Swarthmore’s Declining Socioeconomic Diversity

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.

Eugene Lang ’38 expected a normal day washing dishes and busing tables at the New York City deli.

“Have you ever heard of Swarthmore?” asked the restaurant’s best customer, after a few minutes of conversation.

“No,” replied the 15-year-old Eugene. His parents, both immigrants, had trouble finding work in the recession-battered economy and could never afford a trip outside of the city. The customer, a member of Swarthmore College’s Board of Managers, described the school.

“Would you like to go there?” the board member asked.

“Well, it costs money,” said Eugene, “and my family doesn’t have any money.” But he filled out the application and was accepted on a full scholarship. Most appreciative of his life-changing opportunity offered by Swarthmore, Lang, has become the College’s most generous benefactor and has endowed buildings, programs, and scholarships.

Lang, now 93, fondly recalled this memory in a phone interview. “America as a democratic society should give every young person an opportunity for a full education and an opportunity to build a fulfilling life,” he said.

While his beloved alma mater still awards several full scholarships every year and has more students receiving financial aid than ever before, the number of students from low-income families has declined over the past decade.

Between 2000 and 2010, Swarthmore’s enrollment increased by nearly 100 students and its financial aid budget roughly doubled. But the number and proportion of students from families with annual incomes below 40,000 dollars declined during that same period, an analysis of Financial Aid Office data shows below. In the 2000-2001 academic year, roughly 12.3 percent of Swarthmore students came from families making less than 40,000 dollars a year, but that figure fell to 8.9 percent by 2010, representing a net decrease of about 40 students.

Swarthmore has failed to keep up with some peer institutions, at least by one measure. Of the 50 schools with the largest endowments in the U.S., Swarthmore made the list of the 15 universities and colleges with the smallest percentage of students receiving Pell Grants based on an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education published last spring. Pell Grants are awarded through a federal program to students with the greatest financial need attend college, typically to students whose families make less than 40,000 dollars per year.

Williams and Amherst increased the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants, while the proportion at Swarthmore declined between 2004 and 2008. The proportion of students receiving Pell Grants changed significantly in 2009, when eligibility was expanded.

There are many reasons for the decline, Swarthmore officials and outside experts said. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jim Bock ‘90 said that Swarthmore’s small size and lack of name recognition as well as increased competition of elite institutions for the same pool of applicants were reasons for the decline over the past decade.

“We’re the smallest among our peer group, and most schools have more acceptance spaces than we have total,” he said. “I think there are more colleges going for qualified, low-income students […]it’s what we talk about at our national conferences.”

“It is true that the pool of people applying to these elite colleges is small, and it’s hard for Swarthmore,” said Sandy Baum, Professor of Economics Emerita at Skidmore College and independent policy analyst for The College Board, in a phone interview.

“But the fact is that there are many low-income students who are qualified to go to Swarthmore who are not applying,” she said. “What Swarthmore needs to do is find these other promising people.”

Bock explained that Amherst deliberately made room for and grew the number of students from low-income families under the leadership of their previous president Anthony M. Marx. In an e-mail announcing his leave last spring, Marx wrote, “Our low-income enrollment—now about 25 percent—has more than doubled, significantly outpacing that of our peers and ensuring mobility based on talent.”

Some administrators downplayed the significance of the trend at Swarthmore and stressed it is not a result of any change in policy. “These [figures] are not adjusted for inflation, so it’s a little misleading,” said Suzanne Welsh, Vice President for Finance and Treasurer of the College.

Director of Financial Aid Laura Talbot agreed, adding that factors like family size, geographic location, assets, medical expenses affect financial aid decisions. “I have not seen that we have been admitting a different sort of student from a different sort of background,” said Talbot. “It’s just the families doing the same sort of work are paid more.”

Baum, however, said that inflation is not a real problem with this data and pointed out that inequality in the distribution of incomes in the U.S. has increased over this period. Average family incomes in 2010 were actually lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than they were a decade earlier over the entire income distribution in the United States, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last September.

Additionally, families in the lowest 20 percent of the population experienced among the most substantial declines in real income, the data show.  “So there are more [low-income] families actually,” said Baum.

Bock said that the College reaffirms its commitment to meet the full financial need of a diverse class of students each year during the recent Strategic Planning process. “We want the best and brightest from all backgrounds,” he said. But, “it’s a challenge,” he said, for the college to find enough low-income students who are qualified and want to come.

Among the reasons for the challenge are the numerous disadvantages that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds face in the college admissions process. According to Bock, these barriers include the lack of access to counseling in high schools, variable parental support, and the disproportionate need for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to work extra outside of school.

Differences in access to information about college and financial aid also play a role, said Laura Perna, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, in a phone interview.

“Students who are in most need of financial aid tend to know very little about how it is available and either don’t learn about the availability of financial aid until very late in the process […] or they self-select into different options based on incorrect information,” she said.

Sonja Spoo, a junior from Glendale, AZ agreed. “Being both a student from this background and also very active in admissions […] I know firsthand that there is a lack of knowledge out there about Swarthmore and about the ways that private top-tier education can be affordable,” wrote Spoo ’13 in an e-mail from overseas.

“I was essentially on my own when applying and this made the process even more difficult and stressful, and many of my peers simply did not think it was worth it when it was much easier to apply or get into state schools,” she said.

Perna and Baum pointed out that the way colleges and universities define merit may also disadvantage students from low-income families. SAT scores and the availability of rigorous AP and IB academic courses are correlated with family income, which “makes low-income students relatively less competitive in the admissions process,” said Perna.

“People who don’t have violin lessons or that didn’t go to Guatemala over the summer to build houses don’t look as good on paper,” said Baum. “And there are so many qualified students, but you have to start realizing that some of those qualifications do depend on having the money to buy them.”

Spoo explained that attending Swarthmore could be a more affordable option than state schools  for less affluent students because some public institutions do not award full scholarships. Bock agreed that prospective students and their families are often surprised to learn that the average student on financial aid at Swarthmore pays less than the average cost of in-state tuition in Pennsylvania.

Swarthmore admissions and financial office staff have been involved in efforts to reach bright students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds for decades, which have intensified in recent years, according to Bock. These initiatives include working with counselors at community-based organizations in low-income areas, making affordability a focus in presentations, and mailing out financial aid information to all prospective students.

While he acknowledged the importance of outreach, Bock said that prestige is also a factor. “The movie is Stealing Harvard, not Stealing Swarthmore,” he quipped. And since other selective colleges and universities offer generous financial aid awards, students may be less likely to choose a school their parents, friends, and families have never encountered, according to Baum.

Once Spoo ’13 chose Swarthmore through the Questbridge Scholars program geared toward high-achieving, low-income students, she felt this pressure. “I did, however, face a lot of questions from family, school, and friends on why Swat instead of other better known schools. Many people simply thought I was selling myself short,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Baum and Perna commented that Swarthmore and other colleges like it have competing priorities that make increased socioeconomic diversity a challenge, including maintaining high average SAT scores in conjunction with its high ranking in U.S. News and World Reports.

“There are multiple types of priorities that administrators are trying to achieve, multiple institutional types of goals, and certainly some real constraints,” said Perna.

She explained that loan-free financial aid programs that pledge to meet students’ full financial need with the aim of ensuring college access and affordability for all students are costly. Welsh confirmed that financial aid is the fastest growing item in the College’s budget, and has increased annually over the past twenty years.

“Even with that large expenditure, we still have really low shares of Pell Grant recipients and other low-income students,” said Perna.

In addition to seeing room for improvement, Perna and Baum explained that there are factors within the control of Swarthmore College. For example, the college could send more admissions officers to never-before-visited high schools and increase collaboration with community based organizations that aim to give high-achieving, low-income students an equal opportunity to access higher education.

Baum said the most fruitful results may come from stepping up local initiatives. “There are so many kids in the Philadelphia area who are unaware of the realities and the options of selective private colleges,” she said. Bringing such students to visit campus and interact with college students would help them feel more comfortable and familiar, she said.

Spoo agreed on the importance of expanding current efforts and providing even more students with an opportunity to visit Swarthmore. “I think using current Swat students as ambassadors in their communities will really help bridge a lot of ground that money or time can’t with the traveling [admissions] deans,” she wrote. “I only heard about Swat because I was a Questbridge scholar.”

The Strategic Plan calls for a “closer look” at current recruitment efforts in order to “ensure that our commitment to access and diversity remains strong.” The authors also emphasized the value of diversity for enriching student’s education.

“Clearly going to school with a diverse group of people instead of a bunch of just smart, rich kids, it’s going to make you better equipped to succeed to be a constructive citizen in a diverse society,” agreed Baum. “You just get a better education.”

Perna added that educating high-achieving students from all socioeconomic backgrounds benefits more than just individual students. “Society benefits by having more diverse perspectives represented in its leaders and elite colleges are those that tend to produce the future leaders,” she said.

“If we believe that a Swarthmore education is valuable, and that it should go to the people who can benefit most and make the biggest contributions as a result of it, many of those are people whose parents don’t make a lot of money and didn’t go to college,” said Baum. “Unless you want to live in a caste society, then it’s really important to include other people in that opportunity, and we’re losing a lot of talent by leaving those people out.”

Eugene Lang ’38 is living proof of the great contribution that can come from humble beginnings and a full scholarship. As a philanthropist, he has donated more than 150 million dollars toward improving educational opportunities in the United States.

“I was one of those who had the opportunity, and I’ve always appreciated it and I feel it’s a very important thing that every adult should recognize that every young person should get the opportunity to get a great education,” he said.

“Elite institutions in particular have an obligation to play a leadership role on these issues,” Perna added. “If elite colleges aren’t going to do it, then who is?”

For full disclosure: Adam Bortner ’12 is a recipient of the Eugene M. Lang Opportunity Scholarship.


  1. “It’s just the families doing the same sort of work are paid more.”

    Somehow, low-income = full scholarship in this article.

    Families are being paid more, in general, but the cost of living is higher. Swarthmore isn’t factoring in the latter fact, so these same families that would get a free ride in the past, won’t get one now. This decreases the already low amount of low-income students who will enroll at Swarthmore.

    Also, as stated above, the lucky low-income students are the one’s who are most qualified–their parents worked their butts off and used their savings to give their child extra opportunities, and now they have to pay for four more years of their child’s education with money they don’t have.

    It’s the hard knock, for us.

  2. “People who don’t have violin lessons or that didn’t go to Guatemala over the summer to build houses don’t look as good on paper,” said Baum. “And there are so many qualified students, but you have to start realizing that some of those qualifications do depend on having the money to buy them.”


    Also, even though I did still take out Stafford loans, it has been significantly more affordable for me to attend Swarthmore than it would have been to attend either of the Virginia state schools I got into.

    • *Where I’d get aid for paying in-state tuition, since I’m from Virginia. Just to clarify the comparison.

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