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Friday, February 23, 2024

FAFSA Independence policy excludes some needy students

What does it mean to be independent? For some, this question could take them down a path of introspection, but I'm not talking philosophical independence, I'm talking about FAFSA independence. Many students work multiple jobs while going to school, take out enough loans to cover tuition and live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of their expenses.

Others win scholarships or qualify for grants.

Most students are some combination of the above. There are, of course, students whose parents are able to pay the way for their kids, and there's nothing wrong with that. But what about those students who rely on their parents for absolutely nothing, yet cannot claim to be independents on the FAFSA? An independent status would enable them to qualify for far more aid than what's otherwise available.

What about a family of eight, whose parents make enough money combined to automatically disqualify their individual children from most financial aid? In reality those same parents are unable to pay for college because of debt and the fact that they have other children still under their roof. What now?

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Before I go further, let me take a deep breath. We're all lucky to be in school regardless of how we got here. Even if it means we had to take out loans or apply for scholarships, at least we got a shot at a great education and we're not stuck working food service until we save up enough money for college. All sense of entitlement aside, this is a serious question, especially in today's uncertain economic environment. According to an April 4 Washington Post blog post by Daniel de Vise, our nation could be looking at a $6 billion cut to the Pell Grant Program alone. With funds like Pell grants dwindling, it's even more important to make sure that money is distributed fairly.

The current FAFSA form is clear on the requirements for calling yourself independent. In order to claim that status, you must meet one of the following criterion:

• You are at least 24 years old on the day you file your FAFSA.

• You are or will be enrolled in a Masters or Doctoral degree program at the beginning of the school year.

• You are married on the day you file your FAFSA.

• You have children.

• You have dependents other than a spouse who live with you and who receive more than half their income from you at the time you apply.

• Both your parents are deceased and/or you are (or were until age 18) a ward of the court.

• You are currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training.

• You are a Veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces.

• You were a foster child after the age of 13.

• You are an emancipated child as determined by a court judge.

• You are homeless or at risk of homelessness as determined by the director of a Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved homeless shelter, transitional program or high school liaison.

The average university student doesn't fit into any of these categories, which seems to be the idea. On top of that, when you compare two students with different family situations, the distribution of aid can dramatically differ. There must be a way for students who are truly financially independent to be recognized as such. Unfortunately, the only option currently available is a professional judgment override.

According to Kristin Morris, an advisor for the Student Loan Network, in order to receive this override a student must prove to a financial aid officer that they were forced to leave their parents' home and no longer have contact with them. From there, the student must provide three letters describing their situation. This option is a step in the right direction, but it's not enough.

More importantly, it's still unfair to those students whose parents appear able to help financially in the eye of the government, but in reality cannot. At the very least, students should be able to have contact with their parents while also maintaining independence. 

If there were looser restrictions for FAFSA independence, some would argue too many students would cheat the system. Students could claim their parents don't help them when, in reality, they provide ample support. An easy solution to this hypothetical independence could be a random government audit. Yes, this often would create more paperwork, and require employees to perform these audits, but it would also help thousands of students struggling financially. And there's no such thing as a perfect system anyways.

While the financial aid system is a government service we are lucky to have as an option, FAFSA forms should allow students to reflect their true financial situation. Regardless of the extra work and red tape associated with adjustments to the FAFSA, a fairer distribution of funds would be well worth the trouble.

Heather Heggemeier is a sophomore with an undecided major. We welcome all feedback. Please send responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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