What is the Value of a Swarthmore Education?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore is considered one of the most generous private colleges in the nation. It is ranked 4th by the Princeton Review; around half of Swarthmore students receive financial aid and the average aid award is $32,942 for a price tag of $47,804. Swarthmore advertises its financial aid success by saying “We meet 100% of students’ demonstrated need.”

Swarthmore seemed to live up to its reputation when Candice Nguyen ’11 received a financial aid package that made Swarthmore more affordable than in-state tuition for her regional public universities. Selected as a McCabe Scholar, Nguyen had the chance to attend a private college, which was a dream she had once ruled out given the hefty price tags.

A year later, that dream seemed to shatter.

For Nguyen’s sophomore year, her financial aid package dramatically decreased, doubling her family’s expected contribution. Her father had recently been employed after a long period of unemployment, “but the extent to which our income increased was disproportionate to the amount we were supposed to contribute,” said Nguyen. “I wasn’t planning on coming back [this semester].” Her parents are borrowing to allow her to spend this semester at Swarthmore and will use additionally loans to finance her siblings’ college education.

Nguyen contacted administrators in the financial aid department, the admissions department, deans and even President Al Bloom in order to discuss her options, but she has been unable to find an alternative to borrowing to finance her Swarthmore education.

“The first week of school was so hard,” said Nguyen. “I felt guilty about being here to begin with because I was basically using money that my parents don’t have that was supposed to be given to my brothers and sisters. I really had to be shoved onto a plane,” she said.

Since then, Nguyen has become a leading voice in a campaign to discuss and address the differences between families’ demonstrated and perceived need.

The financial aid formula

Nguyen worries that existing policies lack transparency. “The fact that the numbers are cranked out behind closed doors is problem,” she said.

Director of Financial Aid Laura Talbot argues that existing policies are needed to ensure equity and stability.

The lack of a single formula is one of Swarthmore’s strengths in creating financial aid packages, says Talbot. The current system assesses a family’s ability to pay by aggregating various factors that affects individual families’ specific financial situation. In addition to standard allowances for living expenses, the aid office makes additional allowances for considerations including younger siblings who will be entering college, medical expenses, and additional dependents, among others.

However, Talbot says, it is impossible to assign monetary values to individual types of allowances. “Since our special considerations are not simply applied, we can’t produce a list of exactly what we’ll do in every situation,” she said. The values of allowances are further complicated by the interdependency of several factors.

“Although students might not know the all the details of our deliberation, they know the outcome of our efforts: the aid decision,” she said.

One type of financial situation that is not given special allowances is a family’s debt, including mortgages or consumer debt because “we’re not considering how a family chooses to spend their money,” said Talbot. “In fairness to all, families’ decisions about how they pay for their living expenses or other expenses has no influence in our assessment of parents’ fair share of college costs. The amount a family is paying in mortgage is also related to their choices so those with high mortgage payments are not advantaged in the need-analysis process.”

Family consumer debt was one reason why Greta Pittenger, originally in the class of 2010, was unable to return to Swarthmore for her junior year. “I had heard great things about Swarthmore’s financial aid program – that they do anything they could to get students through the four years,” she said. Pittenger financed Swarthmore by paying nearly full tuition through a trust fund set up by her grandparents. However, the fund could only pay for two years, but Pittenger hoped that the Financial Aid Office would aid her for the subsequent two years.

Her junior year award was between $500 and $1000.

“They expected my parents to pay for a certain amount, and I was left responsible for paying $20,000 from my own assets. It was frustrating, because my circumstances are such that my parents aren’t contributing and I had no money left to go to any college at all,” Pittenger told the Gazette.

The financial aid office had expected to Pittenger to distribute her fund evenly between the four years, and expected her parents to contribute the remaining amount, ultimately offering her little aid. “If you look at [my parents’] yearly income, it looks like they can contribute. But they don’t own their home, they don’t have retirement funds, and they have a lot of consumer debt. Because my parents have to pay back debts, they wouldn’t be able to pay for college,” she said.

Talbot acknowledges such situations of financial hardship, saying “parents who have a great deal of credit card debt or high monthly mortgage payments may be spending a great deal of their current income on debt service and so will not be able to pay their share of Swarthmore expenses from current income.” The expectation is that parents have the choice to take additional loans or find alternative means to meet the parent contribution.

24% of students in the class of 2011, roughly half the students who are on financial aid, chose to use loans to finance their Swarthmore education. For the class of 2012, that number decreased to 18%, which Talbot hypothesized is a result of the no-loan initiative. These statistics do not include students who take out private commercial loans, which Talbot says is around 10 students each year.

Family contribution vs. student contribution

When Nguyen realized that the financial aid office was not willing to increase her aid award, she applied to several scholarships that could have halved her family’s expected contribution. However, scholarships can only reduce a student’s expected contribution. Each additional dollar from outside funding increases the value of the family’s expected contribution. “[Scholarships] are viewed as an additional resource, on top of resources students already have,” said Talbot.

A student can only contribute to the family’s contribution by using income earned from a job or taking out additional loans.

“I know people who are working over 20 hours a week,” said Nguyen. “I am working twice as much as I used to, trying to work 15 hours a week.”

Similarly, one student, who wants to remain anonymous, works an additional 10 hours a week to compensate for the second-year aid award. “My dad works hard at home but we still need to take out a lot of loans. It’s hard to hear from your mom that you can’t purchase prepaid minutes because your dad didn’t deposit the check yet. This semester they even asked me to send home as much money as I can afford from working.”

Such students are further disadvantaged because the time needed to work towards contributing to paying for Swarthmore cuts into time that should be allocated for academics. “It’s not equal opportunity because I sleep half as much as much as I used to when I didn’t have to worry about sending a check home every other week,” said Nguyen.

Without implementing the scholarship policy, Swarthmore would lose $600,000-700,000 that the College currently receives from external funding. “A change in our policy to put more of outside scholarship money into [students] pockets would create a budget gap that we would need some other resource to fill,” explained Jim Larimore, dean of student life.

Since the financial aid reserves are partially funded by the endowment, and the college will spend 4.25% of the interest it accrues, the endowment would need to increase by approximately $15 million in order to provide and sustain an elimination of the policy. Given the recent loss of approximately $200 million of our endowment, “the college is caught in the same type of financial circumstances that individual families are, and at the same time people are asking us to use more of our remaining resources to help their families weather the economic downturn” said Larimore.

Cost of education as a choice

Individual families’ choices, according to the administration, explain the gap between demonstrated need and perceived need. If a family takes out a loan to pay for the family contribution, the Financial Aid Office considers that a valid choice. Students like Nguyen and Pittenger, who are not returning to Swarthmore for financial reasons, are choosing their fates, according to Dean Jim Bock, dean of admissions.

“It’s short-sighted of college to let a student’s talent go elsewhere because she can’t go afford it,” said political science professor Cynthia Halpern, who is Nguyen’s adviser. “Candice isn’t going to have trouble becoming a leader wherever she is going. If Candice can go to UCLA, why should her parents spend $50,000 for Swarthmore?”

Bock noted, “I think education is a right [but] a private education is a privilege, [and families] have to decide how much it’s worth.”

The college offers no guarantee that a student can remain at Swarthmore if a family makes the choice to not pay the expected contribution.

The effect of this policy may become more visible as the recent financial crisis continues to hurt families’ finances. Larimore suggested, “In this current situation, there maybe some necessity for students along the way to take more time on their way to a degree, transfer courses back in from elsewhere, or might ultimately feel the need to transfer. But my preference very strongly is that we look for ways, if there are ways to help people stay here.”

Financial Aid Office Calendar

Nguyen received her financial aid package for the sophomore year a month before the deadline for the payment of the first installment. “At this point, when my parents got this letter, we were waiting for them to get back to us, thinking it was a mistake,” she said. Returning students applications are reviewed and sent by late June, said Talbot.

Although Nguyen tried to contact the Financial Aid Office through phone calls and letters to confirm the significant decrease in her award, she did not receive a formal response until a week before the deadline of August 11.

“The cover letter that went out with our aid letters stated that students requesting a second look, however, wouldn’t hear from us until “the end of August,” said Talbot.

Nguyen received an extension for the payment, but “it was [still] too late to even sign up for community college because the deadline had passed. I was in a position where I had no choice,” she said.

After the initial aid award is offered to students, the financial aid will reconsider application upon a family’s request. However, Talbot explicitly noted, “it is unlikely that additional aid will be possible unless we are provided new or corrected information.”

Nguyen will be transferring to another college next semester.

Students taking action

One frustration shared by Nguyen, Pittenger, and other students was the administration’s unwillingness to offer help in finding alternative resources to allow them to remain at Swarthmore. “There was just no effort to help, just like doors shutting in a refusal to make exceptions or listen to stories,” said Nguyen. Similarly, the financial aid’s office response in reviewing Pittenger’s situation was the suggestion to transfer.

When Nguyen realized she might not have been able to return for the fall semester, she began to tell her story. “I talked to my friends and faculty and asking for advice. We ended up finding out that this is not a unique situation. A number of students every year, reportedly 3 or 4 can’t come back because can’t afford it,” she said. From these frustrations, she founded a group called Swarthmore Financial Justice to create an open dialogue about financial aid experiences.

The group aims to lobby the administration for changes in financial aid policies, which are stated in a recently created petition. The petition demands more transparency in the process of calculating award packages, creating a formal appeals process, offering a more flexible timeline in receiving and reviewing financial aid packages, and the role of external scholarships to mitigate the family’s contribution. Currently, 444 students, student groups, alumni and faculty members have signed it. Some students offered their personal narratives, each of which seem to echo each other in their futile struggles.

“I love Swarthmore, but when I received my financial aid package I was stunned (and not in a good way). We contacted the Financial Aid Office to ask them how our family contribution was calculated and were merely told that “they use a detailed formula”, and there was no mistake and would be no recalculation,” wrote one anonymous student.

Another goal of the group is to create a safe space to discuss the experience of being on financial aid. “”I just feel like once you get here, [financial aid] is taboo and there is no semblance of a community. It changes the way you experience education, what you can participate in and what you have,” said group member Mike Duffy ’11.

In response to the need for such a community, Class Awareness Month is addressing financial aid issues in its events this year. On November 18th, there will be a question and answer session about financial aid and the no-loans policy “to be a part of a greater dialogue surrounding accessible education for all students,” said organizer Rosario Paz ’10.

The Students for a Democratic Society is also participating in this movement by hosting a student panel to discuss financial justice. The panel will be held at 8pm on Wednesday in Bond Hall.

“It’s an opportunity to bring back Berkley spirit – I’m really excited about these issues,” said Nguyen. “We want to make this a more global issue. We want to approach the administration with everyone on board recognizing that financial aid is a problem [at Swarthmore].”

[Correction appended regarding the student panel]


  1. Candice,
    I am very impressed by your willingness to go out and advocate against the financial aid issues that Swarthmore so willingly ignores. I have been in the same boat for the past three years and have found the administration equally as frustrating. Keep up the hard work!

  2. Who decides what to do when the situation falls outside of the regular formula? Are there guidelines to follow when various factors, such as divorce, unemployment, or debt, come into play? What are they? Even if Swarthmore remains firm on such policies, students have a right to know so they can plan ahead to transfer elsewhere…

    If there are no guidelines to follow, the decisions must be pretty arbitrary. That would be unacceptable.

  3. Ramya, this a fantastic article. Your account is both thorough and deeply intimate, and tells a really compelling story. I wish I could write something this good.
    I especially like this Talbot quote: "“Although students might not know the all the details of our deliberation, they know the outcome of our efforts: the aid decision,” she said."

    Yeah, and by that standard, Dick Cheney's energy panel is transparent too, because we all know the outcome. I'm surprised someone at swat would so fundamentally misunderstand what transparency is and why it's important.

    And as a potential answer to where's the money going to come from: how about athletics? If we took out all the subsidized flights and some other services, financial aid could be expanded. It would be hard sell, but as an athlete at swat, I definitely feel pampered, and I'm not sure why we deserve so many perks that others don't get (for instance, they wash and dry all our school provided gear- how cool is that?)

    But I don't think that's necessary. It seems likely that more money could be taken from the endowment. Maybe it can't, but the administrators should justify their position and policies publicly, sharing the information they have. With so little accountability and transparency, it's hard to buy the "just trust us" argument the college is basically putting forth.

  4. Every article I read makes me less and less impressed with this college and their financial aid program. I have seen absolutely no evidence that Swarthmore does anything to ensure that students are able to stay here despite their financial situations. This college has again and again made a choice, for several students a year, that they are less important than the precise size of Swarthmore's endowment. I intend to inform the deans upon graduating that due to the polices of the financial aid program, I and my family will never give Swarthmore College another cent.

  5. @Sarah

    You're better off giving them a lot of money subject to certain conditions. Telling them you won't give them money will just make it more likely these sorts of financial aid problems will continue. The only thing that can solve financial aid is the college just having a lot more money and being forced to direct it toward more generous aid packages. Swarthmore isn't like some corporation that you can boycott and expect to change. It is not a business. When I see problems at Swarthmore that could be corrected easily by money that motivates me MORE to give money to Swarthmore. Do you think Swat administrators like turning students away by not offering them enough aid?

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