During the rainy afternoon of November 19, a drenched Henrik Liu ‘19 walked towards the Intercultural Center (IC). Liu, along with about a dozen other international students, anticipated a difficult discussion with Varo Duffins, director of financial aid.
At the IC, Duffins sat down and prepared to face over a dozen international students. The students had come with questions about financial aid, and they hoped that Duffins would have answers.
“I felt like we would be asking very difficult questions. […] There was definitely the feeling that it wouldn’t necessarily be the most light mood,” Liu said.
One of the questions, e-mailed in by a member of i-20 (the international student group), read as follows:
“We were informed that changes in exchange rate are actually not considered when reviewing financial aid packages of international students. In this case, how can Swarthmore make sure to meet students’ full demonstrated need?”
It was a timely question. In the past year or so, the dollar’s value has dramatically increased compared to most currencies. For many aided international students, this means that their family’s income and assets translate to fewer dollars than when they first enrolled. If their financial aid package doesn’t change accordingly, it can become difficult for them to afford Swarthmore.
I-20’s co-presidents, Damien Ding ‘18 and Istvan Cselotei ‘18 first became aware of the problem at the start of the academic year. They were talking to administrators to find out if need-blind admissions for international students would be possible, and one administrator told them they should also look into the exchange rate issue.
“[The administrator] thinks that this is an important priority,” Ding said.
To affected students, however, the problem became apparent months earlier, when the financial aid office updated aid packages. In the days leading up to his aid decision, international student Joseph* was worried. His currency had devalued by about 20% over the past year, and some of the devaluation happened after he had submitted his documents for review. When he saw his new package, his fears proved to be correct.
“It was literally the same thing as last year,” Joseph told me. The college had not taken his country’s currency devaluation into account.
He said that he tried arguing with the office, but was told that exchange rate fluctuations can go either way and hence the office would not consider the devaluation. This explanation frustrated Joseph.
“That just doesn’t make any sense,” he said in an e-mail.
Mark* had a similar experience. Since he came to Swarthmore, his home currency, like Joseph’s, has devalued by a double-digit percentage. When Mark enrolled, the college promised that his aid would adapt to his circumstances each year. Thus, as he awaited his award in the summer, he expected his aid to have increased. When he saw what he got, he was dumbfounded: his aid had actually decreased slightly.
“I expected a [double-digit percentage] increase because that’s what they state on their website and that’s what they told me. And I was like, oh well, I have to drop college,” Mark said.
He started emailing schools to transfer to, while his brother drafted emails of complaint to send to Swarthmore’s entire faculty, as well as to President Valerie Smith.
“It would’ve been really bad publicity for Swat,” Mark said.
Eventually, the financial aid office adjusted his aid by the necessary amount, and Mark was able to return, though “with a sour taste.”
“So the conclusion is there’s a happy ending, a silver lining. But, that’s not how it should’ve happened, especially at a place that has the money we have, and that likes to compare itself with Harvard and other places,” Mark said.
The aid office never told Mark whether the change in currency had been a factor in their decision.
The financial aid office’s policy on currency exchange remains unclear. While some students claim that the office flat-out ignores currency fluctuation, Duffins, who is in charge of international student aid, denied that any blanket policy exists. He did acknowledge, however, that the office tries to avoid taking into account currency fluctuations whenever possible. Duffins said that families prefer that their aid not fluctuate erratically with currency.
“Currency can go either way, and really we don’t want to be in a position to change things one way, but not be able to change things another way. So we just wanna make sure that we’re keeping things pretty stable,” Duffins said.
So, what if the currency change is too big for the family to keep paying a stable amount? In that case, Duffins said, it is up to the family to contact to the financial aid office.
“If […] the consistent level is uncomfortable for a family then they’re naturally gonna reach out to us already, and we will evaluate and assess that situation as carefully as we can, and we do it in a very individualized way,” he said.
Duffins explained that families need to take initiative, because for the financial aid office, it is hard to tell to what extent a currency devaluation has affected a family.
“With all the different economies, changes in currency, even changes in jobs… In certain countries it can […] affect a family differently than it would here in the United States,” he said.
For aided students, the absence of a cohesive currency exchange policy leads to a Kafkaesque uncertainty.
“We know that you have to put [the exchange rate] on your [financial aid review] form, but then we have no idea if that’s actually taken into account,” Cselotei said.
In a later e-mail, Duffins said that financial aid office has considered currency changes in “a few cases, […] when the information surrounding the student’s circumstances was overwhelming.”
A group that’s talked about less frequently but can face the same problem is Americans Living Abroad (ALA’s). While often the only American thing about them is their passport, in some ways the financial aid office treats them like domestic students. For instance, their summer earnings requirement is $2000, then $2500, which is a number based on U.S. wages.
Katie* is one such student. Since she’s a U.S. citizen, her case isn’t handled by Duffins. She said her ALA status makes it difficult to give information that the financial aid office requests.
“I’m a U.S. citizen living abroad, but my parents are international. And no matter how many times I’ve stressed that, they keep forgetting it,” she said.
In Katie’s case, her financial aid has stayed basically the same even though her family’s income and assets have decreased, and her currency has devalued.
“Aid remained, the college tuition increased, the exchange rate went up, our assets were down. So there’s that. Pretty simple story,” she said.
She started to write an appeal to the decision; as she did this, she mentioned the exchange rate to the financial aid office, but they were vague about whether it would actually make a difference.
“They’re like ‘we take everything into consideration!’ Okay, are you human or do you just repeat that one thing?” Katie said.
When Duffins spoke with international students in the IC, Liu felt a similar dissatisfaction with what he was saying.
“I was trying to take notes for the meeting, but it was kind of difficult to find when he gave an answer. […] I guess some of his answers were not super substantial and I’m willing to let it off as him being new,” Liu said. Duffins has been at Swarthmore for less than a year.
And although Duffins is, indeed, careful and guarded when making public statements, he is far more direct when talking with students about their aid packages.
“A lot of times with families who are in difficult situations, the last thing that they really want is to have anything that’s less than a direct answer,” Duffins said.
For some students, Duffins’ directness can feel like a rudeness that adds insult to injury. For instance, when Mark recalls his summer communications with the office, he speaks of several months of “being super-rude to each other.”
Katie, who dealt with a financial aid employee other than Duffins, felt the opposite way and would have appreciated more directness.
“They just say all these amazingly PC [Politically Correct], neutral things, […] they wouldn’t actually talk to me,” she said.
Back at the panel in the IC, Duffins had just been asked about the exchange rate. According to Liu, Duffins “didn’t directly address it,” but he said that there will be changes. Instead of having their own form to submit financial aid information, international students will soon switch over to the CollegeBoard’s CSS PROFILE, which domestic students already use.
“The PROFILE utilizes built-in, country-specific exchange rates to convert entered native currency into U.S. Dollars, automatically,” Duffins said in an e-mail.
Perhaps this switch will bring some measure of standardization to the relationship between currency and financial aid. For now, this relationship remains uncertain. While Duffins said that the financial aid office has adjusted “a few” packages based on devalued currency, the claim that the aid office generally doesn’t consider currency fluctuations appears to have some truth to it.
International student Spriha Dhanuka ‘17’s currency has devalued, but not by so much that she can no longer afford Swarthmore. Still, the perception that the financial aid office tends to ignore currency fluctuations has tainted her view of how affordable Swarthmore is.
“I like telling other people about Swarthmore, […] because it’s been really great for my life,” Dhanuka said. “ But I feel disingenuous doing it now knowing that […] if there is change in their foreign exchange rate, Swarthmore will no longer support them.”
*Several respondents chose to remain anonymous.
Featured image by Jennifer Gold.