“What are parents good for besides tuition?” a classmate of mine once asked rhetorically. Overcome with irony, I sat there trying not to think of the amount of tuition I now owe after several semesters at the University – without having my parents pay for everything – which is $28,202. That number hangs like a price over my head, as if on a wanted poster.
My classmate’s comment, however, was hardly surprising considering that 75 percent of all University students come from the five wealthiest sectors of the state, according to a report released in September in conjunction with the unveiling of Descriptor Plus, a program the University began using to counteract declines in minority enrollment after the enactment of Proposal 2. Descriptor Plus works by separating areas of the state into separate clusters based on the average annual income and socioeconomic factors that make up these places.
Descriptor Plus revealed a startling lack of representation of all low-income students. For example, there is one cluster that yields an annual family income of $42,000, but this cluster is only representative of 3 percent of the student body. Although this cluster is vastly underrepresented on campus, those that do make it to the University are more likely to receive adequate financial aid packages because of their parents’ low incomes.
But there is a lesser-known group of students who are marginalized on campus. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, used by most universities to determine a student’s eligibility for loans and grants, fails students whose parents’ incomes fall slightly over the arbitrary levels it sets. Essentially, if a student’s parents make a certain amount of money, then the parents are supposed to contribute a set level of funding as the “Expected Family Contribution,” and the amount of aid the student receives is reduced accordingly.
The FAFSA scale creates problems when families that only make slightly more than a particular benchmark and are expected to come up with considerably more money. The arbitrary nature of the FAFSA designations could make a huge distinction between a household income of $49,000 and $51,000, but the ability of one family to contribute more for tuition than the other is marginal at best. The FAFSA must include various income-based distinctions, but these distinctions must become broader in order to minimize this problem.
Another problem is that the FAFSA does not adequately take into account individual circumstances that may contribute to making a student’s parents unable to pay their expected family contribution. Because the FAFSA only takes into account parents’ annual income for one year, it cannot see financial issues that may have come up just prior to that period.
For example, my father was a single parent and then remarried shortly before I started college, changing the annual income of my household on the FAFSA. My financial situation was then evaluated on the basis of the present, not taking into account the complexities of the immediate past – that a single parent of many years may not have been able to save up enough money to pay meet FAFSA’s EFC requirement for a two-parent income.
The FAFSA also completely fails to address students who are not supported by their parents and are forced to account for their EFC single-handedly through private loans that accumulate interest even while they are still in school. The FAFSA application must allow students to explain their individual financial circumstances so that those can be taken into account during the evaluation.
The point of the FAFSA is to gauge the financial need of students to make a college education more accessible, but instead the application can sometimes subtly hinder students’ ability to attend college without accumulating massive amounts of debt. The problem may begin at the federal level, but it can be dealt with by the University itself. The University has a tradition of providing adequate financial aid to ensure that lower-income students don’t find this institution out of their reach. It must now take the shortcomings of the FAFSA into account and make similar contributions to students who the FAFSA leaves at a disadvantage.
–Jennifer Sussex is an LSA junior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.