Ensuring Access for All

Summer Scholar students presenting their research

Students in the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program present their work during a poster session in the Science Center.

Increasing access and aid to low-income college students and determining the value of a college degree are two of the most significant issues facing higher education. 

This month, the U.S. Department of Education released a revamped College Scorecard, a consumer tool aimed at helping students and their parents compare colleges. The new tool provides information on a range of measures, from popular majors and graduation rates to student debt and earnings after college. Not long after, the New York Times issued its College Access Index, which combines just three measures to reflect top colleges’ efforts on economic diversity. These and other tools each rely on different sets of data, which are then combined in particular ways.  Although the goals of these efforts are illumination and transparency, the results may instead add to confusion, as they reduce institutions to indices that tend to be either incomplete (e.g. earnings that reflect only a small subset of students), or too complex to understand.   

Swarthmore’s commitment to access and aid is longstanding and profound. The College has offered admission without regard to a family’s financial need since at least the mid-1950s, as well as loan-free financial aid awards since 2008. Still, Swarthmore is redoubling its efforts to expand access and affordability, creating new resources, and reaffirming its commitment.

“I approach this issue with absolute conviction,” says President Valerie Smith. “Ensuring that a Swarthmore education is accessible for all qualified students without regard to their ability to pay is among my highest priorities.”

A few numbers offer one illustration of the College’s commitment to access and aid:

  • 58 percent of current first-year students receive aid from the College; their average aid award is $47,564.
  • About a third of Swarthmore students from the Class of 2019 receiving financial aid have a family income of $60,000 or less. Last year, it was one in four.
  • The average aid award for all classes in the 2015-2016 academic year is $45,974; in 2014-2015, it was $41,197.

The College’s efforts also include several new initiatives and enhanced partnerships aimed at recruiting low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students.

Swarthmore is continuing its partnership with QuestBridge, a program that helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships at a variety of selective colleges. This year, Swarthmore admitted twice as many QuestBridge students who applied early decision as last year.

The College has also expanded its popular Discover Swarthmore program to two separate weekends, Sept 17-19 and October 29-31, to better accommodate students and their families. Discover Swarthmore is an all-expenses-paid overnight program for high-achieving high school seniors, with preference given to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and students from low-income backgrounds.

“We seek to bring a strong, well-rounded class of students to campus each year,” says Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90.  “We think these initiatives will strengthen that effort.”

Providing access and aid to low-income students goes hand-in-hand with making sure all students feel at home once they arrive on campus. That is the goal of several College programs, some new and some well-established.

Now in its 11th year, the Richard Rubin Scholars Program pairs students with faculty and staff mentors of similar interests and experience, while also providing access to funding for internships and summer research. Similarly, the First in Family program is a series of workshops to introduce students to important college resources that will be helpful in their transition to the college. One such workshop is the opening lunch where students network with faculty and staff who also identify as first generation.

This summer, the College hosted its first Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program (S3P), a five-week immersion program for admitted students with an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields who are from traditionally underrepresented groups, are the first in their family to attend college, or come from a low-income background. The program gives 16 students a full academic experience in STEM fields and helps them acclimate more rapidly to college life, develop a familiarity with the type of coursework expected at Swarthmore, and benefit from the unique opportunity to get to know professors before fall classes begin. The mentoring students receive during the program continues throughout their time at the College.

The College has also enhanced its partnerships with several organizations that help provide opportunities for underrepresented groups. Among the College’s newest partners is Say Yes to Education, a program that offers full tuition scholarships to academically qualified students from under-resourced school districts around the country.

“We are eagerly looking forward to working with Say Yes to Education, given our shared commitment to making a college education accessible and establishing a clear path to affording the exceptional education we provide," says Director of Financial Aid Varo Duffins. "We want to ensure that high need students know that we may be able to meet their determined financial need to a greater extent than they may realize."

Additionally, the Dean’s Office also hosts several workshops that help acclimate students to Swarthmore. These workshops include such topics as: effective participation in class, the best use of office hours, studying for the sciences in college, and financial planning. Faculty and the Deans work closely to support students, recognizing that many non-traditional students benefit greatly from early, encouraging interventions.

“When I came to Swarthmore, I felt like I didn't fit,” says Assistant Dean and Dean of First Year Students Karen Henry ’87. “I struggled here, mainly because my high school hadn't prepared me for the challenge. What saved me was the mentoring I got from faculty and staff.” Henry added that the College is committed to continuing to expand its efforts and increase support to students.

Now, Henry says, a lot of students come to her office and describe what a different experience Swarthmore is for them. “I encourage them to use faculty office hours and to speak up in discussion-based classes—two things first-generation students struggle with,” she says. “I tell them that this is their chance to take advantage of the great resources Swarthmore has to offer. This helps first-gen students navigate not only Swarthmore, but life after."