At Financial Aid Forum, Bloom Discusses Philosophy behind the Policy

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.

On November 25, just before Thanksgiving break, Swarthmore’s administration held a forum on financial aid. The forum was aimed at providing a more thorough explanation of the reasoning behind the school’s aid policies. President Al Bloom introduced the discussion and answered many of the questions; Jim Bock, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Laura Talbot, Director of Financial Aid, and Jim Larimore, Dean of Students, also responded to some student questions.

This forum struck a contrast to the talk the week before, which was mostly run by the Financial Aid Office and focused on student questions. This time, Bloom spent a considerable amount of time explaining the philosophy of the policy. His emphasis was on fairness and equity: while he seemed genuinely pained at the idea of students leaving for financial reasons, Bloom promoted equal treatment of all students and families above keeping every single student.

Family Choices

Some of the student protests about financial aid policy center on the three or four students who are forced to leave Swarthmore each year because they do not feel capable of paying—and by extension, the students in similar positions who choose to sacrifice in order to stay, most often by taking on significant loans.

“It’s a horrible choice” to refuse more aid to students who feel theirs is insufficient, Bloom said; he lamented the “conflicting values of caring for one individual versus the whole community.” Ultimately, however, the college will not change the package of a student who feels he or she cannot pay to continue attending Swarthmore. Bloom and Talbot explained that while some families may feel they cannot pay what the FAO has determined they can, to change those aid packages would be unfair to the rest of families, who do pay their full expected contributions.

Bloom called it a matter of choice for each family: “If parents believe they can’t afford x, and we believe they can afford x—if they’ve put the cash elsewhere, then they can borrow. We have to use our best judgment on how much money is really there; we can’t make up for the parents’ feeling that they can’t pay.”

Jim Bock continued in a similar vein: “I can’t tell [families] how they value education, how to spend their money, what they consider debt. We are not asking anyone their willingness to pay, just their ability to pay.”

Bloom added that the FAO often knows more about a family’s financial situation than students and even parents may know, since ”one member of a divorce may not reveal information to the other or to the student.”

By the Numbers

In terms of quantitative costs, Bloom provided some definite numbers on the costs of certain policies. Permanently eliminating loans as part of the financial aid package will require raising about $40 million, about $7.5 million of which has been raised so far. Currently, Bloom said, almost a fifth ($22 million) of the school’s $115 million annual budget goes to financial aid.

According to Bloom, it costs about $81,000 a year to pay the expenses of one Swarthmore student; a student not receiving any aid is expected to pay “only” around $48,000 annually—”well, maybe ‘only’ isn’t the right word.”

Tuition goes up by the index of inflation plus 1.5%, Bloom said, because that is the average yearly increase in salary of families paying full tuition. “The cost of the education we provide keeps going up faster than inflation,” he said, citing as examples the need to keep McCabe up to date and the push “to attract the best faculty.”

He also mentioned a faculty and student panel which discussed possibilities for improvements to financial aid once the financial situation improves; their first suggestion was “to release students on financial aid from one summer of work expectation so that they could take advantage of an internship or research position.” This would require raising about $10 million, Bloom said. He emphasized that because of the current financial crisis, this policy would not be instituted in the near future. In the next few years, he said, “there will probably be less philanthropy and a higher cost of financial aid.”

The Future of Aid at Swat

As for the future of financial aid, Bloom asserted that the college was in better shape than most others: “we have a spending policy on the endowment, so that even if it makes 19%, we only spend 4.5% a year. Hence we are in quite a good position compared to most other institutions, but the endowment is considerably down.” He reassured students that there should be “no question about financial aid [packages changing]—the money is going to be there. We will pay the extra that is necessary if a family loses money, or adjust the aid if a family starts making more or less money.”

Bloom restated this promise in an email yesterday to the student body, but suggested that the aid policies might change after the admits to the class of 2013. Only 35 colleges and universities are currently need-blind in admissions, including Swarthmore, Bloom said at the forum, but his email seems to suggest that for the classes of 2014 and beyond this policy may have to be changed.

Student Questions

After discussing the philosophy of the policy, Bloom opened the floor to student questions. One student asked Bloom about the ease of obtaining funding for events and organizations. He expressed a particular concern about the $65,000 of funding that Halcyon receives each year to print the yearbook, and wondered what happened to the money allocated to the SBC to distribute if it was not all used.

Bloom replied that the student should talk to the Student Budget Committee about specific concerns, as the SBC is the main source of funding for student activities.

Jim Larimore, Dean of Students, added that “we wouldn’t want anyone to feel there is a check with your name on it with $250 a year, but we have a sense of how much funding we might need to support the student body in any given year.”

Exceptions to the Rules?

A philosophy major wondered how objective the aid formula was: “are exceptions ever made for personal relationships that don’t map on to economic relationships?”

Bloom responded that there exist “extremes where we would accept that we can’t get the money from a divorced parent, but the norm has to be that both parents pay.”

One junior asked about the idea of fairness: “Since the entire idea of financial aid is that it wouldn’t be fair to charge everyone the same amount, why can’t we think a little outside the lines? I don’t think that that rubric will work for everyone.”

Laura Talbot responded that the reason certain students left was that their parents would not take out loans: “if a student doesn’t come back, that has to do with parents paying their fair share or not.”

And if the parents are denied loans? “That only happens in cases of delinquency and bankruptcy.” In that case, the only answer was for students themselves to take on loans.

Bloom concluded the forum by praising the efforts of the student activists. “This conflict about care is exactly the most important than anyone could have.”

5 Comments

  1. Reporting that Al Bloom "seemed to suggest" in an e-mail that Swarthmore might end need-blind admission is remarkable news on thin documentation. It almost defies logic to think that Bloom would just casually toss out consideration of a major change to longstanding Swarthmore policy.

    Would it be possible for the Gazette to reprint Bloom's e-mail or at least the relevant context that led to this conclusion?

  2. Parent– Given the college's deep pride in need-blind admission, the fact that Bloom didn't reassure us in his e-mail that need-blind admission is 100% safe scared a lot of people, and hence I thought it was appropriate to leave that suggestion in.

    Here's the e-mail.

    To: The Swarthmore Community
    From: Alfred H. Bloom, President
    Re: Current financial circumstances
    ______________________________________________________

    As you are all aware our nation and world face what may be the most dramatic decline in financial assets in recent times. Unfortunately the College has not been immune from the effects of this decline.

    Swarthmore has benefited from a continuing tradition of generous philanthropy and has over the years enjoyed exceptional investment success. The College has as well held prudently to a conservative spending rate on its endowment during years of excellent return so that it would be well positioned in years of disappointing performance. It has also maintained a 15% allocation of the endowment to U.S. Treasury securities to support the budget and to avoid having to sell equities during periods of market weakness. This history and these measures have placed the College in a relatively strong position today.

    Nevertheless, the almost 30% decline in the endowment from its June 30 value of $1.4 billion to its current value of about $1 billion has been much steeper than anyone anticipated. If the endowment remains at its current level or declines further and we continue to spend at our current level, we would soon start to erode the financial foundation of the College’s future. Moreover, until a turnaround takes place we can expect a reduction in philanthropic support and an increase in the cost of meeting the demonstrated financial need of our students. These conditions, coupled with the distinct possibility of a protracted recession ahead and uncertainty over when an eventual financial turnaround may take place, make it essential to plan for, and move prudently towards, a significantly more constrained budgetary environment.

    This past weekend the Board of Managers discussed the situation fully. We have together decided on the following measured courses of action:

    1) Effective immediately, the College will pull back from all non-essential construction work, refrain from initiating any new programs, and stringently evaluate any faculty or staff hiring.

    2) In developing the annual budget for 2009-10 to be submitted to the Board of Managers in February, we will shape recommendations on enrollment, tuition and fees, and compensation in ways sensitive to the financial environment and set guidelines on spending across departments that ensure tighter management of our resources.

    3) Over the coming semester we will develop a contingency plan for more significant reductions in the budget, which the College will begin to implement, if by this time next year the College’s financial situation has not improved.

    The College will adhere fully to its current financial aid policies for all students presently enrolled as well as for those admitted for the Class of 2013.

    It is very sobering to consider that this community, which makes such careful, constructive, and creative use of its resources, might have to adapt to a more constrained financial environment. But in these very exceptional times, we must take care to conserve for the future the resources that past generations of Swarthmoreans have so carefully conserved for us. I am confident that by maintaining educational quality and regard for the people who make up this remarkable community as our priorities, we will weather this environment with the distinctive excellence of this college undiminished.

  3. "After discussing the philosophy of the policy, Bloom opened the floor to student questions. One student asked Bloom about the ease of obtaining funding for events and organizations. He expressed a particular concern about the $65,000 of funding that Halcyon receives each year to print the yearbook"

    Unfortunately, we are locked into a five-year contract with our yearbook publisher. I believe there are three years remaining in the contract, so it will be up to SBC in three years (along with the yearbook staff) to figure out exactly how much we should be paying.

    As is, the Halcyon is the most expensive club/group at Swarthmore, with more than double the budget of The Phoenix.

    "…and wondered what happened to the money allocated to the SBC to distribute if it was not all used."

    SBC decides what to do with the money. Some of it has been invested in the endowment, so in good years it will give SBC additional funds to distribute. Some of it was used to create the Fun Fund.

    The lion's share of the money is put into Capital Replacement, which is used to replace expensive equipment like SBC's vans or SCCS's servers. Capital Replacement has about $300,000, I believe. Fletcher Coleman, the SBC Manager, would have more accurate numbers.

    (Note: I'm on SBC)

  4. The financial reasons leading students to leave Swarthmore are not always as simple as "their parents would not take out loans."

    Does it ever occur to colleges that there are students out there who are not dependents to their parents, who file their own taxes and have been paying their own way through college and life since age 18? There is no blank to fill in on either the FAFSA application or Swarthmore's own financial aid application to reflect this. Would this not be a special circumstance that the FAO would want to consider?

    You'd think so, but it's not. It's pretty easy for financial aid offices to pin the blame of why students can't afford tuition on parents, but they need to remember that their students are (almost always) legal adults. As someone who does pay my own taxes as an independent and does not have mommy and daddy foot the bill, I had to drop out, and I realize now that private school is just not a reality for my budget.
    But for a college that projects so much mumbo-jumbo about equality, you'd think they'd at least want someone in the financial aid office that is willing to work with students beyond the paperwork. Someone who doesn't look at you and say, "but don't your parents CARE about your education?" Or, "Have you thought of transferring?"

  5. If your parents cannot take out loans, they also cannot cosign your loans. It is basically impossible to take out loans as a student in your early twenties, with no credit history, without a cosigner. If your parents cannot take oat loans because of bankruptcy, they very likely do not have a good enough credit history to cosign a loan. And unless you have a very, very, very kind and generous relative or family friend – and, of course, not everyone does – you have no way of taking out these loans that are apparently the ideal.

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