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Who Gets What?


“Ours is an academically and culturally rich student body, and that is largely because we can admit the best students without regard to their families’ ability to pay. We want a student body that brings together all kinds of interests, talents, and backgrounds,” says President Rebecca Chopp.

The process of awarding scholarships is complex and individualized. No one size fits all. Three hypothetical examples offer some insight into the many factors taken into account:

Zak’s father is a doctor. His mom, a software developer, is worried about being downsized at her job. His family lives in Northern California, where their home is assessed at $1.4 million, but is fully mortgaged. His sister is a sophomore at a private high school. Their annual income is $478,000, and their investments are substantial.

Ali’s mother and father run a restaurant in Baltimore. Her grandmother lives with the family and has been ill. The family rents an apartment, and their annual income is $57,500. Her parents have no retirement savings or health insurance.

Jesse comes from Shorewood, Wis., where his father is an accountant with an annual income of $117,800. Jesse’s parents are divorced; his mother, a graphic designer, earns $48,600 a year. Jesse lives with his father in a house valued at $305,000. Jesse’s brother goes to Yale, and his younger sister attends the University of Wisconsin.

All three students apply for financial aid by submitting statements of income, assets, and tax liabilities. Among these statements are the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application; the CSS/PROFILE form; and a Swarthmore-specific financial aid application. The overall assessment of their need covers a variety of factors, among which are:

• Family size and the number of siblings in an undergraduate college or university
• Standard allowances for family living expenses, including housing, food, clothes, transportation, utilities, health care, etc.
• Parents’ ages, the number of years before they retire, and their needs for retirement income
• Unusual family circumstances, such as the loss of a job or an illness
• Child and elder care costs
• Expected student contributions from summer earnings

Although the family home can be a significant asset, Swarthmore greatly reduces the influence of home equity in its assessment of a family’s ability to pay, which “leads to a more accurate picture of parents’ true ability to contribute to a Swarthmore education,” explains Director of Financial Aid Laura Talbot. “Our families’ homes have appreciated more quickly than their incomes, and they are not necessarily able to repay home equity loans—even if such loans were available today.”

At the same time, consumer debt—or the way in which a family chooses to pay for its living expenses—is not considered. Thus, a family that chooses to spend more than a standard living allowance (indexed for family size and zip code to account for geographical differences) gains no advantage in the College’s aid program.

Zak receives no financial aid. Although the cost of living in Northern California is high, his parents’ resources are strong and sufficient to pay for a Swarthmore education without the College’s help.

Ali receives a financial aid award that covers all of her college expenses. Not only is her family’s modest income taken into account, but so is the cost of her grandmother’s care.

At first glance, Jesse’s parents’ combined income of $166,400 may seem a bit high to make him eligible for much financial aid. Because he has a brother and sister in college and his parents are maintaining separate households, he receives an aid award. The amount will depend on a variety of factors, including his parents’ ages and their retirement savings.

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