Students Voice Financial Aid, Housing Concerns After Fall 2020 Plans Announced

Parrish September 11, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21)

When Chris Stone ’23 was deciding on what college he wanted to attend, he sought a queer-inclusive school that would offer him a generous financial aid package. As a Questbridge scholar, these two characteristics were integral in his college decision process. 

Stone is a sophomore and a student in one of the cohorts to be on-campus in the fall. However, his financial aid package for the 2020/2021 school year, is the primary reason he won’t be on-campus. According to Stone, the cost of room and board in the financial aid package that the college offered him this year was too much for his family to afford.

“My dad is a pastor and we’re a single-income family so there’s no significant factor that I could imagine that resulted in this [financial aid package]… I am mostly planning not to return but the financial aid could have changed my mind for sure,” Stone said. “And the fact [that] I don’t even have the choice to make that decision because of the cost, and I can’t put that burden on my family.”

For other students, like Lisa Shen ’21 — a Questbridge scholar and fully-aided student who describes the financial aid packages she has received throughout her four years at the college as consistent and generous — her housing situation for the next semester remains uncertain because she won’t be able to stay with her parents into the fall. Oswaldo Solorzano ’21, a first-generation and low-income student, was denied housing last spring and was considering taking the fall semester off in order to afford rent if his housing request was denied again. The college ultimately accepted his request for fall housing yesterday. 

Stone, Shen, and Solorzano, like other students, face a host of different issues brought on by the pandemic. In March, some students didn’t have a home to return to while others returned to homes where the economic impact of COVID-19 resulted in a reduction of family income. With the onset of COVID-19, colleges across the U.S. have found themselves scrambling to address the multitude of different issues caused by the pandemic. After the financial markets took a dramatic dip in March due to the rapid spread of the virus, many colleges and universities saw their endowments take a hit while simultaneously attempting to accommodate the distinct, varied needs of students.

Tuition freeze and endowment spending

In attempting to address the challenges faced by students, the college announced that it would be expanding their financial aid budget while keeping tuition at the same rate as it was the previous year, $54,256. Included within the cost of tuition is a $700 allowance for textbooks. According to President Smith in a virtual town hall on July 9, the decision to freeze tuition, rather than increase it as planned,  was made due to new investments in technology and pedagogical support, which include improving the quality of remote instruction, expanding the financial aid budget, and implementing health and safety measures for students on-campus. 

For the 2019/2020 school year, the approved financial aid budget was $46.8 million. Financial aid spending was approximately 26 percent of the college’s approved operating budget that year, an increase of approximately 2 percent from the prior school year. While the 2019/2020 approved financial aid budget increased from the previous year, the amount of revenue the college received from tuition, room and board, and student fees — known as gross student revenues — also increased by 5 percent. The net student revenue, or financial aid subtracted from gross student revenues, increased by 6% from the previous year in the approved budget.

Between the 2018/2019 school year and the 2019/2020 school year, the total cost of attendance increased from $68,062 to $70,744, or nearly 4 percent.

According to Greg Brown, Vice President for Finance and Administration, the operating budget for the upcoming school year has yet to be approved due to uncertainty about the number of students enrolling and planning to reside on-campus but may be approved closer to the start of the semester. The amount by which the college will be increasing the financial aid budget for the 2020/2021 year has not yet been determined. 

 An operating budget is a reflection of the college’s revenues and expenses in a given school year. The budgeting process begins in September of the previous school year (ie. the budgeting process for 2020/2021 would start in September 2019) and is approved by the Board of Managers in May of the next year. Each year, the Swarthmore endowment constitutes about half of the college’s operating budget for the year.

 For the 2019/2020 school year, the endowment was 53 percent of the school’s approved budget while student revenues — such as tuition, room and board, student activity fees — accounted for 38 percent of the budget. 

The college aims to spend between 3.5 percent and 5 percent of the market value of its endowment each year. 

Professor Charlie Eaton is an assistant professor of sociology at UC Merced who researches the financialization of higher education. According to Eaton, during other economic downturns, specifically the Great Recession in 2008, wealthy colleges — like Swarthmore — spent a greater percentage of their endowment because of a decline in the market value of the endowment. Endowment spending now constituted a greater percentage of the total operating budget. However, colleges did not use their operating budgets to expand financial aid budgets, but used it to avoid other cost-cutting measures such as laying off faculty or staff.

“Harvard also borrowed about a billion dollars from their endowment,” Eaton wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Schools tended to use these extraordinary expenditures to make fewer cuts rather than to expand financial aid.”

Brown anticipates that the college’s spending rate of the market value of the endowment will surpass 5 percent for the 2020/2021 school year but notes that the endowment’s purpose is to provide a smoothing of expenses over a longer period of time, with higher spending rates in years with economic downturns balanced by years with lower spending rates. 

“There is always a delicate balance in determining endowment spending between meeting immediate needs and considering the needs of future generations. Given the pressures on the budget, I anticipate that the actual spending rate for next year will be higher than normal, possibly above 5 percent. While spending above 5 percent is not sustainable in the long-term, it may be necessary in the immediate term to continue to meet our mission,” Brown wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “ I expect that we will have to increase endowment spending in order to cover anticipated one-time deficits associated with Covid-19.”

Brown detailed some of the unexpected expenditures from the last school year such as offering refunds for room and board, providing wages for work-aided students, and providing living expenses for high-need students. In the upcoming year, the college plans on cutting costs by freezing faculty and staff salaries, or eliminating all raises for faculty and staff, and eliminating half of the travel budget. 

On June 30, 2019, the market value of the college’s endowment was $2.13 billion. On May 13, President Valerie Smith announced that between December 31, 2019 and March 31, the college’s endowment had lost nearly $200 million dollars or about 10 percent of its market value. 

However, Eaton notes that while the stock market hit its lowest values in March, college endowments have likely bounced back as the financial markets have. 

“The market value of endowments has actually not fallen dramatically due to the economic downturn. You can see this in the resilience of the stock market despite record unemployment,” Eaton wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “So wealthy schools have plenty of resources to enroll more low-income students and provide them with greater assistance.”

Yet Swarthmore is not the only college holding tuition steady despite hosting most of its classes online and shifting to a hybrid model where a portion of the students remain on-campus. Colleges with similar endowment per student spending such as Pomona and Amherst have also not reduced tuition. 

Eaton suggests that wealthy colleges are resistant to tuition discounts since the majority of students at these institutions are often wealthy and undeterred by high tuition rates. According to data gathered from college students between 1999-2013, the median family income of a student from Swarthmore was $165,500

“Wealthy schools like Swarthmore resist reducing tuition in part because they don’t have to in order to attract large numbers of students from wealthy and advantaged backgrounds who are willing to pay high tuition rates. Wealthy private colleges like Swarthmore enroll low-income students who can’t afford high tuition at much lower rates than comparable public universities,” Eaton wrote. “The attraction of well-off students despite high tuition in turn maintains the high status of wealthy schools in university rankings via low admissions rates and high test scores of admitted students.”

As of Fall 2019, 20 percent of Swarthmore students were Pell grant recipients. For the 2018/2019 school year, 37 percent of University of California school system students were Pell grant recipients.

For some students, Swarthmore’s decision to freeze tuition wrongly indicates that the value of attending Zoom lectures is equivalent to being on-campus and attending classes in-person. 

In an email sent to students on July 8, Dean of Students, Tomoko Sakomura, provided an academics FAQ detailing some of the changes made to course structure and schedule next semester. According to the FAQ, fall classes will be either ‘remote’, fully online, or ‘hybrid’, which has an in-person component, with off-campus students being able to take either. The J-Term will be one credit and will be fully remote and optional. A typical course load for the fall semester will be 3-3.5 credits.

Rakowszczyk believes that remote learning lacks many of the benefits of having an in-person college experience and the quality of education provided by remote learning is significantly worse.

“It’s a fallacy to pretend that the quality of education is not going to be any different. Two of the classes I wanted to take next semester were already cancelled. [For any lab class I wanted to take, there’s no real point in doing it online. The Penn consortium got cancelled…” Rakowszczyk said. “Plus, between all the other things the tuition theoretically supports like library access… they’re going to be cancelled [not available to students not in the cohorts on-campus]; it’s ridiculous.”

In the Town Hall, Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton and Jim Terhune, Vice President of Student Affairs, announced that most student activities and clubs will be operating remotely to include off-campus students, fall intercollegiate sports would be cancelled, and performing arts would be adapted to adhere to social distancing practices.

Amy-Ann Edziah ‘22 expressed that students arriving on-campus in the coming months will likely be disappointed by an on-campus experience where activities like fall sports are cancelled and where students will live in singles and attend some, or even the majority, of their classes remotely.

“And it just seems kind of misleading, in my opinion, to bring these students to campus, kind of selling them this idea that they’ll have some type of social life, when that probably will not be the case,” Edziah said. “And I think that probably will do them more harm because they’re just going to have this dim view of what it means to be a college student. There will be no sports, no arts, none of that.”

However, a few colleges have provided students with tuition reductions, with one college citing differences in the quality of the college experience as a reason for the reduction. 

Princeton reduced tuition by 10 percent. Williams also announced a 15 percent reduction in the cost of tuition for the upcoming school year making it $50,450. As of June 30, 2019, Williams had an endowment with a market value of $2.9 billion and an endowment per student ratio of nearly $1.40 million (measured from the pre-pandemic market value of the endowment). Swarthmore’s endowment per student ratio is nearly $1.28 million (measured from the pre-pandemic market value of the endowment). For Williams’ 2018/2019 school year, the endowment was 48 percent of the operating budget while gifts were 14 percent and student charges were 33 percent of the budget, slightly less than the 37 percent of student charges that constituted Swarthmore’s operating budget in the 2018/2019 school year. Swarthmore also relied more on the endowment during the 2018/2019 school year, with 55 percent of the operating budget coming from the endowment and only 3 percent from gifts. Swarthmore uses more of its endowment and relies more heavily on student charges to fund its budget.

Housing allowance and students facing housing insecurity

In addition to the college’s decision to freeze tuition, Brown announced in a town hall that aided students, not in the cohort on campus, would be provided with a living allowance of $3,000 for meals and living expenses. International students, who receive aid, would receive a living allowance that would be adjusted based on the country they’re living in. 

According to Varo Duffins, Director of Financial Aid, the college’s living allowance is intended to cover the cost of meals for students residing at home, not the cost of living. The cost of room, board, and the student activities fees for the 2020/2021 school year totals to $17,054, approximately a 3.4 percent increase from the 2019/2020 room, board and activities fee cost.

“The living allowance is more generally intended to cover meal costs for students who will be living at home for the fall.  The meal plan cost for students living on campus in the fall will be $4,056,” Duffins wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Considering that eating at home does not require the costs of staffing and operating expenses, the College felt that $3,000, roughly ¾ of that expense, was fair and substantial for a student to eat at home for a semester.”

The living allowance is not provided to students directly but is included in the financial aid packages of students who are not residing on-campus during the semester.

“In a typical year, we factor the costs of room and board into our financial aid decisions, which results in an increase of potential eligibility for financial aid to students living on campus. This year, a significant number of students are studying remotely. If we were to simply remove the cost of room and board for those students, the aid packages would go down. But we recognize that students studying remotely still have living expenses, so we created the $3,000 living allowance to account for those expenses, which ultimately results in higher aid packages than they otherwise would have been had we simply removed room and board,” Duffins wrote. “To be clear, while the living allowance benefits aided students who are studying remotely, it is not a stipend; students and families will not receive an additional payment from the College. “

For Oswaldo Solorzano ’21, having stable housing in the fall is dependent on whether the college offers him space on-campus. If denied on-campus housing for the fall semester, Soloranzo says he may have to take a semester off to be able to afford housing for the semester. 

“It’s dependent on what Swarthmore says about housing. If I get housing then I can participate in the Fall 2020 semester,” Solorzano said. “But if I can’t get housing then there’s a really high chance I’m going to have to take a leave [of absence] so I can get a full-time job to help pay for rent, for food and things that I would normally be provided while I was provided at Swarthmore.”

Solorzano also applied for housing on-campus last spring. His request was approved and then later denied. Ultimately, he finished his semester by crashing at a friend’s house. 

“Last spring was rough…I petitioned [to stay on-campus] and was originally denied. So I had to appeal my decision by talking to some deans. After telling them why I couldn’t really go back to a home because there was no place I could go…” Solorzano said. “They let me stay and then in two or three weeks later, they repealed that decision again and said no I actually did have to leave. So I ended up last minute staying with a friend a few hours from Swarthmore and finishing my semester from sort of her house just like crashing there.”

Solorzano expressed frustration about the timing of the college’s decisions, especially for students with uncertain housing situations next fall or for those who discovered that their financial aid packages had changed since the last school year.

“And now that Swarthmore is finally going about making decisions. Everything is happening so rapid fire where students are finding out their financial aid packages a month and a half before the semester is supposed to start…” Solorzano said. “I think I’m just sort of disappointed that Swarthmore had so much time to make decisions… a lot of students are just sort of left to figure out what to do with such short notice.”

Solorzano’s request for on-campus housing next fall was approved on July 23.

According to Rachel Head, associate dean and director of student engagement, all international students will have the option to stay on-campus next year while domestic students must go through a process of applying for on-campus housing. This process began with the enrollment survey sent out by Terhune on July 2. Students who requested on-campus housing then received a follow-up, on July 16, from Sakomura where they were able to share additional information. 

While the college sent the on-campus fall semester housing form a week ago, the process by which the college determined who would be provided with housing last spring lacked transparency. 

Shen, a Questbridge scholar, has been living with her elderly parents in a one-bedroom apartment in a senior residential community. The residential community that Shen’s parents stay at has a limit on the amount of time that non-residents, like Shen, can stay in the community. She anticipates applying for on-campus housing but expresses skepticism about having to hop on a plane to fly from her home in California to Swarthmore.

“My parents, they don’t really want me to go back. I’m a little scared about traveling back to Swarthmore,” Shen said. “It’s just so conditional, you know. It’s weird. My future really depends on the people that have the money and power. I really don’t know if I can stay with my parents. Is the residential community going to let me [stay with my parents]? If I apply for housing, is Swarthmore going to let me have housing?”

According to Terhune in the same town hall, every student will live in a single room and only 3.5 students will be allowed to use the same bathroom at a time. Currently, community health guidelines known as the Garnet Pledge are in the works.

Rakowszczyk believes that, while the college is making reasonable attempts to implement practices that would make campus safer and reduce the likelihood of outbreaks, these measures are likely not enough due to the occasionally reckless behavior of college students.

“I’m not sure that the school is necessarily always going to do what is  best for public health. And yeah, the social distancing things are great — like three and a half students per bathroom, private rooms, whatever — but everyone knows there’s going to be parties. Everyone knows there’s going to be sex, everyone knows people are going to meet up. So a lot of it just seems kind of unnecessary and in vain of that,” Rakowszczyk said. “And if a COVID outbreak happened on campus — and I hope it doesn’t — but it’s a cruise ship.”

Yet another issue that may confront students this upcoming semester is the availability of health insurance if they’re not present on-campus in the fall or spring.

For the upcoming school year, as it is for every other school year, students are required to be enrolled in either the Student Health Insurance Policy (SHIP) or an outside insurance plan, which they must provide proof of enrollment.  According to Casey Anderson, Director of Student and Health and Wellness, SHIP is a one year policy effective August 17, 2020 – August 16, 2021. And if enrolled in SHIP,  students are covered regardless of whether they’re studying on campus or remotely. However,  for international students, the use of SHIP may be limited in their countries of residence so Anderson recommends contacting Customer Service to verify coverage of services. 

For students seeking mental health resources next year, CAPS will offer remote counseling services for students.  According to David Ramirez, Director of CAPS, more information regarding the availability of CAPS will be provided in the coming weeks.

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in locations across the country, the college’s reopening plans remain in flux.

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