FAFSA is an inaccessible journey to aid for low-income students | Opinion

An institutional change is necessary to facilitate the attendance of post-secondary education for low-income students

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By Francesca Testa

Growing up as a triplet always presented obstacles and plenty of moments for my parents to teach my brothers and me about the value of compromise. Both blue-collar workers, my parents always emphasized the importance of hard work and vocalized their hope that we would experience class mobility and “never have to work as hard as they do.”

My mother stopped her education after completing high school and my father continued on to college and obtained his four-year degree in the 1980s. This split in my parents’ educational backgrounds makes me not quite a first-generation college student , but has nonetheless influenced the ways in which I have navigated my own journey through higher education.

As one would expect, given the increase in college tuition around the United States , the bill for three students concurrently attending college was not something that my parents could afford. While my father did attend college, he did so quite a few years before my brothers and I entered our first year, so he was not at all confident in aiding the three of us through the completion of any financial aid paperwork.

For me, this was an experience gap. Those affluent enough not to apply for or meet the criteria for financial aid were not bothered to think about the process.

Those not as affluent but in need of aid were able to commission a professional to complete the necessary forms. Somewhere in the ancillary space around these two camps was where my family rested; certainly in need of high amounts of financial aid but unable to feasibly hire a third party to assist with the process.

As a result of my parents’ lack of knowledge and comfort with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and CSS profiles, and the influx of bolded ‘DEADLINE’ emails in my inbox, I began Googling and combing through their tax documents.

My hometown’s median household income as of 2021 is just under $150,000, which created an interesting set of affordances for me. High school became a venue where I worked to mask my family’s income and blend in with my richer counterparts.

As an aspiring collegiate athlete, conversations about financial aid whirred around me as somewhat of an afterthought; the process of being recruited by a coach to a school that met my aspirations took precedence.

I knew I needed aid but figured the process would be easy enough. In a town where nearly 70% of residents aged 25 or older possess a bachelor’s degree or higher , I assumed everyone’s parents were knowledgeable about the college admissions process. With a graduating class of more than  500 students in a public school with minimal resources, guidance counselors were spread thin and individual feedback was not part of the 15-minute meeting framework.

Pa. Republican proposes FAFSA requirement for high school seniors

I embarked on a journey through every box of my parents’ incomes, expenses, property taxes, and wages, a journey more intimate than I cared for as their 17-year-old daughter.

There were no more secrets about the reality of my parents’ socioeconomic status and as I completed not only my applications but my brothers’ as well, I could not help but consider the gaping hole in my advice and support.

Given the importance of financial aid for low-income families, it strikes me as a cause for which allocating resources is necessary. Federal assistance is what often determines whether a low-income student is even able to explore college options.

2018 report by the National College Attainment network found that high school seniors in school districts with higher poverty levels are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students in wealthier districts. This is an accessibility issue that systematically disadvantages low-income students.

Those  who complete the FAFSA form have been proven to be more likely to attend college . While there is information online about the importance of applying for financial aid, much of the resources available are inaccurate and misleading and do not provide the necessary support that institution-specific resources and workshops do.

While new calculators have been made to ease the process of determining projected tuition for prospective students that include less invasive, more accessible questions, assistance in navigating the necessary federal forms and loan application processes remains a blindspot.

Championing notions of diversity in higher education is important, but the lack of adequate resources available to low-income students vis-a-vis the financial aid application process represents a large structural shortcoming.

An institutional change is necessary to facilitate the attendance of post-secondary education for low-income students. It should be the role of both high schools and higher education to host information sessions for students and parents to reduce the obfuscation that surrounds federal aid. With this hands-on approach, and the implementation of guided instruction through tedious but important applications, the journey to higher education for low-income students will get just a bit easier.

Francesca Testa is a senior at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.