Obama holds summit on college access, prompting discussions at Swarthmore

In spite of Swarthmore’s absence from a White House summit of college presidents on the topic of improving college access for low-income students, Swarthmore administrators state that the college is committed to targeting and supporting disadvantaged students.

The conference, which was convened by President Barack Obama and took place on January 16, was combined with commitments from over 100 colleges and universities to increase college opportunity, ranging from promises to increase the number of community college transfer students to pledges to grow financial aid. Those making promises ranged from large universities to small liberal arts colleges, including Amherst and Bryn Mawr.

“Everybody here is participating, I believe, because you know that college graduation has never been more valuable than it is today,” said Obama during a speech at the meeting. “More than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable, middle-class life.”

But according to Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, the school’s absence does not mean the school is not planning on finding ways to increase access. Rather, Chopp said she was unable to attend because of a previous speaking engagement.

“There wasn’t a lot of advance notice,” she said. “There wasn’t the sense that if you didn’t go, you weren’t committed. It really was an attempt to support President Obama and the first lady’s efforts in this area.”

Chopp added that the commitments listed by attendees were not created for the conference, but rather were measures that the schools were already planning. “There wouldn’t have been time,” she said.

Jim Bock, dean of admissions, said that the school is taking many of the same steps that schools that attended the conference are. The college, for example, is working to increase the size of its financial aid program for students who may not have known about Swarthmore when originally applying to college.

“We’re also looking to recruit transfers, in addition to first year students,” Bock said. The school has upped the number of transfer students they bring in from two to three to 10 to 15 and has placed an emphasis on community college students.

He added that the college had recently become more involved in the Philadelphia school district, sending an admissions counselor to do a workshop with the district’s new college counselors in the wake of large district budget cuts.

In addition, Bock listed a series of older programs that the admissions department had to try and target more disadvantaged students, including the school’s partnership with QuestBridge, a non-profit program that attempts to connect high-performing low-income students to selective colleges and universities.

“[QuestBridge] reaches into a lot of areas where even the Ivies and the most selective just don’t travel,” Bock said.

Lili Rodriguez, the dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development, added that the school is working to expand its support for disadvantaged students once they arrived on campus. The school, for instance, has had discussions with first generation students designed to highlight some of the experiences that are shared among the group. In addition, they are toying with creating a first generation orientation program.

“I think there’s a cultural variable to first generation students, much like international students,” Rodriguez said.

She added that she wanted to make sure disadvantaged students do not feel inferior to students coming from wealthier backgrounds. “It’s so easy to think of yourself as deficit. And we don’t want them to. We want them to realize they’ve earned their spot here just as much as others,” Rodriguez said.

Still, some wish that the college had made an appearance at the conference, or at least opted to be included in the list of schools making commitments.

“I am disappointed that Swarthmore didn’t choose to participate in this, even if President Chopp had other prior engagements,” said Mackenzie Welch ’14. “This sort of thing is something Swarthmore prides itself on and is continually talking about. So if they want to continue being able to do that they need to continue making progress on that front.”

Rodriguez also said that she was “concerned” and unsure as to why the college did not include itself in the list of institutions making commitments to increase access and opportunity for low-income students.

“I’m trying to figure that out myself,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of the same stuff happening already.”

Students felt the college could make itself more accessible in other ways, too. Uriel Medina ’16, said that the school’s financial aid process may be in need of review.

“There needs to be, I think, a more clear process in terms of how that money is allocated,” he said. In spite of the school’s policy of being need-blind and providing aid packages without loans, Medina felt that financial aid could still leave lower-income students with hardship.

“I’ve had to get more loans since freshman year because my financial aid package has changed,” he said. “So part of it is wanting to understand where that change comes from when my family’s financial information hasn’t changed much.”

Welch and Rodriguez brought up that there were often smaller expenses that could pose challenges to low-income students. Welch, for example, said that she was disappointed by the cancelling of the Philadelphia shuttle, which could make it difficult for students who might have trouble paying for SEPTA tickets to access the city.

“Twelve dollars can become an unneeded expense,” she said.

But generally, people were pleased with the way the school was handling issues of accessibility.

“For me, Swat has been a great place,” Welch said, “It has great financial aid and it has great support systems if you look for them, even if they are informal.”

Even though he had run into some difficulty with the financial aid office, Medina generally agreed.

“When I heard about Swarthmore, I actually didn’t apply right away,” Medina said. “I missed the deadline, and I actually made the decision to not apply to Swarthmore for the cost of the application. I couldn’t afford it.”

Then, Medina received a card from the school granting him an extension and a waiver for the application fee.

Despite being absent from the summit, Bock said that the college should continue to talk with other schools and organizations about how to best target and provide support for disadvantaged students.

“This is one of the few industries where we share good ideas,” he said. “It’s one area where we want to learn from one another and figure out how to increase that access. I think we have that sort of obligation and responsibility at Swarthmore to do that, whether or not we participate in a particular forum.”

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