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How Do We Determine Financial Need?

Aerial drone photography of the campus displaying the fall foilage and skyline

One of the most common questions regarding financial aid awards is, “How did they come up with that number?” Swarthmore’s Financial Aid Office uses an analysis called institutional methodology to determine the financial need of a student and a corresponding Swarthmore College Scholarship amount. This determination is based on the information submitted in the student’s financial aid application.

How our need analysis works

Our analysis works like a series of filters.

We begin with a family’s gross income and assets (including business income and assets), and ask a series of questions about items that impact the family’s financial situation to arrive at a determined amount of generally available income and assets. These questions are about items such as:

  • Taxes
  • Cost of living
  • Family size
  • Number of siblings enrolled full time in four-year undergraduate colleges
  • Savings funds for emergencies and other children
  • Medical or dental expenses
  • Costs for dependent care (such as child care and elder care) 

The determined amount of generally available income and assets is then filtered again to determine the amount of income and assets available to pay for college costs. This is a simplified summary of the institutional methodology used by Swarthmore, which is complex and proprietary, as it is with many other colleges that use their own institutional methodology to evaluate a student’s financial need.

Swarthmore’s institutional methodology is unique, and one student’s financial aid application may be evaluated differently (and with varying financial aid awards) by other colleges or universities. In addition to this process, and concurrently, a family’s eligibility for federal grants and loans is determined using federal methodology and the information provided on the FAFSA.

If a prospective student applies for financial aid at ten (10) different colleges, it is likely that the student will be awarded ten (10) different amounts of financial aid, because the method of need analysis varies by institution. Families should evaluate financial aid award decision letters in a way that allows them to "compare apples to apples" to discover the true cost of attendance at each college.