Meet Columbia's Director of Financial Aid

A conversation with Kathleen Swan, director of financial aid and senior associate director of admissions at Columbia Business School

Our guest on February 13, 2001, was Kathleen Swan, director of financial aid and senior associate director of admissions at Columbia Business School (No. 7 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 30 B-school list. Prior to joining Columbia in 1992, Swan was a professional actress and director working in theatre, film, and television. She also co-founded Acting for Professionals, a training firm which taught acting skills to lawyers and other professionals. She graduated from Boston University's School for the Arts. Swan was interviewed by Lucia Quartararo for BusinessWeek Online. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

Q: Kathleen, you taught professionals to act before you arrived at Columbia. How does that fit with your current job?


That's one reason it's a good match for the role I play in admissions and financial aid. Actors analyze character, which is a major component of admissions -- looking at an application and analyzing the [person's] background and fit with Columbia. [I also do] a lot of presentation work when I'm recruiting [and making] presentations.

Q: Some say that applying to B-school requires grace under fire, and the ability to act as the perfect recruit on paper and in person (others call it marketing). What outlandish things have you seen, and where could applicants use a dose of Swan's acting studio?


We've seen everything. There have been some people who have gone to some rather extraordinary lengths to get our attention. People have done life-sized games of their life, based on the [boardgame] of Life. We've received Chinese fortune cookies that they made by hand with inserted handwritten messages. There have been videos, Web presentations. I'm not saying you should go to these extremes. It does help get our attention, but sometimes it works against applicants. One entrepreneur sent us a sample of his food product, and it didn't taste good.

The best thing applicants can do is to [express] fully and accurately who they are. In many cases, the people who are successful are the ones who have given the same attention to the non-professional and non-academic parts of their lives [as they give to their career and undergraduate experience]. For instance, [writing about] their love of poetry, charitable organizations they lead, or interesting travels they have had. Sometimes, it's just how you explain the personal relationships you have in your life that make you stand out. So if we didn't get the chance to meet you, your application should expose you as the full person that you are. That's the goal to aim for.

Q: Now to get down to business. For the 2000-01 academic year, at $29,168, or $14,584 per term, Columbia clocked in with the highest tuition rates in BusinessWeek's Top 30. Is tuition continually on the rise at Columbia?


Yes, tuition has gone up each year that I have been here. [It usually goes up] right around 5% per year. There is no question that it is a very big investment. It is an investment in one's future, however, with a superb cost-benefit ratio. But it is nonetheless one that must be planned for carefully.

Q: There are, of course, living expenses and miscellaneous expenses that students will incur. What was the overall budget for the 2000-01 school year?


Per term, for a single student, health fees were at $690, living expenses at $7,129, tuition, as I said, was $14,584, for a total of $22,403 per term. For a married student, the living expenses went up to $9,815. Now a [first-year] student budget [would also include] $3,300 for a laptop computer. So the annual budget for a [first-year] single student was $48,106.

Q: In order to help to defray some of these costs, there are various types of aid available. Could you go over what kind of financial assistance prospective MBAs will find at Columbia's business school?


Here at Columbia, we refer to our merit-based awards as fellowships and need-based awards as scholarships. There are also loan programs. We do have assistantships, although at Columbia those are determined by the faculty. Generally, they go to PhD students, but it would be something that would happen once you were here and had developed a relationship with a faculty member. It is not something that is handled through the financial-aid office.

We certainly discourage our students from considering any kind of outside work during the first term, which is an extremely rigorous and difficult term. A number of people are able to handle part-time work in their second year, but my recommendation to students always is that if they can do it, they [should] give themselves this extraordinary gift of full-time education.

Q: What is the process for applying for a fellowship, and what is the school looking for in a candidate?


[Applicants] who want to be considered for fellowships need to have their admissions application in by the 15th of January. There is a place on the front label [of the application] that [applicants should] check to let us know they wish to be considered for fellowships. Many of the fellowship donors have given very specific parameters to them, and that helps to guide us in what we are looking for. There are a number of fellowships for underrepresented minorities. There are some [fellowships] that are sponsored by financial institutions, and [those donors are] looking for people with an interest or background in financial services. There are others that are specific to particular career interests.

Q: What is the total fellowship budget and the percentage of students who receive financial assistance from Columbia?


The total budget varies from year to year. Fellowships are usually for full tuition and are awarded for two years. [The percentage of a class who receives a fellowship] is right around 5%. About 15% to 20% of the student body altogether receives either a fellowship or a scholarship. And over 70% of the student body receives some form of financial aid, including institutional, federal, or private loans.

Q: When should applicants get the ball rolling in terms of applying for need-based scholarships?


I encourage students to file the FAFSA [] as quickly as possible once they are admitted because we do look at financial-aid packages in the order received. Also, the FAFSA will apply to any school [an applicant] might want to attend, so it is an important step to get done -- any school will have that information and can process things in a timely fashion.

Obviously, [our resources are] finite, so it is to [an applicant's] advantage to get things in early. However, we practice early admissions here, so I am not going to penalize people who are admitted later.

Q: Columbia's loan program is available to its entire MBA student population, including its 30% international students.


We have a program though the MBA Loans' Tuition Loan Program, which is available to both our international and domestic students. [We offer] both populations the same favorable terms. The program in its current form went into effect last spring. Although we do still happily certify loans from any lender of a student's choice.

A great benefit is that international students are able to borrow without a co-signer. It was very important to us to develop a good program for [our international students] without sacrificing the benefits to our domestic pool. We are also working with MBNA America Bank to look at ways in which they might be able to extend credit to our international students who have not yet established credit cards. [It can be] frustrating for international students, because sometimes they can't get credit cards without having already established credit. It is important to us that our international students have these opportunities as well.

A majority of our students utilize loan programs. That is one of the reasons that I emphasize we work very hard to have very favorable rates, because most people do need to do some borrowing, even if they are getting grants.

Q: What is the turnaround time on financial-aid information, once an applicant hands in all of the forms and materials?


[Admits] should hear something within three to four weeks of getting all their materials in. It really is determined by the number of applications we get at a time. We know that financial aid is an important consideration, [so] we work hard to expedite the process.

Q: The average age of a Columbia MBA student is 27, which is a little bit younger than some of the other schools on the Top 30 list. Does Columbia see a lot of married students?


Increasingly so, yes. We also have the January term, which is designed for a student who is more established in their career, because [students go] straight through and do not need to do an internship. Therefore a greater proportion of [these students] might be married or have families. It is still not by any means a large percentage of the class, but we have seen it grow slightly.

Q: Can spouses or partners of students who arrive in New York City find career assistance through a network at Columbia?


There is not anything exactly set up that I am aware of, but [Columbia has] such a great advantage in our location in New York. [There are] so many resources for finding work that something formal within the school is not even necessary.

Q: Housing in New York City, that can be a challenge for anyone. Does Columbia Business School offer housing to its MBAs?


There is university housing, and we fight every year to get as much of that as we can for our students. The first priority for [student housing] goes to the students who live the furthest away. So far, we have always been able to help everybody find housing. But there is no question that we are not able to house every student through student housing. A fairly large percentage of our class originates in the tri-state area when they apply, and those people are very much encouraged to keep the housing they already have if it is affordable.

There is a Columbia housing Web site [which is available to students] as soon as they are admitted. [It] has been a fantastic resource, because students are able to communicate directly with each other and take care of these issues that before were really burdensome. We also have an off-campus housing office that helps to coordinate people who are looking for roommates or landlords who are looking for renters.

Q: What other Web sites are a good source of financial-aid information for MBAs?


FinAid! is a good general source with a lot of links. The Graduate Management Admissions Council has its own Web site that can be helpful. For people who are in the New York area, I always recommend that they look at the Foundation Center if they are looking for foundation grants. For international students, the Institute of International Education has a good Web site. On the Sallie Mae Web site, you can figure out costs and look at loan calculations, etc.

I encourage people to definitely use their search engines to find outside funding. It is a sad truth that grants go unused every year because the appropriate people don't apply for them.

Q: Columbia's median debt amount was $40,000, according to BusinessWeek's 2000 statistics. Is this a manageable figure for Columbia graduates?


Debt management is something of great concern to us. We encourage our students to borrow no more than is necessary to maintain good debt management. Our student body is a very savvy one when it comes to finance, and we have a superb repayment record. Not only do we not have students going into default, but we have students generally paying off their debts within three to five years of graduation. Loan forgiveness is also sometimes a component of the bonus situation when you are looking at [offers from potential] employers.

Q: Is the high price of a Columbia business degree becoming a deterrent for prospective candidates interested in your top-tier program?


Any admitted student that is committed to coming to Columbia Business School is going to find that the administration, the admissions office, the financial-aid office, and anyone else they come into contact with is going to work very hard with them to make sure that if they want to be here, they can be here. Financing would never be a reason to keep them away.

We have a superbly diverse student body. And diversity to us is not just ethnicity and gender and citizenship, although we do really well in those areas. But [diversity] is also where you have been and where you are going. We want to make sure that [our students] are in a class with, yes, the investment bankers and the consultants, but also with entrepreneurs and ballet dancers, Olympic skiers, and people of all walks of life. That is what makes Columbia such a fun place to go to school.

Q: Finally, your office doesn't support only the school's full-time MBA population. What's available for executive MBAs?


Our office will process loans for EMBAs as appropriate, but there is an officer in the EMBA program who is in charge of all financial aspects of their program. A small percentage gets financial aid, since the vast majority [of EMBA students] are sponsored by their companies. Some of those people take federal funding or private loans to cover living expenses.

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