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Financial aid decisions often more nuanced than they appear

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Many students have experienced a decrease in their financial aid packages after freshman year, despite little perceived change in their family’s financial situation. For some students, not receiving an adequate amount of aid meant not returning to Swarthmore this year.

Christian Rhodes, a would-be sophomore, was already toeing the line of being able to attend before his freshman year. After being told his aid would not increase unless there was a decrease in his parents’ income, he and his family made the choice for him not to attend this year.

“The financial aid office told me that I could appeal my financial package. However, they also said that if my parent’s income did not significantly change, then there probably wouldn’t be any change to the package,” said Rhodes. “My parents’ income didn’t change, so we didn’t try to appeal it. Instead, we focused on looking for a new school to transfer to.”

The college’s appeals process occurs only after a family reaches out to their respective financial aid director. From there, the aid director allows a family to fill out the request for reconsideration.

Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins explained that the reconsideration process allows the college to reassess a family’s financial situation after something drastic happens following the financial aid deadline. For example, if a family member loses a job, the appeals process allows the financial aid office to tweak a student’s aid package amount. Duffins said that events that occurred beyond the family’s control are crucial to the reconsideration process.

“While Swarthmore is an amazing school, I did not find my Swat degree to be worth the massive amount of debt I would be taking on after my four years,” Rhodes later remarked. “I loved Swat and everyone a part of it. It was just unfortunate the financial aid office couldn’t give a little more.”

For this year, the college’s financial aid budget was $39.6 million, and the average aid award was $47,000. While the budget of the financial aid office does depend heavily on the endowment, any increase to endowment spending or the office’s budget does not correlate with a student’s aid award. This rule is in place because the college already meets 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need according to the financial aid office. To calculate how much aid is allocated to each student that applies for financial aid, Swarthmore uses a software that runs the college’s need analysis based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and College Scholarship Service Profile for each family.

“What the need analysis is doing is making sure there’s fairness across the board. It’s also important to remember that income is not the only factor,” said Duffins.

The need analysis takes into account other factors, like the number of children a family has both in and out of college, where the family lives, and the amount of assets the family holds.

“The need analysis that we use is very responsive to families and thinks as families think, not always to the same degree, but takes into account all of the things that families think about,” Duffins later added. Though he acknowledged that some aspects of a family’s financial situation could escape the college’s need analysis, he cited the reconsideration appeals process as a remedy.

John, another would-be sophomore unable to attend due to financial difficulty whose real name is not used due to the sensitive nature of financial aid information, believes he should have gotten more aid. His freshman year aid package amounted to approximately $20,000, but he did not get a financial aid award sophomore year.  John’s parents own a small convenience store in the Midwest that sells gasoline. According to him, the nature of their work makes his parents look wealthier on paper than they actually are.

“On a good year, my parents probably make $70,000 a year and could not pay for Swat without taking a lot of debt on. On top of that, the financial aid office is not super knowledgeable about taxes,” he said. “The first year, they…gave me just enough to make me consider attending Swat.”

When John called the financial aid office, his financial aid director, Kristin Moore, told him she was going on vacation, and she would tell the office about his situation. After calling again, the office was unaware of John’s situation. His aid package information then came so late that there was little time to assess the situation. John was surprised that he was able to transfer colleges at all since he was past all of the deadlines for his current college. He was still accepted and received financial aid grants based on his FAFSA at the new school.

“Kristin seemed sympathetic, but either completely forgot or got out of there before she had to make any sort of decision and hoped that I would accept my fate and attend Swarthmore anyways,” he added. “The athletics department really wanted me to continue my attendance. They talked to me quite a bit after the decision came out and were very sorry they couldn’t help.”

Duffins stressed that a family’s financial circumstances are often deeply personal and complex. He explained that it is important to take into account the details that go not only into the financial aid office’s decisions, but also, a family’s decision of how to use their financial resources.

“It is uncommon for students to fully know the extent of their parents’ financial situations, and there is often much more to the circumstances than what can be shared among friends,” he said in regard to the widespread student perception that the financial aid office to an extent consistently decreases aid awards from one year to the next.

Rhodes said he intends to return to Swarthmore next year, provided he is able to complete his major in a truncated two years. As for John, he does not intend to transfer back. He said medical schools do not look well upon frequent transferring, and he wants to keep his chances of admission as high as possible.

 

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