During my time as an undergraduate student I was lucky enough to have my college paid for. Through scholarships and family help, I left with a bachelor’s degree and zero debt. I am very aware of how lucky I was in college, even during that time. I didn’t have to deal with loans at all. I was first introduced to the crippling world of financial aid when I started my $100,000 graduate program last year. Since then, we have had a hate-hate relationship. I always say road rage has nothing on financial aid rage. I would rather cut off my baby toe than deal with financial aid, but school is expensive, so here I am with ten toes. I believe there are some fundamental issues with our financial aid system in America. Our government has a system in place that is supposed to promote higher education for people who cannot afford to pay the money upfront, but I believe it has flaws that can cripple students along the way.
1. Applying requires a high IQ in itself
Okay first there is the FAFSA… Okay I can handle that. It’s annoying, but at least it walks you through it step by step. Of course, if you get one little detail wrong it can impact whether or not you get any financial help for college… so no pressure. So you turn it in and you feel all good about yourself. Then your school(s) contacts you. They want information as well. Then an outside loan website wants you to fill out paperwork for specific loans. Each of these things has to happen before any money is released. The fact that you have to turn things in to three different places for one loan is a little crazy. If you accidentally overestimated the amount of credits you plan to take on your application (that you did 5 months before classes started) then you don’t get your money. If you forget to do online loan counseling, you don’t get your money. There are a million different things you can do wrong which will screw you over. HERE IS THE BEST PART: They will not tell you that you messed up along the way. If you think no news is good news you are WRONG. No news could mean you are getting nothing because you messed up. You will not know you screwed something up until your tuition is due and the financial aid didn’t disperse. During the beginning of a semester, the financial aid offices are bombarded with frantic students. Get ready to wait in the office for at least a few hours or wait on the phone for even longer. I wonder how many low-income smart students didn’t go to college because they stumbled over these hurdles.
2. You have to go to school full-time
Okay, I am sure there is some brilliant reason for this but I can’t think of one. I don’t know why students can’t get loans while going to school part-time so they can work in order to make payments on their loans at the same time. It makes me feel like they want students to be full-time so they can’t work enough to pay their bills. “Why would they want that?” you ask. Because it means they have to get loans for their living expenses as well. More loans is more $$$$ for the government. I might just by cynical but I don’t see any other reason to force students to go full-time. Maybe they don’t trust us and think we are using the money to go to Cancun, but who says you can’t get a good education and a good tan at the same time?
3. Late charges come before loan money comes
THIS ONE IS MY FAVORITE. The most baffling of all the baffles. Let me set up a little scenario for you: You are going to school in the fall and classes start on September 1st. You did a great job applying for your student loans and you agreed to go to school full time. You got all your school supplies. You are ready to go. Your student account alerts you in that your tuition for fall is due to be paid on August 15th. Wait, this can’t be right! Your loans don’t disperse until the first day of classes in September. WELL TOO BAD, GOOD LITTLE STUDENT. You will freak out and make calls and they will tell you, “Don’t worry, good little student, it’s okay.” You still worry. Especially when you get an email giving you your first notice that the tuition cost will go to collections. Collections! So you get late charges. LATE CHARGES even though you haven’t gotten your GOVERNMENT GIVEN FINANCIAL AID YET. Even though this is the system THEY MADE. Of course, when you finally get your money, most schools’ financial aid offices will reverse the late charges if you call them and ask. They don’t advertise that, so most students pay the late charges unknowingly. So the government/schools make money off of your naïveté. Want to cut off your toes yet?
4. Interest grows while you are in school
This makes me giggle like a psychiatric patient. The predominant reason the government allocates money to students is because they want to “invest in the future.” There are good intensions at the heart, but the infrastructure does not reflect that. For example, I don’t have to make payments on my loans until I graduate (or for some, 6 months after that) which is a great system. However, some of them accrue interest along the way. That’s right folks, you don’t have to make payments, but the lump sum will get bigger and bigger if you don’t. That interest is pure profit for the government. This school year I accrued about $1,000 in interest. It’s so nice of them to “invest in my future” that way.
5. It puts more stress on school
You have to think whom this system benefits and whom it hurts. The graduation rate of students is directly related to income level. It is 2014 and money is still power. The lower your income, the less connected to resources, and the less options you have, the more likely you are to drop out of college or never try at all. Those who do try are overwhelmed with stress. Failure in classes isn’t an option because of the financial cost to low-income students and their families. When they hit rough patches in classes (which everyone does) they have a significantly higher dropout rate. Students without loans and financial stress can focus on their classes and may not have to work at all. Don’t get me started on the fact that unpaid internships are now considered “necessary” on the resume of students which is nearly impossible for low-income students who have to work and make money while in school. College is hard enough without crippling financial stress.
6. Made for profit
As I said before, I don’t think the whole financial aid system is evil. I know there are great things about it. I wouldn’t be getting my master’s degree without it. I am just pointing out that the system is for-profit. Something created for the betterment of society should not be focused on making money. I know I speak for everyone when I say I would be able to make a better impact on society when I graduate if I wasn’t so burdened by debt. At least I have all my toes.