Students shouldn’t deceive themselves; the federal government doesn’t understand the realities of college life today. The fat cats in Washington D.C. – like President Bush, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) – have never called Ramen Noodles, mac ‘n’ cheese and Doritos a three-course meal, and they didn’t work to pay for their private educations.

Sarah Royce
Illustration by Sam Butler

Their lack of concern is clearly shown by the $12.5 billion reduction in the financial aid budget in 2006. With the war in Iraq becoming increasingly expensive, students have little reason to believe the cuts in funding will be reversed any time soon.

OK. Maybe calling politicians fat cats fell out of America’s vernacular sometime around 1925, and maybe the government cares a little bit. But politicians in the federal government have continually neglected the concerns of students, especially with regard to the increasing cost of higher education.

Although the government stresses the need for an educated workforce, it stands by as tuition prices increase exponentially and allows financial aid to crawl slowly behind. So if you want to know why you’re going to be an indentured servant to the bank for the next 20 years, your problem is probably a federal one.

At the heart of the federal government’s inability to adequately help students pay for college is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. Because it attempts to create a standardized equation for need, the FAFSA neglects the individual circumstances that each student faces. This standardized method leads to expected family contributions that are inflated and unrealistic for most families because it fails to account for credit card debts, the actual amount a parent contributes to the student’s education and extraneous household costs. Even worse, estimates suggest that between 60 and 90 percent of students fill out the information on their FAFSAs incorrectly – and understandably so. Most students don’t know what their net worth is, and the explanation on the website isn’t exactly a simple.

But the problem doesn’t end there. The financial aid resources the federal government allocates for students are meager at best. There’s no better example than Pell Grants – need-based aid that does not have to be repaid. Until the Pell Grant maximum increased to $4,310 in February, they hadn’t seen an increase since a $50 extension in 2003.

When you consider that an economy triple from University Housing is just less than $7,000 per year, the actual value of these grants is limited at best. More surprisingly, Pell Grants have a “tuition sensitivity” clause that reduces the maximum amount a student can receive if the student goes to a low-cost school. Basically, impoverished students get penalized for trying to protect themselves against post-graduation debt.

The other option the federal government offers is loans. Although interest rates on subsidized loans were halved from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent earlier this year by the U.S. House of Representatives, the bill has been stalled in the Senate and is opposed by the president. This comes at a time when the Department of Education is being questioned for its role in giving $278 million in subsidies to Nelnet, a loan company that wasn’t even eligible for subsidies. Among the other problems with student loans are the inflated interest rates that the federal government allows loan companies to maintain despite their negative effect on students. Students can always take out loans from private banks – at astronomical interest rates.

But there’s no reason to get too down about the federal government’s lack of concern. Students just need to use their time between going to class and working to pay off their loans to organize a strong lobbying coalition. Better yet, students should unite with the AARP and take the fight to Middle America and middle-aged America.

Gary Graca is an LSA freshman and an associate editorial page editor.

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

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