It is vitally important that we reconsider the structure of financial aid at Wellesley College, especially in the midst of the pandemic.
With the chaos of the last two years, many financial circumstances have changed. Some have lost jobs or homes. Others have had to pay high medical fees or miss work due to illness. There are a multitude of reasons why many people’s and family’s situations have changed, and for many it happened all at once.
When I first applied for financial aid at Wellesley, the application process was relatively difficult, but at least my application was not too complicated for the confines of the system. I had to jump through extra hoops and get specific permissions from the school, but I was able to figure FAFSA and the CSS profile out with a quick Google search.
Unfortunately, my single mother passed away in the middle of my first year of college. When I applied for aid for my sophomore year, I suddenly had no idea what to do. The financial aid office was swamped and unable to answer my questions, which for a while had me completely panicked. For other students this could have been enough to drop out, given immediate financial pressure. To make things worse, when the financial aid office got back to me they didn’t know how I was supposed to finish the FAFSA and CSS Profile.
The FAFSA and CSS Profile are both built for students who have a relatively normal family life and structure. There are options for step-parents and divorced parents, or even having one estranged parent. However, the further your family status deviates from the standard two-parent nuclear family, the more difficult it is to apply for aid. If you want to explain why one parent will not pay for college, you usually need to find a social worker or therapist to verify your account and then send it to schools separately. If you want to apply for independent status, with no parents or guardians aiding you financially, you have to show that you were once a ward of the state, in the military or homeless or at risk of being homeless.
I fall in between some of these definitions, and so do many students. I’m not technically homeless; I always have somewhere to live. However, FAFSA requires that I list a permanent address other than my college and I simply don’t have that. I was lucky that I was able to ask a family friend to let me list her house as my permanent address, but not everyone can. These are some of the more simple and obvious ways people fall through the cracks.
Even people with so-called traditional families that can easily fill out the form do not get the proper amount of aid. One student who wished to remain anonymous said that Wellesley financial aid made her mom “realize that she couldn’t achieve her goals of becoming a teacher anymore because it was no longer going to be financially possible.” This year, her family’s Estimated Financial Contribution went up by the same amount that her mother’s income went up. Therefore, any new money was assumed to go towards education even though her family had other things that they needed to spend that extra money on. She is currently petitioning for a change in financial aid, but this is a long process and is not promising.
With everything that has changed during COVID-19 for many people, more students have lost parents, more students over the age of 18 are newly independent, and more people’s lives have been upended. It’s a sad fact of life that students can’t always go to certain schools or any school because of a lack of financial aid. This can and should be fixed, though that will be a difficult process. However, what can’t be excused is that the application process is so complicated and inaccessible. With financial aid that changes every year, students encounter a great deal of stress in the application process after financial changes. The petition process also needs to be simpler. Any waiting time can be a huge problem for a low-income family for whom every dollar counts.
I’m lucky that I go to a school that was able to help me in my unique situation. If I had been applying as a first-year again, I am not sure the financial aid office would have gotten back to me in time or would have been able to help me. Maybe I would have just given up on going to college. This is a problem for students all over the US due to the inherent problems in the structure of the FAFSA. The federal aid application system needs to be simplified and made more inclusive.