What’s the deal with financial aid?

This is going to get a bit personal, but bear with me. I receive financial aid from Swarthmore, and a pretty hefty amount. I am exceedingly grateful to this institution for my scholarship, without which Swarthmore would cost more than my family earns in a year.

This is strange, because my family is, by any reasonable measure, pretty well off. We’re a little over the American median family income ($50 to $55 thousand a year, for those not keeping track), own a house, and lack any major outstanding debts. My parents have been careful to save for college and retirement, and both have terminal degrees. Our lower income (which, again, isn’t low) for their education is due to a desire to avoid the rat race, and a certain class warrior spirit on the part of my father. And yet there is no way we could have afforded Swat.

Fifty-two percent of Swarthmore students receive scholarship assistance through the college, which rises to 70 percent of students if one includes those who participate in work-study or take out loans for college. Even if some of those work-study jobs are taken by students who don’t “need” them, that’s a lot of students who need help paying for Swat.

But a lot of students don’t. If Swarthmore costs $61,400 a year and 30 percent of students receive no assistance paying that bill while continuing to attend the institution, we’re talking about a decent chunk of the student body that is way off the bell curve in terms of family income. Not that this is a problem, it’s just worth keeping in mind when we discuss our campus as though it is in any way representative of the greater population. Remember, my family is financially secure, and Swarthmore is an impossibility without aid.

As with all things, there is an incredible diversity of experiences with financial aid. The only common narrative is the yearly struggle with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, followed by a three-month tense wait to determine if we will be attending school again in the fall. Every year, I’ve been lucky enough to find that, while my expenses increased, they increased in line with the FAFSA predictions such that my family could cover it. Not all of my acquaintances have been so lucky.

The stories tend to be similar. Swarthmore promised a large amount of aid in the first year, only to drastically slash it in the second. Family members were laid off, but the scholarship remained the same. Students could only find unpaid internships and were left without the necessary summer earnings.

Other times it’s a bit more complicated. Students who buy new designer clothes each week and eat out regularly are concerned they’re going broke, living work-study paycheck to work-study paycheck. It almost makes one feel for the conservative line about personal responsibility.

Except this is nonsense. There is another side to my experience of financial aid, and one I want to be careful discussing. There is a feeling of needing to disguise oneself that I have felt throughout my time at Swat. Freshman year, a student commented that he didn’t like doing laundry, “ … so maybe I’ll just throw my clothes away and keep buying cheap stuff from H&M.” When I brought this up with other people, the response was, “Well, he can’t help where he’s from.” This was the same year that Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” turned my childhood clothing store, something I was trying to keep hidden, into a fashion boutique, at least when the song was on the Hot 100. I own, and wear, my Grandpa’s Florsheims. I look incredible. But it was surreal to see something I did out of necessity become a temporary fashion icon.

I don’t think this experience is unique to students on financial aid, but it’s certainly exaggerated. Those friends who spend all of their work-study money each week are trying to keep up with a perceived standard, an image of what “normal” is.

There was a study that demonstrated that Americans viewed themselves as middle class until they were earning a million a year. For context, the famous 1% income cut-off is at around $250,000, notably the approximate maximum for financial aid eligibility. In other words, most people think their income is around “normal.” Additionally, we have a tendency to compare up, rather than down. We measure our status against those who have more, rather than those who have less.

This is a challenge on a national scale, but it carries particular weight in a strange environment like Swarthmore. Relative to the broader population, we are one of the most diverse places in the world. While our incomes are not representative (skewing far higher than the national average), there is a much broader distribution than one would find elsewhere. This is incredibly valuable, a chance for a crossover of experience.

And yet, that’s not what happens. Open conversations about money are taboo. Even in trying to write this column, I talked with a couple of my closest friends about our experiences with money and it was very tense. Norms around spending and saving are personal, and any comparison between habits necessarily feels judgmental. Every financial aid award letter has a section laying out “personal expenditures,” but how can that be standardized? We have all come from different families, and are socialized into different habits.

We need to find a way to talk about these things. This requires a level of sensitivity towards others experiences, accepting others anxieties about money without questioning their habits, while remaining aware that the breadth of students at Swat means we can be a source of that anxiety.

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