The Broken Promises of Financial Aid

I’ve written numerous iterations of this letter since August, always with a new tone: August was heartbroken and devastated; September was bitter; October and November moved toward reflection; and over the past few months since returning as a student to my last semester at Swarthmore, I’ve experienced detachment and evasion, convincing myself that nothing had ever happened. I am only publishing this story now, not for my own sake or my own healing—the earlier iterations already served this purpose of personal catharsis—but to bring the stigmatized discussion of financial aid at Swarthmore out of the dark, so that other students do not have to go through the kind of devastation and humiliation my family and I went through, and as undoubtedly many other Swatties and their families have had to endure under the current prevailing financial aid administration.

To briefly give contextual details of the situation, at the end of July, I learned I would be unable to return for my senior fall because the school didn’t provide my family with any financial aid. The year the Financial Aid (FA) office based its decision on (2016) was a year when my family’s income barely surpassed the threshold for receiving aid. But 2016 was an unusual year for my family, and it was an income that exceeded that of which my father, the primary income provider in my family, had made in all the previous years of his career. A few months later, he made the choice to leave that job because of a toxic work environment—a decision my family fully encouraged—and was unemployed for nine months before receiving a contract job that made less than half the amount the previous year. After receiving between $30 to $35,000 in financial aid for the past three years, for my fourth and last, we received nothing. When we tried to appeal, the FA office rejected our proposal on the grounds that my father had left his job voluntarily.

Your father left voluntarily, the FA office told us, had he left involuntarily, we could have accepted an appeal. Voluntary…Involuntary. Two inconsequential letters that have the power to reshape the entire story. For weeks after the initial decision, my family and I attempted to communicate with the FA office to find some kind of solution, or at the very least support and understanding, but we were met instead with an office that lacked compassion, sympathy, sincerity, clarity, and organization. Their emails (when they did eventually respond) were cursory and dismissive.

The one option the FA office offered was to have my parents take out a loan that would leave them in debt well into their eighties, and after countless sacrifices over the past twenty-two years, it was one I could not ask them to make. They, like many other parents in the American middle class, have had to use up retirement savings, defer house and car repairs, skip medical and dental care, and give up personal pursuits of happiness to pay for my education. Yet despite the blatancy of these sacrifices, as tuitions at American colleges go up, middle class families like mine find it harder and harder to send their children to private colleges like Swarthmore, a place that preaches to support students regardless of socioeconomic background and financial need.

The Swarthmore admissions and FA office lay claim to three distinct commitments: (1) they practice “need-blind” admissions for US citizens; (2) meet full demonstrated need; and (3) offer aid that is loan free. But ask many students on financial aid, and they will admit that the FA office did not meet their full demonstrated need and that they have had to take out some kind of loan, whether federally administered, from a distant family relative, or local community organization. This lack of transparency and misconstrual of claims characterizes the current FA administration. Had the FA office been transparent about the penalties of a voluntary leave, perhaps my father would have considered enduring his toxic work environment for the duration of my college career.

But this is not just my story. It is one that is similar to many others’, current and graduated, that should not be repeated any more than it already has.

I also do not overlook the fact that the FA office has assisted countless students, and most importantly, has provided the possibility for low-income students to attend a school like Swarthmore with full financial aid packages. But without overshadowing these victories, I also raise a voice for the middle class, who too often get entangled in the flawed policies of a FA office that disadvantages middle class families. Increasingly, with dwindling support from the administration, we have had to find alternatives in order to complete our education: take a semester off, take on loans, work another job, etc. Will the administration, which has one of the largest endowments among private education institutions, not listen to our stories, to the sacrifices our families have made in their dedication to education and the promise for a meaningful life that buys into the necessity of a college degree? If Swarthmore continues to preach this message of working collaboratively with individual families on their unique financial needs, they must live up to these claims.

In order to move toward a more equitable and transparent process, I ask that the FA office reevaluate their claims and that the Administration examine head of FA, Varo Duffins’,  treatment of students and families. The problematic policies of this FA office are compounded by a communication style and treatment that is callous and condescending. Dealing with and accepting a flawed policy is bearable when treated with civility, but Varo Duffins met the sensitivity of my family’s situation with a lack of compassion and an indifference that was extremely degrading. In order to continue laying claim to values of humanity and compassion, I urge the Administration to reconsider the FA office’s policies and the kind of tone the head of the FA office sets when communicating with families and students.

Because didn’t you, Swarthmore, promise to support and nurture us for the four years we stepped into your arms?

I’ve trivialized the situation to myself over and over. After all, in the grand scheme of things, what did it really matter that I had to take four months off, find a few extra jobs, and continue my studies independently? But perhaps we are moving into an age in which we do not trivialize our experiences and instead use our pain to forge something better. And if Swarthmore has taught me one thing, among its many other life-changing lessons on Platonic virtue, creative expression, the beauty of culture, the discovery of joy, Foucault, Butler, Nietzsche, Nussbaum, Dostoevsky, rewilding, Homeric dialect, and love and friendship, it is that silence contributes to the continuation of hypocrisy.

Come May, I will graduate alongside my peers with an honors degree from Swarthmore, a handful of lifelong friends, and the pain of a betrayal that runs the length of my spine and makes me shiver when I pause for too long. And yet despite this, I have no regrets for attending Swarthmore. It is an amazing school that provides its students with the chance to grow, discover, and be unapologetically themselves. It is with love then, that I am asking you, demanding of you, to do better toward your students, to uphold your promises, and remove the opacity that veils your administration in so many ways.

Because I believe we can do better. Much, much, better.