely to change unless there is new or changed information. There is, she said, one set of criteria for everyone; threatening to leave won’t change that.

When there are a few kids whose parents don’t think they can do it, and 95% of the parents who feel that they can, what do you do with a system like that?

Bloom said of those few families who don’t think they can afford what’s being asked of them: “I’m not questioning that there are a lot of pulls on their money, but we don’t feel we’re asking too much.” He asked, “When there are a few kids whose parents don’t think they can do it, and 95% of the parents who feel that they can, what do you do with a system like that?”

Talbot said that students “often want different decisions, which means they want different decision-makers,” but to do so would be unfair: why should some students be judged by one group of people and others by another, who won’t be as familiar with the process particular to Swarthmore? She compared this to having English teachers grade chemistry exams.

Language

A few students questioned the language used by the Financial Aid Office when talking to students. One student cited an example where he felt that the office was being somewhat rude; another talked about the loaded term “demonstrated financial need,” which can make students uncomfortable when they disagree about their need.

The word “demonstrated financial need”: that’s a word I don’t want to use any more….

“The word ‘demonstrated financial need,’” Talbot said, is “a word I don’t want to use any more…When we say ‘demonstrated financial need,’ we mean demonstrated to our system: our system has assessed in a uniform way what your share should be.” But when the office is talking to “a particular student who says ‘This doesn’t feel right,’” the phrase is a very loaded term, and so “it’s a longer sentence that we need to say.”

With Such A Large Endowment, Why Don’t Students Get More Aid?

One student questioned why, when the College has one of the largest per-capita endowments in the country, and considering “the opulence we live with here,” some students are still being forced to leave. Why can’t we spend more money on financial aid, and less on “pizza at every event”?

Al Bloom addressed this question, and that of endowment spending in general. He spoke at length on the balancing act necessary between providing equal access to Swarthmore and making sure that in doing so, the quality of the program isn’t compromised.

Spending from the endowment is vital to the College’s day-to-day operation. “If you take tuition and fees”, said Bloom, “minus what we spend on financial aid, you get essentially the price of meals plus faculty salaries. That leaves everything else needed to run the College unaccounted for.”

Endowment spending is, as Bloom said, a complex topic. Some schools choose to spend a fixed percentage of their endowment, but this can lead to wild fluctuations in budget when the markets shift. (Said Bloom: “Bryn Mawr did this, and five years ago they had to fire ten percent of their staff because of it.”) Instead, Swarthmore chooses to spend the previous year’s budget, plus the inflation index, plus 1.5%. This allows for a more level increase in spending while not denying future generations of Swatties the same resources that we enjoy now.

Of this endowment spending, a significant portion funds financial aid, which receives priority in allocation. It is enough to cover what the College calculates to be demonstrated need for all students. Spending more than the allocated amount however, would sacrifice allocation of resources from a different item in the budget.

Departmental budgets, he said, have been flat for the last few years, without even being adjusted for inflation. Asking them to cut back, which he said could be necessary if the economy continues on its current trajectory, could compromise the quality of the academic program. It’s a fine balance, he said, and one that is certainly open to discussion – but the College believes it has struck the best possible balance between having a high-quality program and allowing everyone to partake of it.

Transparency

Several students asked questions about transparency in financial aid decisions. “If students had access to more information about how decisions are actually made,” one student said, “we would feel more empowered in our conversations with the Financial Aid Office, and be able to say, ‘oh, I think this is underemphasized, this is overemphasized in your estimation.’”

Talbot said, however, that everything she has access to in the process is given to students. The aid letter, she said, explicates everything the office has considered in their decision. She repeated that she herself doesn’t have access to numbers about exactly how much different aspects are weighted, but if a student were concerned about a particular issue, she would be happy to talk about how that issue could affect aid for next year.

Timing of Aid Decisions

Some students have expressed concerns about when aid awards are sent out. Talbot said that, if all the forms are in on time, students should receive their letters by the end of June, six weeks before bills are due. She said that this year there were a few “unlucky mistakes” where students received their letters later, but the first ones were mailed on June 20th.

Students who get their paperwork in late are read after all students who were on time have been dealt with, so they might not receive their awards until July or August.

The reason the process takes this long is that there are 5,200 financial aid applicants yearly. (All but 800 of them are prospective students, whose applications are read first, so that they can make an informed decision when it comes time to choose colleges.) If a student has some kind of special circumstances, however, the office is very willing to bump them to the top of the line so that arrangements can be made earlier. This, of course, requires that the student actively ask for an early reading, rather than just filing out their forms.

International Students and Need-Blind Admissions

For international students, there is enough funding for about twenty students per class to be admitted regardless of need. After that, only as many students as can be funded will be admitted.

Once students have been admitted, however, the aid process works identically for all students.

When the Board of Managers committed to the no-loans plan, they also committed to move towards need-blind admissions for international students, once there is enough money for it. (In order to sustainably fund the no-loans commitment, the College needs to raise $40 million; it has raised only about $7.4 million. Funding need-blind admissions for internationals would require even more.)

One student asked why, if domestic admissions is truly need-blind, the percentage of aided students has stayed within three percentage points of 50% for so many years. Laura Talbot called it “magic,” and Al Bloom suggested that the student write his thesis on it. It seems that the percentage of qualified applicants who choose to attend just always has that makeup.

General Thoughts

Students and administrators both seemed to be satisfied with the forum. Talbot said she was glad to see such a good turnout; she commented that “this was basically what we would say to an individual who came in to talk to us, just to a group.” She added, though, that the recent focus on financial aid has certainly “heightened tensions.”

Dermot Delude-Dix ’09, a student in attendance, called it “really helpful.” “The administration showed that they’re really interested” in the issues, he said, which is a necessary first step for doing anything about them.

Madeleine Case ’09, one of the organizers of the event, called the discussion “very constructive.” “Personally,” she said in an email, “I feel that Swarthmore financial aid is extremely good, but that does not excuse us from pushing ourselves even further living up to the liberal values that this institution upholds. I hope that students and administrators can work together to devote more of our budget to financial aid.”

Next week, Al Bloom and Jim Bock will do more of the talking at a chat sponsored by Student Council. It will take place at 7pm next Tuesday, the 25th, in Sci 101.


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0 comments

  1. 0
    Ben Rachbach ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    From the article:

    "The Financial Aid Office gives out exactly the amount that they determine a family needs, without factoring in how much money they have in their budget to give to other students. If they spend more than their expected budget, there is a rolling fund to pull from; in years when they don’t spend as much as expected, they put the excess into that fund."

    Let's not ignore the fact that the determination of how much the family needs is inevitably based on how much money the school is allocating to aid–as Yves suggested in #18, it is possible to increase aid money and thus change our standards of how much aid people need.

    We may need to radically reevaluate our admissions and financial aid priorities. The "magic 50%" of students on aid has to be due in large part to the pervasive educational and social inequalities in our society that make it harder for an applicant to put together an impressive application the poorer they are. Right now, Swarthmore more or less accepts this inequality. It slightly boosts the numbers of poorer students with affirmative action. But according to Al Bloom as quoted in one of the recent Gazette or Phoenix articles, fully 90% of students would be on aid if the student body reflected the US population. If we are as committed to social change as we claim to be, we should make achieving that 90% number our #1 priority in admissions. Clearly, this would necessitate massive changes in fund allocation. To be honest, it would also require us to establish remedial academic courses to prepare students who had received poorer education pre-Swarthmore for mainstream Swat classes. It would take more involved advising, in order to keep students with less economically stable families from dropping out to support them. However, such substantial changes may be worth the while. As things are now, we are actively replicating inequality in America. We ought to be vigorously fighting it.

    Ben Rachbach ‘11

  2. 0
    Mark Lewis '10 says:

    Stephan, I agree with abc. That is a GREAT idea.

    And, abc, in response to your question, no, that is not really the case. The award letter contains an itemized list of the (1)total calculated cost (tuition, board, room, books&expenses, activity fee), (2) expected family contribution (parent's assets, student's assets, student summer work portion) , and (3) sources of aid (swat scholarship, various federal and state grants, work study, etc.). [I'm pretty sure that's everything, but I don't have my letter in front of me and that's from memory.] There isn't any precise explanation of HOW figures in (2) are calculated, which is what most people are clamoring for. We all know that (3) = (1) – (2). But we don't know exactly where (2) comes from.

    abc, thanks for your question. Is there anything else you'd like to know, as someone who presumably is not on aid? I think that movement on this issue will only benefit from the involvement of concerned but unaided students, and for that to happen, you need to be informed. I imagine that some unaided students have a ton questions about this whole mess, questions which could be answered in a snap by any aided student. If you or others would like to raise some questions here (not in Sharples, please), I (and maybe some others) will try and answer them. Thanks for your interest.

  3. 0
    Stephan '08 says:

    As a recent alum who had the recent experience of grading a question on 200 physics midterms, there's no perfect way to evaluate people.

    Any grading rubric is always going to be unfair to some people, because you can only go on what you've been explicitly told and you have to assume that people will exploit any unfair advantage they can find. There are occasional iffy judgment calls but once you've made so many similar evaluations you can trust yourself to be very consistent.

    So I believe that Swarthmore financial aid treats everyone with the same scenario pretty much the exact same way, at least among applications read by the same officer. (So perhaps such duties should be rotated? Or better yet the same officer should as near as possible evaluate every application with similar characteristics? I trust that at the least the financial aid office does serious analysis to ensure that factors like when applications are read, who reads them and the year of the student impact decisions no more than they should by chance.)

    Much harder to determine is whether those consistent evaluations are done in the best possible way. That's a hard question, and it's one that requires transparency and openness. (Perhaps the financial aid office could prepare representative series of sample applications to indicate how need is evaluated? This is more work, to be sure, but a dozen extra generated applications sneaked into the admissions pile whose results are then explained and broadly shared is about the only way I can see a serious discussion about financial aid priorities happening. These needs are impossible to evaluate when only the cheery-picked half of every story is available.)

  4. 0
    Yves says:

    I can only hope that this discussion does not fall into the perils of Awareness (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/23/18-awareness/) and the Raising Therein without Doing Shit about the problem of which we increasingly become Aware. (Though some of the comments I've seen, such as Chris' above, definitely fall into the "Doing Shit" category at this stage of the game, so props.)

    And, as loathe as I am to draw upon the sentiments of some who presented their points in a bit of a dickish way (sup Expat & Fake Dr. House), this very well may become a *tough* discussion about not how Financial Aid allocates its resources, but how we can give Financial Aid more resources to work with. Cost-cutting, yo!

  5. 0
    Yves says:

    +Anecdote
    "She said that this year there were a few “unlucky mistakes” where students received their letters later, but the first ones were mailed on June 20th.

    Students who get their paperwork in late are read after all students who were on time have been dealt with, so they might not receive their awards until July or August."

    My paperwork was definitely in on time and in full and I did not receive my final letter until August. Alas! (Though, I must admit the plural of anecdote is not data, le sigh.)

  6. 0
    Chris Green says:

    I'd like to say good job t Dougal for writing a detailed and thoughtful account of the event. This is good reporting.

    This particular section caught my attention:

    "[Laura Talbot] repeated that she herself doesn’t have access to numbers about exactly how much different aspects are weighted, but if a student were concerned about a particular issue, she would be happy to talk about how that issue could affect aid for next year."

    What this means is that the head of financial aid does not have access to the formula they use to calculate aid. (And it IS a formula, or else it couldn't be equitable to everyone, as they keep insisting it is.) Either she is lying, or she actually doesn't know what the numbers are that they use to calculate aid. In either case, this is a big problem. And if she doesn't have access to that information, who does?

    None of the dozens of people I have spoken to suggest that the idea of using a rubric to calculate aid is wrong, or that our current system is bad; they are saying that while 95% of people find the system works for them (it works for me), there are still 5% who find the system doesn't work. And in those 5% lie at least some extraordinary cases that need to be examined outside of the rubric — the human story needs to be considered.

    The college does make a decision about how much financial aid to disburse to any given family; they have decided how much a parent should pay. If they wanted to, they could decrease the amount they expect families to pay. Maybe they should, and maybe they should not, but the college does have that power; which is something they frequently try to avoid admitting directly. If there is consensus that financial aid needs to increase, the college can increase it. (I do not mean to indicate we DO have that consensus necessarily.)

    Regarding outside scholarships, I understand the rationale that the college uses (I sat in a 2.5 hour meeting with Jim Bock and Laura Talbot about this and other financial aid topics), and I simply disagree. When non-aided students' scholarships are deducted 100% from the tuition they must pay, but aided students' only have up to $3,600 deducted (and even that at a $500 plus 50% of remainder rate), isn't that being unfair to individuals from poorer backgrounds? They are still paying their hefty share of the burden, and yet the scholarships they often worked very hard to attain are useless to them. We should not be playing two vastly different games with the scholarships individuals attain based on their family's income.

    Simple economic concerns suggest a compromise: extend the $500 plus 50% to the entire sum of the scholarships attained. With this system in place, an increased incentive to get outside loans would inspire students who otherwise did not seek scholarships (I am one) to get them, as there are real benefits to be had; the addition cost to the college, if any, would be minimal. It hurts everyone for students to be disincentivized from seeking outside scholarships.

    As a final note, I fully believe that the financial aid office is staffed by people who are trying to do their job to help students as best they know. They are not vengeful, which is why I continue to post all my comments with my real name.

    Cheers!

  7. 0
    Anon. says:

    That rubric is nothing if not misleading. I know many students who fall within certain brackets and do not see their aid reflected in the corresponding numbers. In terms of transparency FAO could perhaps tell students an itemized list of why their package has changed. Not a particularly revolutionary idea but something that has still not been done.

  8. 0
    A Parent says:

    And I'm sure many saw their financial aid package increase, too. In fact, we hear very little about the average $3500 increase this year with the elimination of student loans.

    Swarthmore's financial aid budget has certainly been increasing. Somebody's getting more aid.

    As for being transparent, I don't know how the College could be more detailed than the explanations in the Financial Aid Handbook, unless they published everyone's FAFSA forms on the website.

  9. 0
    Anon. says:

    The person who chose to spoke out is in no way an anomaly. A good number of Swarthmore students saw a change in their package from freshman to sophomore year and for many it was a decrease in aid-received.

    Also, I think you should probably recognize the reality of the situation that the FAO is not transparent at all. It is entirely unclear how decisions are made, what is weighted how and to what degree. It is for this reason that students most likely feel fear to speak out. When one sees a $10,000 decrease in their package and are just told that Swat is doign the best they can, certain assumptions may be made. If the office could be more transparent these issues would not arise.

  10. 0
    A Parent says:

    This has been explained in previous articles. The student leading the campaign received a financial aid award for her first year based on her father being unemployed.

    By the second year, her father was employed and the family income had increased significantly. Thus, her expected family contribution increased.

    She felt that the EFC should only increase proportionally to the increased family income, not considering that her father's job was all incremental income as far as financial aid goes, i.e. that other family expenses had already been factored into the package without the family income.

    Although she called for more transparency in the process from Swarthmore, I don't believe she's released the actual details of her family income or aid packages.

    IMO, this issue has been extremely unfair to the financial aid office. Accusing them of lowering aid for students who complain was a cheap shot.

  11. 0
    Will ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    I wasn't at the event, but it sounds like one of the most important issues for the Swat Financial Justice campaign wasn't discussed – namely, why are some students getting notably less aid their sophomore year as compared to their freshman year? Was this mentioned at all?

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