Tax time is in full swing, and as usual, I’m sitting around waiting for my last few pieces of paperwork to come in so that I can do my taxes. Every year, I strive to get my own taxes, and my mother’s, done as quickly as possible so that I can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a bane of my existence, in hopes of getting as much aid as possible (not that it has really helped in any of the previous years).
I have a special hatred in my heart of hearts for the FAFSA. I think it’s a broken system indicative of greater problems in the US Department of Education, but its own problems are great enough to set my teeth on edge every time I hear someone sound out “Faaaph-sa.”
Who’s Your Daddy?
The FAFSA puts a special emphasis on everyone being a dependent, which often scams a lot of students out of aid that they might otherwise receive. Got rich parents that refuse to pay for your schooling at all? The FAFSA doesn’t care – it doesn’t even ask if you live with your parents, just when you were born, whether your parents are alive, and whether you yourself have a spouse or dependents.
Here’s a fun example: my situation for this year’s taxes and FAFSA. The IRS does not consider me a dependent of my parents, because I am over 19 and was only enrolled in school for 4 months of 2007 (you become a dependent when you’re enrolled for 5 months of the year). However, the FAFSA doesn’t even ask if the IRS considers you a dependent – it just assumes I am. Left hand, do you even know there is a right hand, let alone what it’s doing?
I’m sorry if this comes off as an angry rant – I’m steamed, but in the same calm, already-beaten-down demeanor that I have every year when dealing with the FAFSA. I know it’s broken, but I also know that I have to comply with their awkward regulations and just do it, if I want any financial aid at all.
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (Refusing to Face the Strange)
The information the FAFSA uses to assess financial need for the 2008-2009 school year comes from your (and most likely, your parents’) 2007 income. Therefore, things like sudden job loss or disability or divorce are not taken into account, if they happened late in 2007 or early 2008.
Your combined incomes on paper may be $150,000, but if they’re suddenly dropped for any of those reasons, the FAFSA just doesn’t care – your financial need is that of a family making $150,000, not what you’re really making.
Siblings? What Siblings? We Don’t See Any Siblings!
A good friend of mine had smart parents who knew that the fact that they made a good living would make it hard for their three children to get financial aid. So they put aside a good chunk of money to send the kids off to college when the time came.
So when my friend, the oldest of the three, filled out the FAFSA, and found that it only asked how many siblings he had in college. He checked none, and the FAFSA assumed that all of the money his parents had set aside was for him. The story is different this year, with his two sisters both enrolling, but the financial gouge that first year caused to him to have to put off going to his first choice school, and attend community college for two years instead, and then transfer.
Which is not, by the way, to knock community college. For my friend, it was the best choice and seems to have served him well and he’s very happy now that he’s at his first choice school. However, this happy ending for him can not necessarily be replicated by everyone.
I, for example, couldn’t have done anything like that. I was gearing up for film school, a heartless program with few general education credits. If you spend two years at community college, it won’t save you a single moment in film school (at least at the one I attended, and many others) – no, the program is set up to take you a full four years, no matter what. But as I’m fond of saying since I dropped out of film school – it’s not for poor kids.
All In the Family
Odd family configurations are foreign to the FAFSA calculation. Sure, there’s considerations for divorces and non-parental guardians, but it doesn’t go far enough. This is one of FAFSA’s more ambiguous quirks: for some people, it’s actually helpful, but for other’s, it’s just another knock against them.
Got legal guardians who don’t actually provide you a home or any financial support at all? The FAFSA counts their incomes all the same. Have a non-legal guardian, such as the unrecognized same-sex spouse of a parent? Oh, well, the FAFSA doesn’t count them, unless they provide more than half of your support. (The take-away here? Not having marriage equality means children of same-sex couples may be getting a greater boost in financial aid – think about that!)
So What’s to Be Done (Other Than Seethe)?
On the personal level? Fill out the form diligently, and take your own initiative to talk to your school’s financial aid office about the particulars of your own situation. Also, put a certain amount of effort into seeking out private scholarships.
On the large scale, well, it’s all about Department of Education reform. Ask your representatives what they plan to do about the broken FAFSA – after all, you are their constituents!
Does anyone have a FAFSA or financial aid nightmare to share?
Photo credit: Bent Tree News