Financial Aid lacks transparency, despite new appeal form

Over the course of the last year, the college has instituted several changes to financial aid policy, including the creation of a form for financial aid appeals and the assigning of financial aid counselors to individual students to help them through the financial aid process. Despite these changes, the awareness of the possibility of appealing a financial aid decision is not universal and many students still express concerns about the financial aid process in general.

Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins, who assumed his position at the College in December of 2014, stated that the financial aid appeal process existed to serve families who had extraordinary and unexpected need because of some family emergency.

“These situations might include a job loss, a reduction in wages, out of pocket medical expenses, death of a parent, etc. When parents contact our office, they are connected with their student’s assigned financial aid director, also new,  who will counsel them appropriately and confidentially,” Duffins said.

Duffins said that the financial aid appeal form was created soon after his arrival in the winter of 2014 to make Swarthmore’s financial aid policies in line with other institutions.

“Having a process in place to guide families who are facing exceptional hardship is considered among best practices,” he said.

The appeal form is not available on the Financial Aid website and Duffins confirmed that the Financial Aid office did not announce the creation of the form.

“This type of form and process has been standard at most institutions, so making a formal announcement did not seem appropriate,” he said.

The form was mentioned by Greg Brown and Varo Duffins at the third “Budget Essentials” meeting on February 22nd, when a question about financial aid appeals led a student to comment that they did not know financial aid appeals were possible. Duffins said the Financial Aid Office “[does not share the form] broadly, as its intent is to be a follow through on our conversations with families who find themselves in need of our assistance.”

The Financial Aid Office intended the form to codify the financial aid appeal process. Previously when students and their families wanted to appeal finacial their financial, the information requested from families in order to process their appeal was handled on a case by case basis.

The form states that several financial changes will not affect Swarthmore’s financial aid award. These include bankruptcy, investment losses, home foreclosures, or “consumer debt issues (credit card, auto loans, home equity loans, mortgage, etc)”.

The form also requires a letter from the parent of the student explaining why they are appealing of their financial aid. The form deems circumstances such as divorce, unexpected medical expenses, an unexpected death of a parent, natural disaster, reduction of income due to job loss, and a reduction in Social Security benefits as valid reasons for appealing financial aid. It then asks for more extensive information regarding how income has changed and asks the parent to project their income for the coming year. The form totals 11 pages.

While several students on financial aid were not overly critical with financial aid in general, they noted continuing concerns with decreased financial aid awards after the first year and also concerns with the appeal process.

Jesse Bossingham ‘16 found the financial aid process fairly open.

“I found the process transparent enough. The cost of Swat increased each year, but mostly in line with what the FASFA predicted. I think it would be good if they were more upfront with the fact most people’s net awards drop each year, but I always found the process fair.”

Bossingham also stated that he was unaware appeals were possible, but also stated he never had to appeal his aid.

“I didn’t [know you could appeal aid] but I also never looked for it. I think I remember meeting someone trying to appeal the decision during ride the tide, but that’s all.”

Bernard* ‘19 stated that he was aware appeals were possible, but said, “I sure hope I never have to do that.” Bernard said that he had no knowledge of how the appeal process worked. Bernard felt that the process by which appeals and financial aid awards were determined was not clear.

“I’d say nothing about [financial aid] is transparent, you sort of give them your numbers and they do whatever witchcraft and then you get a number. This seems to be true for the appeal process as well,” said Bernard.

Hillary* ‘16 stated that she attempted to appeal financial aid but was unable to because of the specifics of her situation.

“I did have some conversations about it with the financial aid office and essentially, my reasons for appealing wouldn’t have changed anything. My situation was that my father agreed in a divorce agreement to pay for half of [her education at her state’s public university]. He makes much more than that, but is still only paying that amount. Additionally, my mom and I are the only ones accruing debt. The state of Pennsylvania does not honor divorce agreements so neither does Swarthmore, and that was why I never appealed.”

It remains to be seen if the recent changes to appealing for financial aid will have a positive effect on the financial aid process at the college.

*Due to the sensitive nature of financial aid information, some names have been changed to protect students’ identities at their request.

 

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