Financial aid: Until debt do we part

Financial aid: Until debt do we part

Utter dependence among generations of students

If you are a college student, much like me, you are likely waiting for that financial aid reimbursement to hit your bank account.

Any. Minute. Now.

During this first week of classes, we scurry to the bookstore and wait in long lines (take-freaking-forever-lines, I wish I had a ray gun to delete all the people in front of me sorts of lines) and water down our foggy brains with cups of caffeine and savor snacks requisitioned with our dwindling student aid ledgers at the bookstore.

The bookstore provides delicious, healthy snacks for breakfast such as beef jerky, cups of noodles, milkshakes and potato chips. It’s the last resort food we eat instead of a real breakfast, because we’re all out of cereal, and eggs for that matter, and there’s just jingling change bouncing and laughing at us from the bottoms of our echoing bank accounts.

Maybe you’re not like me, however, and you worked your ass off all summer to save yourself from this broke-ass mess. More power to you.

Either way, we all spend inordinate amounts of our financial aid funds on textbooks, and not just textbooks. Freaking CODES to grant you invisible access to materials you cannot even flip through in your hands. Yes, $100 dollars for temporary access, thank you.

What?

This is besides the point… only, it isn’t. We are all utterly dependent on our student aid for survival. Basic survival. Textbooks, tuition, and survival. And most of the time, it isn’t enough.

“The hard truth is that while financial aid reduces the ever-increasing cost of college, more often than not it still leaves families with unmanageable prices,” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab in her book “Paying the Price: College Costs, FInancial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.”

Everybody knows the adage of the overworked college student. Or the overworked student-parents, absolute superheroes. Many work full time, or work more than two jobs while trying to stay successful in classes. Some find it exhausting or financially impossible, and drop out of college altogether.

Federal Pell Grants can take the edge off, but not by much.

“When the Pell program began, it was intended to shield recipients from having to take loans. Today, nine out of 10 Pell recipients graduates with debt. Of the Pell recipients who attend public colleges and universities – fully two-thirds of all Pell recipients- just 48 percent who start college full-time complete a degree or certificate of any kind within 6 years. Of the remaining 52 percent, one in three leaves with a double-burden: no credential and an average of $9000 in student debt,” wrote Goldrick-Rab.

Our relationship with student aid is simple. We need it. We are receiving it, and it is never enough. Our lives revolve around the quarterly deposits like ocean tides; the cash flows in and right back out.

Our debt tolls creep higher.

For some of us, the heights are astonishing. Try exceeding $50,000 for a four-year degree. That’ll be me.

I can accept that when the federal government makes changes that directly affect the financial aid of students across the nation they do so in an attempt to make the process easier.

Everyone knows there’s a problem.

But there will never be anything easy about signing our futures into debt in exchange for an accredited education, just for proof that you went through the rigamarole.

The Department of Education made two big changes to the financial aid process in July. Brash changes can have unwanted effects, like basing financial aid eligibility on out-of-date, inaccurate financial information.

And that’s just what the new prior-prior year arrangements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will precedent.

In the past, expected family contribution (EFC) has been based on the income a student or their family received the previous year.

Now, students and their families can expect to provide information that is two years old, and for a second time.

For the upcoming 2017-18 FAFSA application, students will use the same tax data they used on their last one, the data that this year’s aid package was based from.

Any independent students previously working full-time must count on saved-up funds to supplement their education. When the time comes to apply for financial aid, a student’s previous income is counted towards their EFC, although they are likely working less.

With this prior-prior year transition, some students may lose grant eligibility they would have received through the previous system. For situations like this, financial aid officers at LBCC will sometimes consider a “professional judgement” on a case-by-case basis, reevaluating a student’s actual need.

“We don’t do a professional judgement if you voluntarily quit your job, because if you quit your job, you’re supposed to have some money saved up to go to school,” said Elaine Robinson LBCC financial aid director.

But returning students relying on on their 2015 tax return again for the 2017-18 year may not have planned to save enough money to supplement two years of college.

For example, a person who works full time as a landscaper during the summer won’t be able to keep their 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. five-day-a-week schedule during the school year and attend full-time.

They would have to cut back hours just to attend classes.

“If in 2015 you work full-time, in 2016-17 you didn’t, so when you do your 2018-19 FAFSA it’s going to catch up,” said Robinson.

That just leaves us one year to cut our losses, I guess.

The people at LBCC’s financial aid office want to help students the best way they know how and the only way they can; with the tools, rules, and funding passed down to them from the Federal Department of Education.

But they can only do so much.

These federally mandated changes to the FAFSA system will only pour salt in our wounds this year. The DOE is trying to fix something inherently broken without examining the real causes. It’s suturing flesh wounds and ignoring broken bones.

Students begin college overwhelmed. The financial aid process becomes a blur, and dependent and independent students both become lost, wandering deep into foggy fields of debt. Our grants and loans become our partners to get us through this system.

It’s our trap. Our helpful downfall. Our promissory notes were our vows, and we married our debt.

Article by Emily Goodykoontz.