An Update on the Girl

In my last post I blogged about a girl who was struggling to find financial aid for college. Despite her excellent academic, artistic, and personal credentials, she was rejected by some colleges that surely admitted less impressive, but richer, kids. However, she only needed one or two really good chances, and she got them. She was accepted by two excellent institutions, including the truly outstanding Grinnell College.

Congratulations to a very deserving young woman! And congrats to Grinnell, too, for the vision to recognize her!

I’m not sure all great students get so great an opportunity, but this story, at least, is heartening.

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.

How to Streamline the Financial Aid Process

Whew, just got done filling out all the financial aid requirements (I think) in support of my son’s college applications. It was pretty challenging even for a family with its act fairly well together, and I can only imagine how tough it would be for a family dealing with true financial insolvency.

And there was so much waste and overlap, I can’t believe that this process isn’t ridiculously expensive both for the government and for schools.

Probably as a means of heading off bureaucratic snafus, some schools actually demand that you submit your federal financial statement (FAFSA)—which is based on your tax information—by February 1. But brokerage firms don’t have to send out their statements to you till Feb 16. And even if you do manage to fill out these extensive forms, based on your best guestimates, schools still want you to turn around and submit copies of your finished tax returns by March1, when again, you will just barely have received your brokerage statements (and could they really not have just waited for your tax returns in the first place?). If you also have corporate taxes to fill out, and are dependent on a third party tax preparer and his or her schedule, this can be quite difficult to pull off.

Okay, so you sent in the FAFSA and your tax return, which were basically the same information entered twice. Was that enough? No. You also have to fill out another form, which you pay the Princeton Review to disseminate. This contains THE SAME information, again. Plus a little more, like the amount of equity in your home and the amount you’ve saved for your retirement, which the colleges claim they are not going to consider. Sure, okay.

And you have to pay the Princeton Review money to file this information and more money ($16 a pop) to send it out to each and every college.

The solution to this mess is so simple it’s heartbreaking: Just provide a check box on federal tax returns asking if parents are seeking a financial aid assessment. Ta-da! Provide a secure location where colleges can access the parents’ aid assessment index, which can be run at the same time as their taxes as processed. Lose the Princeton Review’s extraneous form. Lose the FAFSA statement. Simply require a supplemental schedule, say Schedule FA, in which parents enter information about college savings funds, any cash they have lying around, any home equity over some threshold amount that the federal government establishes that colleges are allowed to consider (I’d be okay with $200K), and ditto with IRA/401(k) info (I’d be okay with $500K for parents over 45). On the worksheet you just do one of those math exercises where if line A is greater than line B you don’t have to report it.

Go ahead and require parents applying for financial aid to file their tax returns by March 15, and fast track their returns so that colleges have the need index information by April 15.

I’ve seen that FAFSA is planning to allow tax return info to be imported into the FAFSA form. While this would be an improvement, my solution is even simpler. Consolidate the FAFSA processing people into the IRS, make it all one form, one timeline, and be done.

And let’s limit the types of information that colleges can look at. Because home equity and retirement should not be on the line, as most colleges officially agree. So why do they even ask? If they are going to charge $50K or more for tuition, they can stop the charade…either plan on offering around $20-25K in aid or drop tuition by about that amount.

This would streamline the aid process, too. Many parents who have been diligent about saving what not long ago would have been a more than reasonable amount of money for college would then not even have to apply for aid. How nice it would be if we could just meet in the honest middle.

What’s Missing From the PC Market

In the last six months, we added two PC laptops to our household. In some ways it was more agonizing than buying a car or choosing a health club. I spent a lot of time looking at MacBooks and nearly, God help me, bought one, because Apple made the buying process so much simpler. It was almost worth paying the premium just for that.

Choice is good, but enough is enough. Even within one brand, I found it impossible to keep everything straight. Office Depot offered version CQ456W. Then I’d go over to Walmart or Staples or Best Buy to compare prices. Except I couldn’t, exactly. Because the other stores each had slightly different models. The CP456W. Or the CQ457Z. And this meant that while it had the same hard drive size or graphics card, it had 3 GB RAM instead of 4, or it had a slightly faster processor but a worse graphics card, or it had the ability to add SSD storage, but it didn’t have the nice keyboard or the battery life the other model had. Or it had everything I wanted—but with a 15” instead of a 13” screen. And all of this would result in some slight difference in price.

If I had the time and the contacts, I’d start a PC company that did the essentially the same thing Apple does in terms of hardware. Three models. Cheap, middling, and higher end. All the same size, 13-14”, because a laptop should be a laptop and it should fit on an airplane seat tray and/or in one of those oversized handbags women lug around these days.

These are the specs:

  • Colors, for God’s sake. One place where choice is good.
  • Metal. You’re working on the thing all day. It needs to feel sweet.
  • Excellent display resolution. Remember this is a PC, not a toy.
  • 4 RAM in the base model, 2 x 2. Go up from there, and don’t take away other features when you add RAM.
  • 320 HD in the base model. In the second model, offer the ability to switch out the regular HD for SSD. In the top model, SSD should be included.
  • Chic let keyboard, because you use a laptop at a coffee shop. And what are you going to do there? Right. The keyboard has to be good with muffin crumbs.
  • Recessed trackpad, with the nice little OFF button that Acer makes for its Aspire line so the cursor doesn’t jump around. The zoom/scroll features that Acer and Asus offer, and yeah, that they copied from Apple. Who cares; it’s a good stuff.
  • Hello? Battery life? Minimum four hours in the base model. If you can’t make a battery last this long, throw in a free spare.
  • Dedicated graphics in models 2 and 3.
  • Intel 2 Duo Core processors as a minimum and again, go UP with each model, and don’t knock down any feature when you add another.
  • Call them Models 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C. Or give them actual names, like Labrador, Husky, and Wolfhound or something. None of this XJCP32897ZQD stuff.
  • If you want, add a 17” screen option at the midline or the high end.
  • If you must, offer a specialized gaming line. But I’d just leave that for some other company to do.
  • Great customer service.
  • Price: $600, $900, $1200. Feel free to come in lower, but that’s what I’d pay.

If someone out there starts a company that makes these PCs, I’m here to help you with the PR/storytelling.

(Asus, Dell, and Sony all come close to offering some version of the above, but you still have to hunt through the noise of all the models, and each of them is missing something…metal casings, or cool keyboards, or sharp displays, or customer service…I’m just saying that there’s either an opportunity for one of these companies to tighten up [and hire me] or for someone new to jump in [and hire me].)