Does Financial Aid Satisfy?

A Swarthmore college education is expensive. Between tuition, personal expenses, books, fees, and room and board, the price between 2012 and 2013 comes out to be $58,090. It is far more than the average cost at a four-year institution in the United States. It is even more than the average American’s salary.

In order to make its educational experience affordable, Swarthmore, like most other colleges and universities, offers financial aid. Indeed, Swarthmore will go out of its way to make prospective applicants aware of its financial aid policy. On the admissions and financial aid portion of its website, the college highlights that it is need-blind for U.S citizens and permanent residents when considering admissions, that it offers aid to 100% of those who demonstrate need and that it has eliminated loans from aid awards so as to “enable students to graduate debt-free.” This is touted in college guides and by admissions officers in information sessions. According to the Princeton Review and USA Today’s 2012 guide, Swarthmore is the second best valued private college in the nation. Previously, it has been ranked first.

But for a school that is supposedly among the most generous in the United States, there are plenty of aid recipients who are not satisfied with what they received, or with the way the financial aid office handled their situations. In spite of the fact that the school no longer officially incorporates loans into aid packages, plenty of students still take out loans, and the office maintains a loans coordinator.

All of this begs the question, just how generous is Swarthmore College’s financial aid?

Angie’s Story

Angie McMillan should be a sophomore. A former member of the class of 2015, McMillan completed her freshman year before returning back home to Seattle for the summer. Unfortunately, McMillan has not come back to campus. The reason? Due to family complications, McMillan cannot afford her financial aid.

“Basically, my father and I don’t have a great relationship and my mother is not wealthy, so financial aid used my father’s income, and they assumed that I don’t need it,” McMillan said. “However, due to my father and my relationship, he’s not helping with school,” she added.

Even though her father has refused to contribute to her education costs, McMillan said that financial aid told her they could not factor her relationship with him in. “Despite my relationship with him, because he was my father, they have to consider him in their package,” she said.

Unfortunately, McMillan’s difficulties do not end there. “My mom is disabled, and my father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” she explained. This means that McMillan’s father will have to live the rest of his life off the money he has already accumulated.

But even her father’s diagnosis does not change the picture. McMillan said she told the office of financial aid, but that “it didn’t change anything.”

A confusing and difficult cycle of submitting and resubmitting materials has followed. McMillan needed to tell her father what to submit and then wait to hear back about what they got. “I would tell him what information he would need to send to the office, but then the office would tell them that they hadn’t received them,” she said. This forced her to go back to her father and start the same sequence over again.

The result has been that, for now, a Swarthmore education is no longer in McMillan’s price range. And McMillan says that, at this point, she is not sure when, and if, she will be able to return.

The Process

Applying for financial aid at Swarthmore, like at any other college, can be a time-consuming process. Students and their families must compile a wide variety of documentation, from tax returns to paycheck stubs.

Laura Talbot, the director of financial aid, explained the wide variety of factors that go into making a decision, including some that McMillan felt the office was not being receptive to. “Our aid applicants and their parents provide us details of their financial situations. We consider their income, assets, tax liabilities, family size and make allowances for standard living expenses but index those allowances for the cost of living in various areas of the country. Allowances are made when parents are also paying elder care expenses, high medical expenses and tuition for other siblings. Other special considerations are made when a parent has lost a job, lost overtime, lost benefits, won’t have sufficient retirement income.”

The aim, said Talbot, is to try and ensure that students who are admitted to Swarthmore will not be impeded for financial reasons. “The college’s strong financial aid program is intended to make certain that capable students have financial access to Swarthmore,” she said.

Suzanne Welsh, the Vice President of Finance and Treasurer, emphasized that Swarthmore does not pre-budget financial aid.  “We don’t consider financial aid an expense,” said Welsh. “We accept students without knowing what their need is, and then once the students are here, we have a methodology for determining everyone’s need on an equitable basis.”

It is impossible to deny the wide-ranging impact of the financial aid department. Roughly 54% of the student population receives financial aid in some form, either from a campus work opportunity or from scholarships. This year, the average aid grant was $38,785, and the college is anticipating awarding over $29 million in scholarships for next year.

While financial aid’s wide range and relative size is undeniable, satisfaction with the process is far less clear-cut.

Michael Wheeler ’16 felt that the financial aid process refused to take into account the circumstances surrounding someone’s situation. The result was aid that he felt was not adequate. “They totally looked at us as purely numbers. They refused to take into account special circumstances that change the numbers temporarily,” said Wheeler. “They refused to take a human perspective,” he added.

The lack of consideration for context is certainly something that McMillan agrees with. While she said the office expressed their condolences about her situation, she felt they were less than cooperative. “It seems each time I try to communicate with them I have to pry for information,” she said.

Wheeler agreed that communication with the office was not easy. “It was miserable trying to get in contact with people, even to ask a simple question,” he said. “They were very terse.”

Talbot, however, pointed out that it was often difficult for the department to manage all the financial aid applications and cases. “There are 5,900 families applying for financial aid every year, so we’re managing lots of families,” she said. In part, as a result, Talbot said that the primary responsibility for making sure everything in the application is completed belonged to the student. “No student should wait for a reminder from the College but should instead manage his own aid application — just as we state in our aid application instructions.”

Welsh strongly disagreed with the assertion that the office does not factor in personal circumstances. “That’s entirely inaccurate. We spend a lot of time understanding every student’s situation, we encourage students and their families to provide as much information as they can about their situation, we make special allowances for extraordinary medical expenses and other extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

Welsh added because the office of financial aid keeps all information submitted by students and parents confidential, students may not know the full picture. “Individual students don’t necessarily know all the information that we have about their families’ situation,” she said.

As for dissatisfaction, Talbot says there is little the office can do, unless there is new or modified financial information. “If a student or parent provides us new or corrected application information, we are happy to take another look at our decision,” she said. “Without new or corrected information, however, there wouldn’t be any basis for a different decision,” she added, saying the initial decision “considers all we can do.”

“We figure out a family’s capacity to pay,” Talbot continued. “Whether they are comfortable paying that amount is going to be up to them. We don’t take into account their spending decisions.”

Welsh agreed, saying that unfortunately, it sometimes does not work out. “We look to both parents to provide what they’re able for children. There are circumstances where a parent might choose not to. And that’s very unfortunate if it prevents a student from returning to Swarthmore.”

Not everyone is dissatisfied with the financial aid process. A student who preferred to remain anonymous regarded himself as quite lucky. “I am literally unable to complain,” he said. The student felt that Swarthmore’s financial aid system was extremely generous. “I received something like three times as much as what other schools have offered and what the FAFSA’s estimated family contribution is, and that’s without loans,” he remarked.

And Talbot said that the office wants to find out what special financial circumstances a student and family might be going through, if not personally. “We have an application that encourages students to tell us, ‘What’s going on financially in the family?’”

But Wheeler still said that he, and other students, felt unsatisfied. “I don’t think most people get an aid package and go, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic.’ They go, ‘Oh, I can go.’”

>Loans and Debt

According to a recent report by the Institute for College Success and Access, roughly two-thirds of college students who graduated in 2011 graduated with debt. The average student graduated with $26,600 dollars in loans, a figure that has gone up in recent years.

It is widely regarded that graduating with a substantial amount of college debt can be very problematic. It forces students to prioritize money over service or passion, and can drain students of income.

It was with those burdens in mind that Swarthmore College abolished loans as part of aid packages in December of 2007. But in spite of this change in policy, a third of the class of 2012 graduated in debt, and students from all classes continue to use loans to finance their education.

“Some families pay their shares of Swarthmore expenses from their current income, some from their savings, some from their investments, and some from future income-loans,” Talbot said. “Borrowing is just one of the financing options available to our families.”

But some students found the college’s stated policy on not giving out loans in aid packages somewhat misleading. Wheeler, for example, said that while he acknowledged the school does not directly give out loans in aid packages, they tend to make use of them anyway. “While they say they don’t give aid out in loans, they basically say we will give the absolute smallest amount of aid,” he said. This, according to Wheeler, inevitably leads to loans. “They do basically say that in conjunction with giving you the minimal amount of grant money, here are loans we can help you get,” he explained.

Talbot does not disagree with this. Indeed, she said that the office of financial aid encourages seeking ways to finance the education through other means if the aid available is not enough. “We offer the alternative ways of financing college,” she said.

This, according to Talbot, is not necessarily bad. “The majority of our student borrowing is through the federally-subsidized Direct Stafford Loan Program,” said Talbot. “These loans are interest-free during the borrower’s enrollment and then carry just 3.4% interest after the borrower leaves school.”

Furthermore, Swarthmore students, as of late, are not graduating with as much debt as most college seniors are. The average four-year undergraduate debt for the Class of 2012 was $5,307.

Still, debt is something students struggle with. Wheeler, for example, grappled extensively with the question of whether his debt would be prohibitive in his post-college career. “That’s a big question I was trying to answer when I was deciding whether I wanted to take it on,” he said.

The anonymous student said it was something he was not worried about. But that was a product of what he wanted to do. “It won’t affect my career choice because my career would have been something that would be high paying in the first place,” he stated.

But he saw how debt could be problematic. “It pressures you into feeling like, ‘I have to do something while I’m here, I have to work hard in order to ensure that I will not collapse under this debt.’”

Eventually, Wheeler came to the conclusion that it would not, at least in the long run, dramatically affect his life. “The answer I eventually came to is that it would not prevent me from being fulfilled, it would just change both the manner in which I achieve that and the duration of time it might take to get there,” he said.

Is Swarthmore’s Financial Aid Fair?

Determining the fairness of a policy as important and wide-reaching as financial aid is a difficult thing to do. To a certain extent, it is a subjective question. A person who feels well compensated is more likely to view it in a positive light, and the opposite is true. “There always will be students who may just not agree with the calculation that we make,” Welsh said.

While Wheeler remains frustrated with the administration of aid and the process by which it is determined, by comparison, he says that Swarthmore’s financial aid policy is far better than it could be. “Putting things in perspective, they were very generous,” he said. He credits this in part to Swarthmore’s prestige and endowment, saying that colleges that are just slightly less prestigious are “brutal when it comes to financial aid, because they don’t have enough of an endowment to give out a lot of need-based aid.”

Even McMillan expressed the sentiment that her situation, however cruel and absurd, might not be unjust. “I understand why they’re saying no,” she said. “It’s just frustrating.”

But people see room for improvement. Both Wheeler and McMillan cited communication as an area needing growth. “They didn’t want to spend the time it took to make us understand the situation,” said Wheeler.

They also felt that adding some perspective to a student’s personal situation might help. “I would really like that,” said McMillan.

But financial aid at Swarthmore must, at the end of the day, grapple with something that almost all institutions have to address — limited resources for great demand. “We’re eager to do the best we can for a family,” said Talbot. Beyond that, she said, there is only so much the office can accomplish. “Families make decisions about how they spend their money. We do our best, and then they do their best.”

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