Financial Aid: Do We Think, Deep Down, That Poor People Must Prove Themselves Extra Worthy?

As I said in my last post, I’ve recently completed the process of applying for financial aid for my son. It was challenging for our family, and we’re among those who, I imagine, have our act relatively together. We’re not starving. The main reason we need financial aid is that college tuition has become so expensive it’s surpassed any realistic middle-class budget. If he’s to attend the type of school where he would most thrive—Lewis & Clark, say—he would need assistance in roughly half the amount of tuition. Schools like that cost around $50K per year, which is not a reasonable amount for a family earning under $150K to spend. But we’re “lucky,” I suppose, if luck is the term for what felt like a lot of hard work and deferred gratification, in that we have been able to save up the other half of what it would cost for him to attend.

But this post isn’t about that. During our process, I also watched a young woman for whom I care a great deal struggle to apply to colleges and to get through her own financial aid applications. This girl has straight As and is a very talented artist. She has no support, financial or emotional, from her family. Her mother “forgot” and made “other plans” on the day of her high-school graduation ceremony. When it came time to sit down and talk about filling out the FAFSA and CSS forms that are necessary to document her parents’ lack of income for financial aid purposes, her mother announced that she had “another project” to take care of, and canceled the meeting. Some of the time, this girl sleeps at her grandparents’ house, and although they do provide a roof and access to a kitchen, there is no supervision, no guidance, no emotional support (in fact, she’s been told she cannot and should not go to college, that she is not smart enough, etc, when nothing is more obvious than the fact of her—and her siblings’—brilliance). The rest of the time she sleeps on couches at the homes of her friends, including mine.

So. It took me, my son, and my ex-husband weeks to gather and sort through the required documents to support our son’s financial aid application. And to work our way through the various steps of the forms, translating the garbled language and determining what we were supposed to do. Many parents we know actually pay for assistance in getting through this. Do you think a kid whose life is spread across multiple houses is going to be able to easily adduce all these documents? While simultaneously writing about fifteen college essays, all for different deadlines? And working, because unlike many middle- and upper-middle class kids, she really needs the money? And taking midterms and writing papers for school?

The writing was already on the wall. She probably should have anticipated that she was going to have to apply for independent status from a financial aid perspective. Naturally, colleges hate granting this—they don’t like acknowledging parental slacker-dom as a reason to grant more aid; otherwise, every parent might start slacking off. And this girl really wanted to believe that her parents would come through for her. They really didn’t have have any money. All they had to do was fill out the form saying they they had so little money they hadn’t submitted tax returns in years. That’s it. And that’s how little they cared. They couldn’t even fill out that one little form for their kid.

So, because she held out that much hope, and because she understandably just didn’t, emotionally, want to accept that she was out there on her own, truly independent, this girl, on top of everything else, finally had to run around at the last minute trying to meet the requirements for each and every school (different in every case) for independent financial status.

It seems to me that the powers that be in financial-aid land ought to have figured out by now that poor kids are going to be more organizationally challenged than middle-class kids. That’s why they’re in this situation. Hello? They don’t have parents who are in a position to help them. Even if they do have engaged parents who want to help, often those parents can’t help. They may be ill, or working three jobs, or unable to speak English.

Where is it written that an impoverished kid must be even more together than a middle class kid in order to deserve financial aid? It seems to me that this whole process reflects a bias that poor people must somehow prove that they are extra worthy of help.

Does that seem right to you? That a kid of equal or greater talent should have to scramble so much harder, when she already has at least twice the reason to be exhausted just by her daily life?

It’s true that life isn’t fair, but do we need to remain stuck in this Puritanical value system, where poverty is still seen as a character flaw, where the implication is that it’s something that needs to be trained out of people?

I guarantee you this girl already knows tons more about hard work, initiative, and adversity than any middle- or upper-middle class kid. There is nothing to be gained by this convoluted process. All it does, actually, is drain and discourage the students who because of their combination of talent and life experience, potentially have the most to offer.

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