“Swiper, no swiping”: A closer look at a financial tradition at Washington and Lee

Many students are familiar with the phrase, “swipe it home.” But what does it actually mean?

Elizabeth Mugo

“Swipe it home.” It’s a phrase Washington and Lee students are familiar with, whether they hear it at the university bookstore cash register or from a student organization tabling in the lobby of Elrod Commons. 

While student ID cards provide access to residential and dining halls, they also provide access to textbooks, club dues, t-shirts, Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, event tickets, and to some extent, the W&L experience. And while it’s offered as an optional method of payment, some students see it as an underlying social pressure that implies the existence of a bottomless fund of money — at home. 

The New York Times reported that 81 percent of students in the class of 2013 were from the top twentieth percentile with family incomes above $110,000, and about 19 percent of students coming from family incomes above $630,000. 

Although the university’s demographics have changed throughout the past five years, the stereotype of a W&L student prevails: “white and loaded.” And many students see the phrase “swipe it home” contradicting with students who don’t rely on their parents for financial support.

  “I first heard it at Mock Con, and I did not understand it,” said Emma Hale, ‘19. “For months, I didn’t know where that money was coming from. I was like, ‘Oh, okay this swipe is working. Who’s paying for this?’ People were like, ‘It’s your parents.’ I was waiting for months anxiously, like, is my mom going to call me being like, ‘Why did you make this purchase?’” 

Hale attends the university on a full-tuition scholarship through QuestBridge. She keeps her stipend money in her Generals Payment System account and uses her swipe card just about every time there’s a swipe machine presented.

Some students first heard the phrase at the student activities fair during orientation week their freshman year. 

“You go around the activities fair like, ‘Oh, it’s like a magical [card],’” said Matt Osborne, ‘19. “You swipe it and it goes to your parents and they take care of it or something like that. It kind of puts forth that that’s the case for everyone.”

Without training or information provided regarding what the phrase means, students find themselves sticking to the assumption that everyone else is in fact swiping it home. 

Osborne comes from a family of six people. He chose Washington and Lee because of the financial aid package he was offered, and he supports himself mostly through loans. He said that swiping it home isn’t his favorite because he’ll just have to login to his GPS account and pay it, anyway.

Elrod Commons serves as the epicenter of campus, where student organizations often table for donations with swipe machines available. 

Tony Ryan, ‘19, said he’s more likely to say no to swiping it home to someone he’s close friends with, but he’s found it more difficult to say no to an acquaintance.

“You know them. You’ve hung out with them before. They’re not your best friend,” he said. “But it would be awkward to say no given such a small amount.”

But Daniel Carter, ‘19, said it’s the people he knows best who apply stronger pressure to swipe.

“They tend to know you more and they can push you more when they know your name,” he said. 

Grace Luna, ‘21, said there’s a distinction between what she’s willing to swipe home to charge to her parents’ account and what she pays for on her own.

“If it was a T-shirt, [I’d feel] kind of guilty because I need to tell my parents and then somehow funnel the money back to them so they have money to pay for that eventually,” Luna said. 

But she said she’s more willing to swipe home donations, especially for small amounts below $10.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story, “Swiper, No Swiping: An Anthropological Analysis of the Phrase ‘Swipe It Home’ at Washington and Lee University,” was written for Elizabeth Mugo’s qualitative methods class with Professor Sascha Goluboff from the 2018 fall term. The original project uses pseudonyms because of Institutional Review Board requirements. It has been edited for journalistic style.