Today’s generation of Americans are the most educated, but also one of the financially troubled. More young adults than ever before are pursuing and obtaining college degrees; however, with the decreasing stratification of education comes an expensive price tag. Massive student debt is debilitating; it takes fourteen years on average to repay and amounts to a total of $1.3 billion. Paying for a college is a burden on every family and more so for lower income families. Despite the availability of aid, many students are not pursuing grants or federal assistance. Rather, financial aid is increasingly inaccessible because of language barriers, poor resource planning and exacerbated effects of income stratification. Labyrinthine, inefficient applications like FAFSA are only contributing to the problem.
In 2012, 71 percent of students graduating from four-year institutions had student debt. Average debt levels rose to $29,400 – a 25 percent increase from 2008. Yet, according to the online financial resource, NerdWallet, U.S. high school graduates left over $2.9 billion in federal grant money on the table last year. 47 percent of all 2013 high school graduates did not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), denying themselves Pell Grant money. Pell grants are valued at $5,775 per student, covering a good percentage of tuition at public institutions. Of course, they are consequently crucial for paying for college.
There are many reasons why students failed to fill out FAFSA forms. First, the application is laborious. The Brookings Institution published a 2007 discussion paper, College Grants on a Postcard, which calculated that the form takes as many as 10 hours to fill; the federal government contrastingly provided a conservative estimate of two hours. Second, the financial aid process is plagued by misconceptions. Many students think that all financial aid is loans. To avoid debt, students choose not to attend college while unknowingly forfeiting debt-free money. Third, there is a lack of social support system for students who are making possibly the first important financial decision of their life.
Many American parents work multiple jobs and filling out a form more tedious than taxes is not a priority. Untrained mentors, on the other hand, may be hesitant to help out due to the personal nature of the application. Fourth, depreciating financial-literacy rates render FAFSA a jargon-filled document of 108 mind-boggling questions. This factor exacerbates the confusion and arduous nature of financial aid. Moreover, low-income families have less access to resources; students who attempt to fill out FAFSA may not have the full support from parents, particularly those who find the process daunting and difficult to understand. Finally, FAFSA is uncertain; it does not assure or promise financial aid. The benefit of filling out the application is hard for many to realize.
The 2014 FAFSA Completion initiative led by the Obama administration attempted to increase application rates by providing with greater partnership between schools and students and through grassroots campaigns, such as friendly competitions of whose school could better encourage students to fill out the application. While some progress has been made in motivating students to fill out the form, FAFSA clearly needs to be fundamentally changed. It needs to be more streamlined. While some may argue that students who do not fill out the form are by virtue students who should not be pursuing a college education, the barrier of financial aid is not translatable to qualities of laziness or poor dedication. Rather, families, specifically immigrants, who are unfamiliar with the process, are most prone to misconception. Better efforts to clarify the process, provide partnership and resources to students at schools and increase access to trained volunteers who can guide students to completion are necessary. Additionally, the application must be condensed and time-efficient.
Additionally, the allocation of financial aid must be more transparent in order to dispel misconceptions. At Wellesley, financial aid is a major concern. 58 percent of students borrow money; 95 percent of that financial aid comes in the form of grants. According to Kiplinger, a personal finance publication, Wellesley College is ranked 8 of top private colleges with the lowest student graduating debt – $12,495. What works is clarity provided by the administration on how much financial aid students would receive when enrolling. Our inTuition calculator provides an excellent framework for streamlined financial aid processes. It’s not perfect, but it is far more streamlined. Regardless, we need to have simpler, straightforward ways to determine how much money a family can expect before the application cycle. Complexities, caveats and special circumstances can be factored in later in determining a precise amount.
While the U.S. government can provide money, there is a discrete difference between providing money and making it accessible. The data speaks for itself. Financial aid is inaccessible to many and must be streamlined to a simpler, less convoluted process.
Amal Cheema ’17 is an Opinions Editor who is majoring in biochemistry and political science. She really enjoys pomegranates – as well as reading outside! She is best reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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