The lose-lose conundrum of financial aid

Although we live in the idyllic Swarthmore bubble, we must remember that it is an imperfect world, one that comes with a $60,000 price tag. One of the best features of Swarthmore is its diversity — not just in terms of ethnicity or geography, but also perspectives and, as you may have guessed from the title, socioeconomic statuses. I, along with a reported 52 percent of the student body, receive financial aid based on demonstrated need.

Swat has an array of impressive aspects — the amphitheater, the student body and the endowment worth approximately $1.5 billion to name a few. Yet, despite these remarkable assets, many of which help Swarthmore stand out among peer institutions, it has conformed in the worst of ways — having a financial aid policy that undermines the essential goal of outside scholarships, rendering them unable to help families lessen their financial obligations.

Let me present the paradox of financial aid, the lose-lose conundrum that I have found myself in. It begins with endless applications. Unlike your standard college applications, each scholarship has a separate form and its own idiosyncrasies, requiring you to write and rewrite basic information. Endless hours answering questions ranging from the simplistic “What will you do with this funding?” to the deep, soul-searching prompts that lead me to question my values and future ambitions.

Fast forward. College acceptance letters, financial aid packages. The sigh of relief that I got in somewhere, and not just anywhere, but Swarthmore College. Then, when the confetti had settled, the awful realization that all of these colleges expected my family to pay so much more than we could realistically afford. Let me be absolutely clear: my financial aid package was very generous and I am eternally grateful to be receiving grant aid. The issue is not the amount of aid I received, but the routes of payment options available.

My family, and our financial situation, is not as two-dimensional as the forms we filed and sent to Swarthmore’s financial aid office. Our tax papers report one number, but life costs get in the way. Bills roll in, the standard of living in our area is not accounted for, the dogs we rescue need food and medicine. Certain unavoidable costs exist that are not apparent on official documents, including but not limited to high insurance premiums and other medical expenses. With a closely guarded secret formula, a large and scary five digit number was spat out of the financial aid office as the dollar amount my family was expected to contribute, of which $3,500 was to come from my savings and summer contributions.

Senior year of high school rolled on and I begin to breathe easier and smile bigger as I won scholarship after scholarship. The unfathomable amount of time and effort exerted to apply to scholarships both large and small, national and local, made that large five-digit number looming in my head shrink. I couldn’t believe my luck — when all was said and done, I had tens of thousands of dollars in outside grant aid, an amount that clearly surpassed what my family and I were expected to contribute combined. Life was looking dandy, and the loans that my family agonized over having to take out, the long road of financial and educational investment that medical school would eventually entail, seemed bearable. College should be free now, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Read the fine print. The first $500 of outside aid was all mine, along with 50 percent of the remaining outside scholarship amount. This reduced the “self-help” portion of my aid, the work-study and financial aid. Unfortunately for me, the self-help portion was pennies compared to the amount I was bringing to the college. That intimidating sum was reduced by a mere $2,000. The other 50 percent “replaces Swarthmore scholarship” — the grant aid I was receiving — leaving the dollar total my family had to pay relatively the same.

Scholarships almost always have their own rules, and especially when large award amounts are involved: they require that the check be made directly to the chosen institution of matriculation. This is understandable to some extent, because if the money were deposited directly into my bank account, I would have free rein to do with it as I please. I like to think that, being chosen by an organization to receive funding, they would trust me enough to not waste such funds, but I suppose unprecedented amounts of money all at once could overwhelm anyone and lead to some regretful financial decisions. All in all, there was no way to redirect my scholarship awards to pay my family’s contribution, so I was and am at the mercy of Swarthmore’s policy.

Where does this money go? Why is my hard-earned scholarship money being absorbed into a mysterious fund and being allocated towards who knows what? The formal language in financial aid brochures, the carefully curated phrases repeated verbatim to deflect certain inquiries, only tell a person so much. When I sat down with Laura Talbot, director of the Office of Financial Aid, to get some answers, she said that when the Financial Aid Office budgets, they “anticipate several hundred thousand of dollars of outside scholarships will come in” and treat it as “a known resource” — they just don’t know who in particular will bring it in. When asked about where the money from these scholarships go, she said that it “goes back to the scholarship fund” which they then “offer to someone else,” saying, “It was unusual for you to win these scholarships; it is not unusual for our skilled students to win outside scholarships.” In this bank-like policy, Swarthmore is making the assumption that a certain amount of outside scholarships will be won so that they can offer those generous aid packages to other students.

“It seems like a fallacious setup,” one student remarks. “Not every student has put in equal effort when applying to outside scholarships.” Regardless, Talbot got across the message of the Office of Financial Aid crystal clear, stating several times and in myriad ways that in its determination of a family’s ability to contribute financially, every possible cost is taken into consideration. Talbot said, “We would never reduce the parent share because that is a fact of their capacity to pay from their income and assets.” Yet, my parents and I are a cohesive whole in terms of paying for my education. Whatever debt is left, I will be taking full responsibility for.

I do not seek to single out Swarthmore: other institutions have this same policy because they meet “100 percent of demonstrated financial need,” with the key word being “demonstrated.” This isn’t false, but the caveat is that Swarthmore determines what your family’s need is and then meets whatever they feel you cannot contribute. Everyone’s financial aid journey is different. Many will report positive experiences with aid, especially those who need it most, which is how it should be. Yet, there seems to be a middling-level socioeconomic range in which students are just affluent enough to be disqualified from the most generous aid. I know I am not alone in my frustrations. Some of the stories I’ve heard are absolutely ludicrous.

John*, for example, is a first-generation student. Based on the FAFSA, his family should be paying nothing. John received a full ride to several other colleges, but his Swarthmore financial aid package gave him the least support. Swarthmore boasts its financial aid, but taking into account books and other costs, he will end up paying somewhere around $10,000 for his four years. This number may not seem large to some, especially given the $60,000 price of a Swarthmore education, but relative to his other financial aid offers and what range he expected to pay within, it is quite large.

Let me make clear that the FASFA is not indicative of what financial aid should be. It is a horribly generalized form that is nonetheless used to get a good sense of relative socioeconomic status as well as the first crude indicator of how much financial aid to expect. Many colleges ask for information beyond the FASFA, leaving room for a family to elaborate upon its situation, explaining anything like sudden job loss, siblings in college, etc. Usually, this works in favor of a student, making their financial ability more transparent, so a school is able to more accurately provide the need that is required. But, every now and then, this is not the case, as it was for John who was going to be paying much more than he originally thought. Ultimately, after agonizing back and forth, John decided that Swarthmore was worth the financial investment.

The final verdict does not always work in Swarthmore’s favor. Consider now Lily*: a middle-class, first-generation student expected to pay full sticker price for a Swarthmore education. After taking out massive loans she ultimately decided to unenroll from Swarthmore. Other factors played into this pivotal choice, but financial aid was certainly one of them.

The influence of financial aid varies depending on the person. For many, the benefits of Swarthmore are priceless regardless of the bill being paid each semester. Being in such an accepting, enriching environment is irreplaceable. There is no doubt that the Swarthmore bubble is a sacred area where we Swatties may grow academically and personally. Yet, as much as I love it here, I cannot un-feel the frustration of finding out how little my scholarship money is directly benefiting me. It seemed that Swarthmore’s financial aid policy negated the purpose of scholarships. Yes, my family’s contribution was lowered, but not to the full extent that it clearly deserved. Herein lies the catch-22: if I had not accepted the awards, letting them benefit another student, my aid would not have been adjusted at all. But at Swarthmore, I am not getting the full value. I have fully embraced my new Swarthmore life. This has not restrained my love of the school, but I can’t help but expect more from the institution I’ve pledged the next four years of my life to. I can’t help but want Swarthmore to be the best in all aspects, especially in terms of allocating each student’s money to where it belongs.


  1. Casey, I remember in 2008 I had the exact same discussion with Ms. Talbot. And I remember being quite angry that my hard earned scholarship funds would reduce my grant and wouldn’t reduce my family’s contribution. Can we please change this, interim president future president student council?

    Talbot said, “We would never reduce the parent share because that is a fact of their capacity to pay from their income and assets.”

    Makes no logical sense at all. Students get scholarships in the first place because we WANT TO reduce our parent’s (our family’s) contribution to our education. Because many students actually care about our family’s finances too. This ability to pay thing in light of scholarships that students earned with their hard work is just unjust, unfair, and stupid.

    The current policy that Swarthmore has in place needs to change…there is absolutely no incentive to get outside scholarships with the current policy. Leave the Swarthmore grant in place. Let scholarships reduce parent contributions. I don’t know why this is so hard with our almost 2 billion dollar endowment.

  2. I agree! This never made any sense to me. Swat (and most other schools of its ilk, this is rampant) are creating a disincentive towards actually applying for scholarships!

  3. The lesson is to have your eyes wide open. We all make choices. My daughter is in 9th grade and is researching Swarthmore–I have printed this article for her. I disagree with the authors sentiments–choices mean applying to schools that offer full ride merit scholarships and comparing the offers to schools like swat who provide only need based aid. But once you make your decision don’t cry about the outcome–it was clearly an educated choice.

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