Aria’s Story: When Financial Aid Just Isn’t Enough

Thousands of students received good news during the month of March as admission decisions rolled in, and now they have to choose which offer to accept. But just as spring is all about new beginnings, April can be the cruelest month, filled with disappointment for many students when confronting the financial realities of college costs. Too many receive admission to their school of choice, but are then unable to attend for financial reasons.

And as an educational consultant helping students through the college selection, application, and acceptance process, this makes me frustrated and furious.

Consider the case of one of my current clients, a pro bono case, whose mother came to me last spring seeking help for her daughter — a hard-working, talented student who has dreams of being the first in her family to attend college. Not only hard working in school, this student works full time. She is employed at a minimum wage job in her hometown over twenty hours per week and travels twice a week after school to New York City to earn money as a model for an online shopping site. And she manages to keep up her grades while taking solid classes, and maintains a 3.5+ GPA.

Her home situation is difficult: a once-middle class, intact family who have gone through divorce and a series of financial hardships, who are reliant on public assistance while her mother juggles part-time work and the care of the two children.

I counseled her throughout the search and application process; as her decisions rolled in, she was admitted to most of her schools. She and her family were thrilled.

Then the financial aid packages came in.

The student’s expected family contribution (EFC) was determined by the government’s Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be zero, meaning the family had no money at all to contribute to her education. So what did the colleges do for to this student? They “gapped her” (meaning the difference between their tuition and her total aid) tens of thousands of dollars. And this is not one college, but multiple colleges, even those where she is so clearly in the top 10% of the applicant pool — where the school should be thrilled to have her as a student.

Yes, this student will be able to go to a good state university and accrue only $40,000 worth of debt in the process. So it is not that she will never have the opportunity of going to college. But the fact is, because she is from a poor family she has no other — and perhaps better-fit — option. She will go to college and come out with an amount of debt that she will somehow be able to pay back; but in the end she is left with no real decision about where to go. And since when is $40,000 worth of debt a great bargain?

By comparison, the other schools to which she was admitted were ruthless in their demands for money: A top institution in New York City gapped this student $27,000 a year; where would she get the $22,000 above the standard government Stafford Loan? The mother is clearly not eligible for any loan, as she is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the student has no co-signer.

Another flagship state university in the mid-Atlantic region courted this student, inviting her to come to campus on a special day for “Hispanic Leaders,” students who would make a difference in the diversity of the campus and who were clearly going to be successful. Yet this university gapped her $18,000 a year.

And the stories go on: A major university in the Philadelphia area, which would have been a great fit owing to their outstanding internship program, gapped her $40,000 a year. Were they not embarrassed to send this kind of an “award” notice to a student whose EFC is zero? A letter announcing that they had given her a great scholarship — and she only had to come up with 40K a year and she could attend their school seems ludicrous at best.

I hear stories like this student’s every day. I just got a call from one of my clients about her cleaning lady’s son: He has gotten into several schools, but is not eligible for any financial aid because of his visa status, even though he was born here and has lived here his entire life.

I am only one person in this industry. How many stories like this exist? And if we do not reform our university system to make it truly meritocratic, what can we expect for the future of our country? Each of us should do what we can to change the current system, beginning with letters to our represented officials. I doubt we will see substantial change anytime soon, but unless we speak up for wider access to college for those with limited financial means, this country will continue to be run — and its destiny determined — solely by those able to afford the high price of higher education.

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