What Happens in Future Years

What happens from one year to the next with a Swarthmore student's financial aid award? 

This is a question asked by prospective students and parents prior to committing to attend Swarthmore College and by returning students and parents, particularly families experiencing times of financial uncertainty.

Numerous factors impact our need analysis, the methodology that the College uses to determine the financial need of a student.

Generally, financial need from one year to the next responds as one might expect, inversely (opposite) to a family’s change in financial position.  If a family’s overall financial strength increases, their financial need decreases.  If a family’s overall financial strength decreases, their financial need increases.  

The primary factor of financial strength is measured by a family’s reported and verified income and assets from year to year.  A secondary driving factor is the size of the family, the number of children in the family, and the number of the children in college* – essentially all those who must depend upon those income and assets in order to live. 

How it Works

From one year to the next, should a family’s size and the number of children in college* remain unchanged while their income and/or assets decrease, the family’s financial position will have decreased, and their financial need would be expected to increase. 

The opposite would be true as well.  Should a family’s size and the number of children in college* remain unchanged while their income and/or assets increased, the family’s financial position will have increased, and financial need and financial aid would be expected to decrease.  While there does exist any number of factors that could deter cumulatively this expected outcome, this is generally the case.

In instances from one year to the next where income and assets remain relatively unchanged, but a family’s size and/or the number of children in college changes, the family’s financial need would change as well.  In cases where an additional child (a sibling to a Swarthmore student) enters college*, the family size might remain the same, but the family is now educating an additional college student and taking on additional and associated financial burden with more college expenses.  Their financial position is weaker as a result, and the student’s financial need and financial aid would be expected to increase. 

Again, the opposite would be true.  If family income and assets remained level from one year to the next while a Swarthmore student’s sibling graduated or left college, the family would have to educate one fewer student in the subsequent year, decreasing the family’s financial burden.  The family’s financial positioned is strengthened, resulting in decreased financial need and a decreased financial aid award.

A few important notes:  

  • It is uncommon for a family’s income and assets to remain exactly the same from one year to the next.  
  • It is more common that a family’s size and the number of children in college remains the same from one year to the next.  
  • It is not uncommon for a family's income and assets to move in opposite directions from one year to the next, meaning that income may increase while assets may decrease, or vice versa.
  • The direction and degree of changes from one year to the next depends upon context and innumerable combinations of factors. 

For example, a family of four with two parents and two children (one of whom is in college*) and $180,000 of annual income is expected to be impacted differently by a change of $10,000 in income than a family of one parent with two children, both of whom are in college, and $60,000 of annual income.

General Advice for Understanding Changes in Aid Award from One Year to the Next

If students and parents, from one year to the next, see significant changes in their financial aid award, in either direction, they are encouraged to consider which of the above discussed factors (and to what degree) may have changed for their family and resulted in those changes. 

  • Should a family feel that no significant changes have occurred from the prior year, they are welcome to bring their concerns to the attention of the Financial Aid Office by contacting the student’s assigned financial aid director.  The financial aid director will be happy to address the concerns of the family from that point.


  • Secondly, the College’s annual cost of attendance increases each year, albeit by a small percentage.  How a student’s financial need may change, resulting in a change to the bottom line number of the financial aid award, could also factor in to the changes in the annual cost of attendance.  In these cases, it may be advisable for a family to assess their out of pocket expense from one year to the next rather than assessing changes in the absolute value of the financial aid award totals.


  • Third, the College will assess financial need each year regardless of which direction changes in the family have occurred.  Families for whom financial position strengthens should expect changes in their financial need just as they should expect changes when their financial position weakens.


  • Fourth, in terms of the overall financial aid award from year to year, students are more likely to receive outside scholarship awards in their first year than they are in subsequent years.  All else being equal, this would result in a student receiving a smaller aid award in their upperclass years, even as this factor is not controlled by the College.


  • Fifth, students are expected to contribute their fair share of summer earnings each year; $2,000 in their first year and $2,500 in each subsequent year.  All else being equal, this increase in student contribution would decrease the student’s aid award from the first year to the second.


  • Finally, the College's Financial Aid Office operates a process for assessing significant changes to a family's circumstances at any point in the calendar year; changes that can be deemed beyond the control of a family and that affect the family financially and adversely.  This includes, but is not limited to, loss of parent employment, loss of parent income, death of a parent, unforeseen catastrophe, etc.


Financial aid offices at small, private colleges such as Swarthmore are able to measure aspects of a family's financial makeup to a considerable amount of detail.  This has the advantage of presenting students with a financial aid award that is tailored to the student; an award that is designed for affordability amid the driving factors mentioned above as well as the more nuanced factors inherent in the need analysis.


*The College applies credit in the need analysis for siblings of Swarthmore students who are attending full-time at four-year, undergraduate institutions.