Opinion | FAFSA scams middle-class families

By Megan Harding, Columnist

Every year around February, high school seniors fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the first time. This process continues every year throughout a student’s college career.

Aside from applying for private scholarships, many students rely on FAFSA for aid and loans. While there is no limit on income to apply, the middle class is often in a position where they do not qualify for need-based aid, but also do not make enough to pay the cost of tuition without excessive loans.

According to the Office of Federal Student Aid, the amount of financial aid a student receives depends on factors such as the number of family members, year in school, expected family contribution and cost of attendance.

Need-based financial aid is calculated by taking the school’s cost of attendance and subtracting the expected family contribution. Cost of attendance takes everything from tuition, room and board and supplies into account, while expected family contribution is calculated from income and assets. 

For the University of Illinois, the estimated cost of attendance ranges from $33,558 to $38,744 without aid. Aid given by the University itself is few and far between: Only around 1,500 scholarships are given by the University every year.

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The average middle-class family makes anywhere between $43,350 and $130,000. With such a wide spread of numbers, somebody in the middle class — without financial aid — could be expected to spend half of their yearly income on one year of college.

For this reason, student loans are not uncommon — 30 to 40% of undergraduate students use federal loans to help pay for college tuition. The middle class is forced to take out these loans because the FAFSA ignores their financial situation.

Unfortunately, middle-class applicants sometimes decide against attending an institution due to the cost. According to the Hechinger Report, middle-class students have enrolled in college at a lower rate in the last two decades. In public universities, the amount of middle-class students has dropped from 48 to 40%.

The cost of attending college continues to climb at a rate much higher than income growth. In the last 10 years at the University alone, the undergraduate cost of attendance without aid had roughly a $10,000 increase. Despite the increase in costs, the middle-class median income level was $81,700 in 2000 and had only increased by $4,900 in 2018 according to Pew Research.

Not only is the middle-class income stagnating, but the upper class has increasingly owned a larger chunk of income. Wealth inequality caused by the upper class’ steep income surge is not taken into account in the FAFSA process. 

Completing FAFSA requires close reading and many supporting documents. The results are subject to extensive auditing. After such a lengthy process, students in the middle class end up with very little, if any, financial help.

The middle class is sold short in many other financial aspects, whether it be taxes or work effort compared to wages. 

FAFSA continues to reinforce the cycle of forcing the middle class to take out loans — who then have to work for an income that keeps them in debt — and then offering no assistance or benefits for the next generation’s higher education. 

President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is a step in the right direction for assisting the middle class, but it should instead start at the source — FAFSA should offer more funding and better payment plans to middle-class families to make education more affordable.

Megan is a freshman in Media.

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