Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In recent months, some students have expressed the fear that Swarthmore pulls a “bait and switch” on their students. This tactic involves attracting students with good financial aid their first year, only to reduce the aid in subsequent years once students have already made friends and invested time and energy in Swarthmore. The bait and switch has been known to exist in other schools, as summarized by this Washington Post article.
In a column in last week’s issue of the Phoenix, Jesse Bossingham ‘16 summarized this phenomenon at Swarthmore: “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.”
The Daily Gazette set out to find out if this phenomenon occurs at Swarthmore. We started by interviewing Varo Duffins, Director of Financial Aid. We were unable to retrieve concrete data from either the Financial Aid Office (FAO) or Institutional Research about how financial aid awards were broken down by class year, so we gathered this information ourselves by creating a survey, which is explained in more detail below.
When asked to respond to the rumor that the College gives great financial aid freshman year and decreases its aid in subsequent years, Duffins replied that every year they re-assess each student from scratch and that these perceptions may stem from the fact that students and their families may not truly understand their own financial situations.
“How familiar people may be with all those factors, and specifically how familiar students may be with all those factors is really not for me to say,” Duffins said. “On an individual basis, I think there will always be people who may not understand why there are changes from their financial aid package from one year to the next.”
In our investigation, we tried to determine (a) whether we are truly a “loan-free” institution and how we compare with other schools, (b) whether Swarthmore students really do get more aid their freshman year, and (c) what the general student experience was with the Financial Aid Office.
Comparison to Other Schools: Is Swarthmore Really Loan-Free?
When asked how Swarthmore approaches financial aid differently from other schools, Duffins responded, “I think the no-loan piece is pretty big. That’s something that can never be underestimated. Some institutions are sort of standard starting with packaging students with federal loans, and over four years the baseline for that would be about $19,000 dollars.”
But does Swarthmore truly follow through on its promise of no loans?
A page from Swarthmore’s recently updated financial aid brochures.
The Common Data Set (CDS) is a standardized document published by schools within the Common Data Set Initiative, which comprises most institutions of higher education. It provides information on how many students take out loans at each institution and how much cumulative debt students hold on average when they graduate, among other sets of data. The chart below compares Swarthmore with other similar institutions and uses the CDS’ recent data from the class of 2014. We selected these particular institutions based on what schools Duffins told us the FAO considers to be in Swarthmore’s peer group.
This chart shows the average cumulative amount of debt undergraduates assume by the time they graduate from institutions similar to Swarthmore. The percentage listed next to each college represents the percent of the total student body of that institution that took out some kind of loan to finance their education.
Swarthmore falls in the upper half of schools with regard to how much debt its students graduate with, and a third of students do take out a loan at some point in their college career, which would call into question the notion that the school can truly call itself “loan-free.” Duffins made sure to include the caveat that families are, of course, welcome to take out loans if they want to; he mentioned one reason so many families might want to take out loans is because “it’s a great way to start a credit rating because it is at a reasonable fixed interest rate.”
Our Survey Results
In order to better understand whether Swarthmore students might be receiving more aid their freshman year, we conducted a survey modelled after the survey conducted by the National Association of College Financial Officers mentioned in the Washington Post article. We asked current seniors what their aid awards were for each consecutive year at Swarthmore, and whether they felt they understood why any changes in their financial aid had been made from year to year (see sample survey here).
We sent our survey to 150 randomly selected seniors and received 62 responses, giving us a response rate of 41%. We surveyed seniors because they were the only ones with a complete data set of potentially four years’ worth of financial aid awards. Of the 62 respondents, 46% of them were on financial aid, compared to the 52% of Swarthmore students receiving financial aid overall.
What we found was that on average, Swarthmore students in our sample who were on financial aid at some point did indeed seem to receive more financial aid their freshman year compared to other years, as shown in the graph below.
However, an analysis of our results did not yield statistically significant differences at any level. We performed an ANOVA test, which sought to check whether there are systematic differences in the mean aid package for first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Although the mean aid package from the first year students is higher than the other means, our sample was not big enough and there was too much variation within years to conclude that the mean grants were different in different years. Additionally, we ran a simple linear regression to see whether there was a relationship between one’s class year at Swarthmore and the aid grant, where first-year students were coded as 1, sophomores as 2, and so on. This model did not show that there was any significant relationship between one’s class year and the aid grant. However, this does not mean that the aid packages are in fact the same across years; rather, we would need more data to be able to make statistically significant conclusions.
On top of the quantitative data provided to us by our survey and the data we were able to gather from public sources such as the Common Data Set, we also conducted a number of interviews with students about their experiences with financial aid at Swarthmore. We solicited these interviews through a survey posted on our website on October 6 and were contacted by a number of students, some of whom did not wanted to be quoted in the article. The testimonials provided here are a record of those students who gave us permission to tell their stories, some of which are anonymous. Each of these interviews began the same way: we asked them to give a general overview of their experiences with financial aid and asked follow-up questions as necessary.
We found that there was, unsurprisingly, a mix of positive and negative experiences but some general themes arose. First, many students felt that changes (both increases and decreases) made to their financial aid package from year to year had little justification. Sometimes when students went to the FAO for an explanation, they were told their increase or decrease was all due to the “formula,” even though in an email, Duffins was unable to confirm that such a formula exists. Secondly, students who had both positive and negative experiences noted that the office was frequently nonresponsive or responded to serious inquiries days or even weeks late.
How Does our Transparency Compare to Other Schools?
In the testimonials, many students believed that the FAO was extremely opaque in communicating what it prioritized and did not provide adequate justification for why they raised or lowered students’ financial aid awards from year to year. Amongst the people interviewed, many students had wildly different guesses as to what the most important factor is in determining aid, ranging from parental income to the value of one’s house.
When Duffins was asked what he considered to be some of the most important metrics in determining financial aid, he responded, “Everything. […] Working at a small institution allows us to really look at each student, not only in a quantitative way but in a qualitative way.”
Duffin’s response did not offer the clarity we were looking for.
When asked explicitly whether Swarthmore has a formula it uses to calculate aid awards, Duffins responded, “I know that a yes or no answer would be great, but it’s not that simple. If it was just algebra, this could all be programmed. Instead, we have a ‘methodology’ that allows us to consider the complexity of families’ situations.”
Duffins explained that Swarthmore’s methods differ from those of other schools. “The methodology generally has a shared baseline that all of our peer institutions use, but we use them differently; we customize the methodology by weighing and assessing the factors differently than each other according to our respective student populations, aggregate student need historically, and budget parameters,” he said. “Our institutions do not share with one another the specifics of how we customize our ‘need analysis’ as this information is considered proprietary and is central to our respective competitive advantage.”
The question is, why does our FAO feel the need to be so opaque? The FAO seems hesitant not only to release information to students about their own financial aid decisions, but also general information about what their process in determining aid looks like. Are these levels of opacity necessary parts of the way a financial aid office operates? Are they afraid students will game the system or that other schools will find out their formula?
To find out, we contacted the Financial Aid Directors of many of our peer institutions. Paul Boyer, Financial Aid Director at Williams, wrote the following via email:
“It’s no secret what we do. We collect tax returns from every financial aid applicant to perform an in depth verification of the information they provide on their aid applications, so we don’t worry too much about families gaming the system. We expect families are honest when they apply for financial aid. We owe them that same courtesy. Good communication works in both directions. If families know what information we use and how we treat it – the better able they are to create a successful strategy for paying for college. I think of it as a win-win situation.”
Several students at Williams on financial aid confirmed that they did not share many of the same concerns of lack of information about financial aid decisions with Swarthmore students. It is worth noting that Williams is the school whose students who graduate with the least debt of peer institutions we researched.
Haverford’s website also clearly articulates the kinds of changes in a student’s financial situation that might result in an increase or decrease in their aid award. They are not surprising metrics; having unexpected medical expenses raises your aid, having an increase in family income lowers it. But at the very least, they have some very basic guidelines they can refer students to when they make a change in their financial aid decision.
At the end of the day, the specific factors the Swarthmore Financial Aid Office weighs heavily are still very much a black box.
The concerns raised by students about Swarthmore’s financial aid system are not without precedent. The last time there was a campus-wide discussion on financial aid was 2008, when one student, Candice Nguyen, started a petition to reform the way the Financial Aid Office operates. The petition garnered 559 signatures and the support of groups, including The Daily Gazette, SASS, SQU, SwatDems, and Swarthmore Ping-Pong Club, among many others.
Some of the issues addressed by the petition have been changed: we now have a formal appeals process for financial aid decisions, and students who receive outside scholarships no longer have all the money they received subtracted from their aid award.
However, some of those original concerns are still relevant: we still have little transparency surrounding financial aid decisions, many students still receive their aid decisions in July or August when they are promised in June, and there is still a taboo surrounding discussions about aid.
Some of the findings of our investigation would suggest that we might want to reconsider what standards of transparency Swarthmore would like to hold itself to, or at the very least how it markets itself.
Special thanks to Paul Green ’16 for helping design the survey and to Isabella Smull ’16, Casey Lu Simon-Plumb ’18, Will Sullivan ’17, Rachel Flaherman ’16, Sarah Geselowitz ’16, Nathan Graf ’16, Dominic Castro-Wehr ’16, Marina Martinez ’16, and Gavriela Mallory ’16 for helping to encourage higher response rates.