Strapped for Cash: The financial aid system is broken

Strapped+for+Cash%3A+The+financial+aid+system+is+broken

By Juliet Norman, Assistant Opinion Editor

Every year when October rolls around, I dread filling out the application for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA. 

It takes me weeks to complete over 100 questions while I walk my mom through the bizarrely complex online portal that requires her signature. The system constantly crashes, logs me out of my account, and prompts me to change my password. I often fight the urge to throw my computer at the wall. Renewing my FAFSA every year is a process I have to mentally prepare myself for. I wouldn’t mind doing all of this as much if I didn’t know that FAFSA is difficult on purpose.

It doesn’t make sense that FAFSA, a financial aid resource that is designed for low-income students to help pay for college, caters primarily to students who come from middle or high-income families.

Think about who the students FAFSA is targeted towards: students from working-class families, homeless youth, and first-generation college students.

Unless a student is an emancipated minor or legally homeless, FAFSA requires both parent signatures as well as both of their tax and income figures. This implies that both parents are financially supporting said student. For many individuals, this is not the case; many students are unable to retrieve this information if both parents are not actively present in their lives. 

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Because I have a single mother, I assumed that I would be given a generous financial aid package. Before FAFSA would give me any financial aid, they told me that I had to prove that my father wasn’t financially supporting me with a personally invasive explanation about my financial situation as well as a written letter from my rabbi that detailed my home life. According to the FAFSA website, the only substitute for this information is to provide a letter from a school counselor, psychologist or a member of their clergy that explains the student’s special circumstances. Providing this extra documentation was a hassle for my family, but I assumed that it would be worth the extra work. By acknowledging that my mother was the sole contributor to funding my education, I felt confident that I would receive more financial aid. 

I was wrong. 

Not only did providing proof of my family’s finances do nothing to help me receive more aid provided by my school, I also received a laughably small amount of loan and grant money. I jumped through all of the hoops for absolutely no reason at all.

I spent the summer before my freshman year of college agonizing over how I would be able to come up with over $60,000 for the upcoming two semesters — a sum greater than what my mother makes each year.

I find it ridiculous that students who have strained relationships with their families are not allowed to apply for aid unless they have income information from parents who they may have not spoken to for years—these are often the students who need financial aid the most. 

When I went to my high school guidance counselor and asked for her help, she told me that she didn’t have the authority to write a letter like that for me. I am lucky that my family has a close relationship with our rabbi, as a lot of students do not have these resources at their disposal. Does the U.S. Department of Education really think that people struggling to feed themselves are able to attend church regularly or pay for weekly visits to a psychologist?

The FAFSA application states that if a student’s parents refuse to provide their financial information, the only federal student aid that students will receive is “an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen.” 

Every year, 30 percent of FAFSA applicants are selected for “random” income verification, requiring them to submit additional documents from the IRS to prove their family’s income, yet again.

What happens when these students cannot provide this information? They receive nothing. Not being able to come up with proof of one or more absent parents or being unable to provide IRS forms when selected for verification, is known as the “verification melt.” This leaves students with three options: take out excessive private loans to cover tuition, transfer into a community college, or drop out entirely.

More than 90 percent of students selected for verification are classified as poor applicants who qualify for Pell Grants, according to the National College Access Network. In 2017, only 44 percent of students selected for verification actually received any Pell Grants.

These are the applicants who actually depend on aid money to survive as college students, not the students who are being supported financially by both of their parents. Students should not have to prove over and over that they are poor, especially when these students are still receiving the bare minimum of financial aid. I would like to think that the reasoning behind these extra steps is sheer ignorance, but I know that if the main goal of FAFSA is to help out financially struggling students, then they wouldn’t make it so difficult for these students to receive funds. Students should not have to miss out on an education due to a broken financial aid system. It hurts to know that FAFSA’s application criteria are inaccessible to those who need it the most.