Questions surround financial accessibility

In a ranking of college accessibility recently published by the New York Times, Swarthmore, in spite of having one of the highest endowments per student, found itself in the middle of the pack.

“The top of the list includes some of the wealthiest colleges in the country, measured by endowment per student,” the article said. “But other resource-rich colleges, including Swarthmore and the California Institute of Technology, have done substantially less.”

The rankings, which came during the newspaper’s Schools for Tomorrow conference, rated Swarthmore’s accessibility at -0.1. The index used in the rankings is based on the percentage of freshman in the three prior academic years who received federal Pell grants and the average net price in the 2012-2013 school year for students who came from households with an income of $30,000 to $48,000 a year. Pell grants are financial aid provided by the federal government to students whose families are in the bottom 40% percent of the income distribution, generally indicating an income below $60,000. Roughly 15% of Swarthmore students receive Pell grants, meaning that approximately 15% of the school’s domestic students come from families with incomes below that level.

Many of Swarthmore’s peer institutions, by contrast, have a higher percentage of students who receive Pell grants and thus scored better in the index. At Vassar College, which came in first, twenty three percent of student body receives Pell grants. Amherst, Pomona, and Williams also ranked higher than Swarthmore, where the share of students on Pell grants ranges from eighteen to twenty percent.

College administrators said that while the index created by the New York Times did not tell the entire story, pointing out that the index did not account for foreign students who receive financial assistance and noting that the school calculates earnings slightly differently from the way the federal government does. But they agreed they needed to do more to attract and enroll low-income students.

“We need to do better at attracting and actually matriculating students who are at the lowest economic levels,” said Greg Brown, vice president for finance and administration. “We’re not getting as many students as we really want to get at that level, and I think that’s what the report spoke to.”

Uriel Medina ’16 said that he welcomed the New York Times index, which he said indicated there was more to the story than what was portrayed in the Princeton Review or Kiplinger’s rankings of the best value colleges, in which Swarthmore is normally near, if not at, the top (in both, the college is currently ranked third). While the college may provide substantial aid to many admitted students, he said, the school was not admitting a substantial number of students who required it.

“The majority of information that’s out there with regards to Swarthmore and financial aid is top of the ranks,” he said. “This article gives additional information to pair with that information.”

He suggested that the school look toward other colleges that scored higher when searching for ways to improve.

“A phrase that Swarthmore likes to use a lot is peer institutions,” he said. “Let’s look at peer institutions.”

Brown said that the school was looking outward.

“At this point, we’re looking at what works and what has worked for other institutions,” he said.

The Board of Managers, Brown said, recently commissioned an external review of its admissions and financial aid practices to look for ways it could attract more applicants and improve its practices. While he would not provide a copy of the report the reviewers issued, he said the school was making changes accordingly.

“We’re implementing their recommendations this year.”

The school, for example, is eliminating a requirement that applicants fill out a separate financial aid supplement form for Swarthmore, and will instead rely on the College Board’s financial aid form and the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most other colleges do not have separate financial aid forms.

In addition, the school is attempting to increase its outreach to students in low-income communities, often by having admissions officers travel to regions where students may not have heard of the college.

“There’s a network of about 200 community-based organizations that they work with to try to find the high achieving students that others aren’t going to find,” Brown said.

Brown said that he did not have an exact target for how many more low-income students the school hoped to attract. But he asserted that it had the financial resources to support them.

“I think we have considerable capacity to increase the number of students who are on financial aid,” he said.

Medina said the college’s recruitment plan was on track, but emphasized that the school should also make sure it is supporting low-income students already at the college, “to make sure that low income students aren’t solely being recruited or tokenized.”

He added that such support ought to manifest itself in several ways, from ensuring they have funding to attend outside events and events to establishing more outreach on campus.

Administrators, who are currently in the process of trying to select a new director of financial aid, said they hoped to hear more from students about what they would like to see the school do to improve its outreach to low-income students. But they asked for patience, saying that increasing the percentage of such students at the school would take time.

“We want to move the needle,” said Associate Vice President for Finance Eileen Petula, who is chairing the search committee responsible for finding a new director. “It’s going to take time to do that.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the rankings were announced during the Times’s School’s for Tomorrow conference.

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