Is Davidson’s Debt Free? A look at the experiences of student financial aid

Kaizad Irani ’22


Illustration by Richard Ferrell ’22

Davidson College tuition has increased 3% this school year to almost $ 53,000, costing almost 50% more than the average private college tuition fee in the United States. Despite Davidson’s high cost of attendance, the college sets itself apart from other private institutions with a financial aid policy that, in practice, should ensure a debt-free and profitable education. However, due to the variance that accompanies each financial aid, some students feel that their aid is not representative of what they deserve and ask for more transparency from the financial aid office.

“I didn’t anticipate having to withdraw so much money through loans while I was at Davidson,” said Elizabeth Miller ’20. “I would have liked to have had more transparency on the possibility of a significant reduction in aid and attractive financial aid. There are also a lot of hidden costs that have gone up, like the cost of senior apartments, which took me by surprise.

According to data from the US Federal Reserve, there are approximately 45 million Americans who collectively have $ 1.5 trillion in student debt. Among the National Class of 2018 college graduates, 69% of students reported taking out student loans, graduating with an average debt of $ 29,800 and an average monthly student loan payment of $ 393. Additionally, the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) reported that the average student loan debt at private nonprofit colleges, like Davidson, is $ 32,300.

Davidson, along with 15 other universities and colleges in the United States, has a blind admissions policy and will meet 100% of a student’s calculated financial need without lump sum loans. In 2007, Davidson became the first private liberal arts college to use this policy in its financial aid process.

“We maintain this standard through the Davidson Trust, which allows us to meet any need a student presents to us with a combination of gift aid and job offer,” explained the senior associate dean of admissions and director of financial aid, David Gélinas. “Campaigns, such as [the] The annual Game Changers campaign, which ended at the end of June and has raised more than $ 225 million for sports, merit and needs aid, as well as school operating funds, ensure the sustainability of the Davidson Trust.

Although Davidson does not include loans in his financial aid offer, Dean Gelinas indicated that “just under a third of graduates in the Class of 2018 have borrowed loans.” According to the US Department of Education varsity scorecard, 23% of Davidson students receive federal loans, graduating with an average debt of $ 18,218 and an average monthly student loan payment of $ 194.

“The motivation behind not offering loans is to eliminate the looming burden of borrowing when a student is making their academic decisions. However, that doesn’t mean that no student is taking out loans, ”said Dean Gelinas. “If a student borrows, they are probably borrowing to help the family contribute, rather than to meet their needs. I have to admit it can be a very nuanced understanding, but I believe attending Davidson can be a debt free proposition. “

President Carol Quillen explained that Davidson’s financial aid policy should be viewed as a “talent strategy”. She believes that a student’s talent does not correlate with her family’s income and, therefore, shouldn’t have financial barriers preventing her from dating Davidson.

“We can’t make Davidson easy to pay for everyone, but we can make Davidson possible for any student,” President Quillen said. “Davidson doesn’t want to be a place that simply reproduces an inherited financial privilege. “

Although Davidson has statistics on the number of students who borrow loans, they do not keep records of why a student may take out a loan. According to Dean Gelinas and President Quillen, there are many reasons why a student may decide to take out a loan, even if not directly to pay the tuition fees to Davidson.

“We’re not getting into a discussion of why a student wants to borrow. There are different reasons why students take out student loans. It’s a personal decision and how you plan to incorporate is up to you. We are here to facilitate the possibility of receiving these funds, ”said Dean Gelinas.

“Some students who are not eligible for financial aid choose to borrow as a cash management strategy because it is cheaper than liquidated assets and pay them off in another way,” added President Quillen . “Or, students choose to borrow because the family disagrees with our calculation of the estimated family contribution based on federal policy.”

Davidson uses the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and the Free Federal Student Aid App (FAFSA) to help calculate a student’s expected family contribution. According to Davidson’s website, a family’s expected contribution is determined by family size, income, taxes, living expenses, personal assets, number of siblings in college, and ” other personal or financial circumstances ”. Dean Gelinas explained that annual income and the number of siblings in college are the two main factors that can influence the expected family contribution.

The aforementioned expectations of Davidson’s financial aid policy demonstrate Davidson’s commitment to making the college as fair and affordable as possible for students. However, this does not mean that Davidson students cannot suffer financial burdens and see a negative impact on their quality of life at school.

Jackson Miller ’20 saw his aid decrease during his four years with Davidson and expressed frustration at not knowing the main reasons for his reduction in aid, especially since his family’s ability to pay the tuition fees did not increase.

“I entered Davidson with the expectation from college that I wouldn’t need to take out loans,” he said. “I feel like a student falling through the cracks and I would like the financial aid office to be more transparent about how they calculate aid […] We shouldn’t have to constantly plead with the financial aid office just to get basic information about my package.

Most Davidson students who receive some sort of financial aid have the option of being a work-study employee to help pay for tuition.

Hannah Malkofsky-Berger ’20 experienced a change in her financial aid program during her first year. She qualified for a work-study position but was not informed because she declined the offer during her first year.

“I think they should continue to inform students about work-study eligibility every year, especially if their aid changes dramatically. I qualified for money that I didn’t know, ”said Malkofsky-Berger.

President Quillen hopes financial aid decisions at Davidson are as transparent as possible and recognizes the issues that can arise when filing FAFSA and CSS profiles.

“The simplification of financial aid forms is an issue on which there is alignment across the political spectrum, and I think this will improve over time,” President Quillen said. “I would like to hear students tell me what forms of communication would be most effective around these issues. We want everyone to understand how financial aid is determined because of how our packaging can be individualized. Ultimately, we pack a student individually with the goal of being completely fair. “

“I hope the students realize that they can come to the financial aid office with any questions they might have,” said Dean Gelinas. “We have an open door policy and are always ready to explain how a student’s financial aid is calculated. There is always an objective answer to why the aid changes and while I can’t establish a student’s reaction, I’m always happy to explain the math behind it.