A recent report released earlier this month by the Princeton Review in conjunction with USA Today ranked Swarthmore as the best value in private colleges. The study, which reviewed over 650 public and private colleges and university, sized up schools according to 30 distinct factors in each of three areas: academics, total student expenses, and financial aid.
Only 50 private and 50 public institutions were ultimately chosen to the list of “Best Value Colleges of 2009” with the top 10 private and public universities ranked separately. Larger Ivy League schools Harvard College and Princeton University placed second and third behind Swarthmore on the private college ranking, with smaller partner liberal arts institutions like Williams, Amherst, and Pomona rounding out the list. The University of Virginia, New College of Florida, and William & Mary topped the public university list along with SUNY-Binghamton, UC San Diego, and Florida State University among others.
The study’s data, compiled from the fall of 2007 through the fall of 2008, weighed the advertised tuition costs against the average aid awarded to the students and amount of debt seniors graduate with. Many of the schools in this year’s report shared similar no-loan policies and, like Swarthmore, met 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need.
The review’s assessment of value, however, extended far beyond mere numerical cost. Each university report also considered student and faculty input rating class size, professor accessibility, academic rigor and engagement, and overall satisfaction with various aspects of the school. Swarthmore’s top ranking on the list, then, shows that students who come to Swarthmore not only receive an excellent, very personal education but don’t have to completely mortgage their future to do so.
College president, Al Bloom, was pleased with the recent acknowledgment but was largely wary of the ranking, saying “I am quite delighted by, and proud of, the deserved recognition the ranking brings to Swarthmore itself, but…I have serious reservations about rankings.” Bloom’s reluctance to fully embrace rankings as a “be all, end all” numerical marker of a school was clear when he signed a pact, along with 19 other universities, to end the publicizing of rankings within College-produced material.
“Rankings create false perceptions of differences in quality across instituions,” Bloom explained, “[they] obscure the true abundance of excellent higher educational institutions in America.” Bloom did however acknowledge that rankings, as in this case, “can offer a significant public service by raising awareness that unparalleled education…is within a family’s financial reach.”
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Bock ’90 agreed. “The various rankings, and our relative high position in most, have provided incredibly positive free press, and they have introduced and attracted many students to Swarthmore.” While this particular ranking was published after the Regular Decision deadline, Bock suggested that transfer applications, due April 1st, might be impacted by the report.
The ranking gains special new meaning in light of the ongoing economic downturn as well as the Swat Financial Justice campaign last semester where students protested the Financial Aid Office’s unknown method of calculating an individual’s “demonstrated need.” Despite a letter sent out by President Bloom to the student body last semester assuring students that “The College will adhere fully to its current financial aid policies for all presently enrolled as well as for those admitted”, many students still worry that the posted endowment loss will effect a reduction in their aid packages when they need it most.
Bock admits that “no ranking changes the fact that a handful of students felt unable to return to Swarthmore [this year], which impacts such a small, close-knit, and caring community”. However, Bock firmly concluded that “Swarthmore will continue to work on finding ways to sustain and continually improve our financial aid to allow all students to access and benefit from a Swarthmore education.”