Is Davidson Debt Free? A Look at Student Financial Aid Experiences

Kaizad Irani ‘22

Staff Writer

Illustration by Richard Ferrell ’22

Davidson College’s tuition saw a 3% increase this school year by reaching nearly $53,000, costing nearly 50% more than the average tuition for private colleges in the US. Despite Davidson’s high cost of attendance, the college stands out from other private institutions with a financial aid policy that, in practice, should ensure a debt-free and cost-effective education. However, because of the variance that comes with each financial aid package, some students feel that their aid is not representative of what they deserve and call for more transparency from the financial aid office. 

“I did not anticipate having to take out so much money through loans during my time at Davidson,” expressed Elizabeth Miller ‘20. “I wish I had more transparency about the possibility of aid decreasing significantly and appealing financial aid. There are also a lot of hidden costs that increased, such as the cost of senior apartments, that caught me by surprise.” 

According to data from the U.S. Federal Reserve, there are roughly 45 million Americans who collectively have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. From 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. Furthermore, the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) reported that the average student loan debt at private non-profit colleges, such as Davidson, is $32,300.

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

“We hold this standard by the means of the Davidson Trust, which allows us to meet whatever need that a student presents to us with a combination of gift aid and job offering,” explained Senior Associate Dean of Admission and Director of Financial Aid, David Gelinas. “Campaigns, such as [the] annual Game Changers campaign, which closed at the end of June and raised over $225 million for athletic, merit, and need-based aid, and the school’s operating dollars, keep the Davidson Trust sustainable.” 

Although Davidson does not include loans in their financial aid offering, Dean Gelinas reported that “a little less than a third of graduates from the class of 2018 borrowed loans.” According to the US Department of Education’s College 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 take away the impending burden of borrowing when a student is making their academic decisions. However, that does not mean that no students take out loans,” said Dean Gelinas. “If a student does borrow, they are likely borrowing to assist in what the family is asked to contribute, rather than to help fit their need. I will confess that this can be a very nuanced understanding, but I do believe that attending Davidson can be a debt-free proposition.”

President Carol Quillen explained that Davidson’s financial aid policy should be looked at as a “talent-driven strategy.” She believes that a student’s talent is not correlated with how much income their family earns, and as a result, should not have financial obstacles that prevent them from attending Davidson.

“We can’t make Davidson easy to afford for everyone, but we can make Davidson possible for any student to attend,” shared President Quillen. “Davidson does not want to be a place that simply replicated inherited financial privilege.”

Although Davidson does have statistics on the number of students who borrow loans, they do not keep records on the reasons for why a student may take out a loan. According to Dean Gelinas and President Quillen, there are many reasons why a student might decide to take out a loan, even if it is not directly for paying the cost of attending Davidson.

“We do not get into a discussion about why a student wants to borrow. There are differing reasons why students take out student loans. It is a personal decision and how you plan to incorporate that is up to you. We are here to facilitate the ability to receive those funds,” said Dean Gelinas.

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

Davidson uses the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (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 costs, 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 one’s expected family contribution. 

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

Jackson Miller ‘20 has seen his aid decrease during his four years at Davidson and expressed frustration with not knowing the primary reasons for his aid reduction, especially considering his family’s ability to pay tuition did not increase.

“I came into Davidson with the expectation from the college that I would not need to take out loans,” he said. “I feel like I am a student falling through the cracks, and I wish the financial aid office was more transparent about how they calculate aid […] We should not have to constantly make a plea to the financial aid office just to obtain basic information about my package.”

Most Davidson students who receive some sort of financial aid have the option to be a work-study employee to help pay for the cost of attending college. 

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

“I feel that they should continue to inform students every year about work-study eligibility, especially if their aid changes drastically. I qualified for money that I did not know about,” said Malkofsky-Berger.

President Quillen hopes that the financial aid decisions at Davidson are as transparent as possible and recognizes the trouble that can come with filing the FAFSA and CSS profiles. 

“Simplifying financial aid forms is an issue on which there is alignment across the political spectrum, and I do believe it will improve over time,” expressed President Quillen. “I would love to hear from students on what forms of communication would be the most effective around these issues. We want everyone to understand how financial aid is determined because of how individualized our packaging can be. Ultimately, we package a student individually with an eye towards being completely equitable.”

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

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