When I decided to go to law school, I was aware that I was entering an academic marathon designed to separate the “Law and Order” fans from the constitutional law obsessed. But even watching friends struggle through the process the year before did not prepare me for what was to come. The almost nine-month process turned out not only to be a marathon, but a marathon with hurdles.

Sarah Royce
Amanda Burns
Sarah Royce
Illustration by Sam Butler

First came the LSAT. If I could only master logic games, the hardest part will be over, I thought. That was true until I began writing my personal statement. If I could only sum up my life and separate myself from thousands of other candidates in 700 words, the hardest part was to be over. When I was finally accepted, I was sure I had crossed the last hurdle. Then I was hit with the maze of paperwork and automated online systems that make up law school financial aid.

Thanks to help from my parents, I will be leaving the University with very little loan debt, but like many students, I will be paying for grad school on my own. Having never possessed more than a few thousand dollars at a time, I cannot comprehend the vast amount of debt I am about to accrue. I am sure if anyone knew ahead of time what owing $150,000 felt like, there would be fewer lawyers in the world.

The one thing I was sure of was that I had to re-file my FAFSA. Luckily, the federal government recognizes my independent status, so the process was relatively painless. My investment dividends? Zero. Trust fund income? None. Farm property profits? No again. Dependents? Thank god, none. It turns out my entire fiscal portfolio is contained in my ever dwindling checking account.

My non-existent expected contribution that the FAFSA computed will help me qualify for federal Stafford loans, which come in the subsidized and unsubsidized varieties. Unfortunately, the maximum amount grad students can borrow per year is $20,500, which means the remaining $35,000 per year will have to come from other sources. Law schools have financial aid programs that provide need-based grants, but as I began to fill out the forms, I realized that it would be a long time before I would be able to cut the financial ties to my parents.

Answering yes to any one of the following questions requires law students to provide copies of their parents’ taxes as well as complete a parental financial profile:

A) Are you a student under 30?

B) Have your parents claimed you as a dependent on their taxes in the 2005, 2006, or do they plan to claim you in 2007?

C) Have you received any financial assistance from your parents in the last year?

I am hard pressed to think of an undergraduate student that would be considered independent following those guidelines, and I know many people who are paying for school on their own. I understand that with so many students applying for aid, law schools must make difficult decisions. But for students who are truly independent, their parents’ financial information can put them at a large disadvantage.

Beyond just providing copies of tax forms, there is the College Board online profile, which examines students’ parents’ finances with a microscope. The questions begin easy, such my father’s gross adjusted income. But quickly they proceed to the minute, like outstanding electrical appliances debt, make, model and year of my parents cars.

To complicate matters further, schools ask that the profile be filled out as soon after Jan. 1 as possible, yet they require information from 2006 taxes, which many people have not yet filed. It is now weeks after the March 1 financial aid deadline and I am still trying to gather tax forms and estimate earnings for 2006 and 2007.

I am starting to believe financial aid is a survival of the fittest scenario in which only those who were born to file in triplicate survive (Bo Shembechler’s quote “those who stay will be champions” comes to mind). For now, I can only look forward to the age of 30, when although I will have already been a lawyer for five years, I will finally be independent in the eyes of the financial aid department.

And it’ll be about time.

Amanda Burns can be reached at sammylyn@umich.edu.

Click here to view a larger version of Butler’s Illustration.

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