NYTimes College Access Index calculation methods may be misleading

Swarthmore College was placed low a College Access Index in “Top Colleges that Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor,” a New York Times article by David Leonhardt that was published last month. While the methodology may prove to be misleading, the fact remains that there are more things that the college can do — beyond the numbers — to support the economic diversity of the student body.

In the article, Leonhardt focuses on the wealth of a college, measured by endowment dollars per student, and criticizes Swarthmore for doing “substantially less” than its peer institutions to improve its College Access Index, a supposed measurement of “efforts to enroll lower-income students.” According to the featured graphic, he’s right. Swarthmore ranks seventh in the endowment dollars per student, next to MIT and Amherst, but is the only college in the top ten wealthiest schools to have a negative College Access Index score.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Swarthmore is also the most expensive college in the ten wealthiest schools to attend for low/middle-income students, with net price of attending college after deducting aid calculated to be $14,400 a year. To a student whose family makes “between $30,000 and $48,000 a year” in the low-to-middle income bracket, this price would be astronomical. But the NCES deals with calculations based on averages and not from the net-price calculator that can provide a more accurate and personalized cost-estimate for a prospective student.

The estimated net price for a hypothetical only-child student whose family earns $48,000 and has no additional resources was calculated for Vassar, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Amherst, and Smith — four of the top five most accessible colleges (Grinnell’s net price calculator was not available at the time of this writing) using each college’s provided online net price calculator. According to the calculator, Swarthmore’s net price — the amount that the student and the student’s family is expected to ultimately pay — for a student attending Swarthmore is $6,171, followed closely by Amherst with $6,376 and Vassar with $6,685. Smith and UNC both are estimated to cost a student more than $10,000.

A substantial amount of the aid for these two schools came from loans. UNC expected the hypothetical student to take out $9,000 in loans every year and work to earn $2,700. This student attending Swarthmore would have no loans, and would only be expected to earn $1,920. The difference between the net price data provided by NCES and the ones from college-approved net price calculators varied wildly. The government site projected Swarthmore to cost more than twice as much as the school estimate ($14,400 vs $6,171), and UNC to cost less than half ($7,600 vs $15,963).

Swarthmore is one of fewer than 50 colleges in the nation to offer both need-blind admissions and 100 percent demonstrated need-met aid, as well as one of only about a dozen schools that offer no-loan aid packages to all aid-receiving students. By Princeton Review’s standards, Swarthmore has one of the best financial aid packages in the nation.

“What’s most important to look at in a financial aid package isn’t how much the aid the college is awarding you but 1) how that aid package is configured (it can be a mix of grants, loans and work-study, clearly the grants are best) and 2) how much the student/family will need to pay out of pocket,” said Rob Franek, vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review, in an email. “We identify the 150 colleges that are the most generous with aid (based on surveys we do that measure over 30 data points on academics, cost and aid awards of the schools). Among them, is Swarthmore, which has been among the top three ranking schools on our list of ‘Best Value Private Colleges’ for the past six years.”

Yet a relatively low proportion of Swarthmore students receive Pell Grants (15 percent) especially when compared to similar institutions like Vassar (23 percent) and Grinnell (24 percent) that rank highly on the Accessibility index. The Pell Grant is a government program that gives college grants to students who are mostly from the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. Its recipients do not represent the full gamut of economic backgrounds, but because of the Grant program’s sheer size, the proportion of Grant recipients is a fairly accurate indicator of how well lower-income students are represented in a student body. Vassar and Grinnell have seen a roughly 10 percent increase in the proportion of its students that receive Pell Grants the past 6 years, as opposed to Swarthmore, which only saw a 5 percent increase in the same period of time.

The currently high level of economic diversity wasn’t always the norm at Vassar. In 2008, only around 10 percent of students at Vassar and Swarthmore received Pell Grants.

“Vassar returned to a need-blind admissions policy in 2008 because we found that our student body was not as diverse as we had hoped it would be,” said Jessica Bernier, director of financial aid at Vassar College. Vassar stopped need-blind admissions in 1997 in response to a surge in demand for aid resources.

“This has helped to increase our applicant pool. The other thing is we worked closely with the QuestBridge program and some other community fin-aid [sic] based organizations to increase low income students in our applicant pool as well. It’s one thing to be need blind, its another thing to go out and actively recruit those students.” QuestBridge is a non-profit organization that helps connect low-income, high-achieving student to the nation’s top universities. Swarthmore also belongs to QuestBridge.

This strategy has led to Vassar’s having a student body with twice as many individuals who receives Pell Grants. But this isn’t unique. Many top colleges have similar standards in distributing aid. However, Vassar’s commitment to fostering an economically diverse body doesn’t end at the checklist of features in the admissions process. In addition to the monetary aid, Vassar students are given individual attention.

“Everyone [who receives financial aid] has a financial aid counselor assigned to them. That’s the person that really works closely with the family. They’re the ones that review their applications every year; when families call, it’s usually who they talk to, because they feel supported to build that relationship,” Bernier said. “We have quite a few students coming in to ask questions. We’ve also had students just come in to check in and tell us what’s going on in their lives and not necessarily talk about finances, which is always nice to see.”

Vassar also has a robust peer-support system in place for students from lower-income backgrounds. One group, the Social Class Issues Alliance, is a student government-recognized organization that brings in speakers and provides a forum in which students can talk about the issues that they face at college, according to Bernier. Other class-focused peer group available to Vassar students includes a chapter of the Quest Scholars Network, a nationally affiliated student club for QuestBridge program matriculants.

Grinnell has experienced a similar doubling of Pell Grant recipients in the past 6 years. The Director of Financial Aid, Brad Lindberg, credits generous aid policies like meeting 100 percent demonstrated need and the continued prioritization of need-blind admissions for the college’s increasing diversity.

“We’ve got a long-standing commitment to social justice, and a part of that commitment is a commitment to socio-economic diversity,” Lindberg said. “We’re fortunate to have the institutional resources that allow us to create financial aid packages that allow students to choose Grinnell and to be able to afford the institution, without leaving with an astronomical amount of debt or get in a situation where they’re not able to make the choices that they want after their graduation.”

Grinnell, like Vassar, also has an established presence of student organizations that focus on issues of financial aid and money.

“We have a group called Fin-Skills. Fin-Skills is a student organization that promotes financial literacy on campus. They, during orientation and other times during the academic year, will put on talks about many different things, not only financial literacy related to financial aid, but also as it relates to credit cards, and creating bank accounts,” Lindberg said.

This dedication to supporting diversity isn’t cheap. Grinnell considered cancelling need-blind admissions early last year. Though the policy was extended by two years, the issue will have to be debated again come 2015. Vassar started a capital campaign around the same time need-blind admissions was implemented to raise endowment levels in order to maintain financial aid and the building of a new science center. Swarthmore dedicated $26.1 million out of its endowment spending of $56 million last year to student financial aid.

Despite the high costs, many colleges continue their commitment to economic diversity.

“Diversity overall is very important for colleges to pursue: a mix of student perspectives and experiences makes for a far better learning environment,” said Franek. “What many people don’t realize is that in selecting their incoming freshmen class, admissions officers are looking not so much for ‘well-rounded students’ but for a ‘well-rounded student body.’”

Bernier agrees. “You can always learn from each other,” she said. “You don’t learn as well if everybody is exactly like you are. So we want to have that diverse student body, so that we can all learn and grow from each other.”

Yet Swarthmore still has not found similar success increasing the student body diversity. For monetary aid, Swarthmore’s financial aid is considered quite generous. By numbers alone it may even be better than the aid available at Vassar and Grinnell. At the same time, both these colleges have a more established presences of finance-related student organizations as well as peer advising groups for students who experience similar problems related to class.

“It’s just having to deal with coming to a new environment, especially as a low-income student. It’s difficult,” said Kimberly Rosa ’18, the Swarthmore Quest Scholars Network liaison. “I think that being able to talk to people who are like going through similar situations is very important because that makes you feel like you’re not the only one and you’re not alone.” Rosa said the Quest Scholars chapter on Swarthmore’s campus is working together with the newly formed low-income student organization SOLIS and the first-generation student group in hopes of creating a stronger network of support for what she believes is a significant segment of students.

Other problems preventing lower-income students from attending Swarthmore include ignorance about aid policies and the difficulty of completing a detailed financial aid application process without help.

“It’s really sad when I think about it now, but QuestBridge really was the program that told me, ‘Okay, if you work hard and you can get admitted into one of these schools, you will get better financial aid there than you would get at your state school,’” said Rosa.

For Nancy Sorto ’18, the aid application process for Swarthmore was difficult to do alone.

“Financial aid is so tricky. If you miss some part of your financial aid, you’re screwed,” Sorto said. “It’s just so much stuff you have to turn in to get financial aid. For a state school, it’s just FAFSA, then you’re done.” This problem is especially daunting for first-generation students who may not have accessible counselors to guide them.

The college says it is beginning to take steps to mitigate these problems. In conjunction with the search for a new director of financial aid, it has made changes to facilitate the aid application process.

“Beginning this fall, the college has eliminated the supplemental Swarthmore Financial Aid Request form for all but the foreign national applicants and will no longer require families to submit copies of pay stubs as part of the application process,” said Eileen Petula, associate vice president for finance, in an email. “[We] have already begun brainstorming ways to make the financial aid process less cumbersome.”

Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock is also researching new ways to increase student diversity.

“Swarthmore College cares deeply and has a strong history of attracting a diverse and qualified student body from all corners of the world and from all socio-economic background,” said Bock in an email.

The college is encouraging community based organizations to visit campus in attempt to reach high-achieving low-income students. Bock recently met with the co-founders of SOLIS to discuss recruitment and retention efforts for low income students. The key to raising awareness about opportunities in higher education, he said, may lie with the Swarthmore students themselves.

“We do hope that current students will help us get the word out about Swarthmore. We will provide materials for those who are going home over break who want to visit their high schools or community based organizations and to share their experiences,” said Bock. “There is no one right way to reach these students, and we need support of all constituents to reach more of these deserving students.”

The consequences of these initiatives will likely be difficult to see until further down the line. Lindberg believes that diversity at elite colleges will continue to increase as long as colleges continue to try.

“I want to stress that a lot of institutions are doing good work … providing aid packages that allow students to keep their own debt low and meet their financial need, and I think they’ll see success,” he said. “It’s a long road to success; to creating a culture of socioeconomic diversity, and I think a lot of institutions are on the right track.”


  1. The New York Times’ rankings are misleading for a more fundamental reason: they’re using faulty data. The net-price “averages” are from different data for different colleges–something that they admit when explaining their methodology.

    Pretty much, top colleges like Swarthmore and Pomona and Yale all calculate families’ incomes using methodologies different from the Federal government (that’s why we fill out extra forms like the PROFILE, not just the FAFSA). These methodologies consider parents’ income if they’re divorced and look more closely at business assets, large bank accounts, cost-of-living differences, etc. But then, when the colleges report the net-price for the lowest income students to the Department of Education, some (like Swarthmore) classified who was low-income based off the Federal Methodology even if they know the students aren’t actually that low-income, while others (like Pomona) only reported as low-income the students they considered low-income. Meanwhile, many students receive more generous aid than the FAFSA would recommend, but this extra aid isn’t reflected in the data for Swarthmore. While Swarthmore can definitely admit more Pell-Grant students (one part of the ranking), the net-price for the low-income students admitted would likely be among the lowest if we were comparing apples-to-apples.

    Here an article explaining that explains the issue the data the Times is using, and uses Swat as an example:

  2. The real lack of diversity is not among low income but middle income students who are disproportionately ripped off by the FAFSA. The expected family contribution calculated for middle income families is so beyond what they can actually afford.

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