Let’s Change Financial Aid to Help Students Who Pay Their Own Way Through College

Jeanne A. Curley

Ever since middle school, I knew that it would be up to me to find a way to pay for college.

My parents have always supported my academic ambitions while also prioritizing their own financial goals, such as saving vigilantly for retirement. They strongly believe that children should pay for things they want with their own money, including college.

We didn’t think this would be difficult for me to do. All through high school, my counselor assured me that if I worked hard I would be able to win enough scholarships to cover the cost of college. So work I did. I took 14 AP classes, had significant achievements and leadership roles in seven clubs, scored a 35 on the ACT, and took college courses during the summer so that I could graduate with my associate degree. I got straight As—and even wrote a book advising other students how to do the same. After being named Distinguished Young Woman of my city, Utah’s Business and Marketing Sterling Scholar, and a National Merit Scholar, my parents and I believed with full confidence that I would be able to graduate from college debt-free.

Beyond merit aid, my family and I also figured that I would qualify for need-based aid. Our family is middle class: My father works as a business systems analyst, and my mother cares for our home. My parents don’t make a lot of money, but they’ve saved aggressively for retirement over the years.

To maximize my odds of winning a full-ride scholarship or getting accepted to a school with generous financial aid, I applied to 23 colleges and for more than 50 independent scholarships.

Come April of my senior year, my wildest dreams seemed to be coming true: I won a scholarship from a nonprofit that covered up to $100,000 of educational expenses after other scholarships had been applied, and then received an acceptance letter to my dream school: the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I was overjoyed! Their financial aid website promised that they wouldn’t let a lack of financial means prevent any qualified admitted student from attending. I thought I was set.

Only a month later, I was shocked to learn that I couldn’t afford to go. Not only to the University of Pennsylvania—but anywhere.

The reason why? Upon receiving my financial aid letter, I discovered that the federal financial aid system deemed my family responsible for contributing $120,000 toward my annual cost of attendance before receiving any need-based aid. This assumption—that my parents would spend their retirement savings on my college education—upended my scholarship and financial aid offers and with it my dream of attending college.

Despite all my hard work in high school, I felt like I had failed. When graduation day came, I was ranked first in my class—but I was so ashamed that I wouldn’t be attending college that I skipped the ceremony.

It turned out that my belief in the power of scholarships and aid was misplaced. Need-based aid takes care of high-achieving students from families with low wealth, but students from middle-class families are falling through the cracks as few scholarships are awarded based on merit alone. Students are blessed or cursed based on parental financial decisions they have no control over. I know I’m far from the only student who has been negatively impacted by being tied to an “expected family contribution” despite paying my own way through college.

Here’s how the federal financial aid system failed me—and how I believe it should change so that no student has to endure the pain I went through.

How My College Dream Collapsed

Spring of my senior year, a letter arrived in the mail from a fund I had applied to informing me I had been selected as a scholar and would receive up to $25,000 a year for four years along with a laptop, personal adviser and numerous other perks. I remember crying with joy: This was enough money to allow me to go to college!

As if life couldn’t get any better, I found out I had been accepted to Wharton. I was beyond ecstatic. Not only was this one of my dream schools, but the university is known for being generous with financial aid. If your family has an adjusted gross income of less than $65,000, you essentially receive a full-ride scholarship. If that income is under $140,000, your financial aid award is guaranteed to at least cover the cost of tuition, if not more.

My family’s adjusted gross income was slightly above $65,000, so in conjunction with the big scholarship I had won and a few smaller ones, I thought I was set—that is, until my financial aid award letter came in the mail.

This is when I learned for the first time that after filling out my Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the government determined I had an expected family contribution of over $120,000. The University of Pennsylvania decided that I had no financial need and wanted to charge me the full $85,000 annual cost of attendance to go there.

I couldn’t believe it at first—surely a mistake had been made. I called the financial aid office and explained my situation. The woman I spoke with agreed that it was odd my expected family contribution was so high given my family’s relatively low adjusted gross income. She pulled up my FAFSA and then asked me to confirm whether the amount of money my parents reported having saved outside of qualified retirement accounts was correct. I got my dad on the line. It was.

The woman assisting me suggested that I contact a senior financial aid advisor to discuss my options. Still filled with hope, I did. I explained that my parents weren’t helping me to pay for college and that there was no way I could pay $85,000 a year to attend. I requested to appeal my aid letter and have a custom award determined which reflected my true ability to pay.

I listened with horror as the senior admissions officer told me parent refusal to pay wasn’t sufficient justification for a reconsideration of aid. Despite my objections, he proceeded to suggest that I take out $400,000 of loans to cover my cost of attendance.

“It’s Wharton,” he said. “It will be worth it.”

Thankfully, I didn’t need a degree from Wharton to know going $400,000 in debt as an 18-year-old was a bad idea.

Still, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I knew that my parents had money saved for retirement, but I never anticipated that it would negatively impact my eligibility for financial aid. My family lives very modestly so that my parents can save money. Instead of respecting this, I felt like U. Penn thought I was trying to scam the system and go to school for free.

And then my situation became exponentially worse. I received a call from an employee of the aforementioned fund informing me that the $25,000-a-year scholarship would only be applied to my educational expenses after my family paid our expected family contribution of over $120,000. I appealed the decision to no avail.

To say I was devastated is an understatement. Not only would I not be able to attend my dream school, but the scholarship I had been depending on to pay for college had just been ripped away from me. I had absolutely no control over what my parents saved for retirement or over whether they chose to help me pay for college or not. Despite my complete dedication to school, it looked like I wouldn’t be attending college.

Recognizing Independent Students

The summer after I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what to do. I had planned on having four more years to explore my interests, develop my skills and gain experience through participating in internships. I was crushed, but realized that I needed to keep moving forward. I frantically taught myself the basics of data analysis and started preparing to apply for jobs.

Then, two weeks into August, my prospects changed. I found out that I had won a $5,000 annual scholarship for being named Utah’s State Business and Marketing Sterling Scholar. In addition to a merit-based scholarship from the University of Utah and other smaller ones I had won from independent sources, I was overjoyed to be able to scrape together enough money to pursue my dream of higher education.

Fast forward to now, I’m a sophomore at the University of Utah studying data science and systems engineering. It isn’t Wharton and funds are tight, but I am beyond grateful to be able to attend college at all without going into debt.

Still, thinking about what happened leaves me feeling sick to this day.

The vast majority of college students are age 18 or older. They are legally considered adults with their own finances when applying for student loans. Why, then, are their finances not considered independently from their parents’ at the time they apply to college?

Many students’ parents don’t help them with their college expenses. Whether they don’t have a good relationship with their parents, or their family has other reasons for not being willing or able to pay, a family contribution is not something a college should “expect”. Yet the current system evaluates students’ need based on factors they have no control over and that don’t reflect their personal financial realities, especially if they are paying their own way.

I’d love for schools to consider students’ finances independent of their parents’ paychecks and savings accounts. Then again, few 18-year-olds have any significant net worth. Given this, aid should be awarded based on merit instead of need. At Ivy League schools and in other situations where all students are meritorious, lottery-based aid seems to be the next best alternative.

Short of this, the federal financial aid system should use more reasonable limits for what they expect families to contribute. No student should have an expected family contribution that dwarfs the cost of attendance at even the most expensive of private schools.

At the very least, schools and scholarship committees need to be more lenient when considering edge cases. Proving parent refusal to contribute to educational expenses would be difficult, but if a student could show that parent assets are indeed earmarked for retirement or other evidence to corroborate their claim, schools should be willing to listen and to negotiate aid packages.

No hard-working student should slip through the cracks or lose financial aid due to a system that evaluates their ability to pay based on parental financial decisions they have no control over.

One good thing that came from this: The aforementioned scholarship fund recently announced an update to its policies so that all of its scholarship winners receive at least $5,000, regardless of what their families are expected to contribute. They’ve also instituted procedures that give students an idea of how much the scholarship will contribute toward their education given their unique financial circumstances earlier in the selection process.

It’s a small step in the right direction, but until we remove the expectation that all families are contributing to their children’s higher education and start awarding aid based on students’ merit and independent financial situation, the financial aid system will continue to disadvantage students paying their own way in college.

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