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Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Capitol Profiles: System overload and blame converge in financial aid crisis

Universities blame states, states blame the federal government, the federal government blames students and students blame universities. Any combination edges closer to the truth about the ever-growing calamity that is higher education’s accessibility.

Experts seem unanimous on only one thing; the financial aid system intended to equalize opportunities for the millennial generation is minimally helping some, locking others into irreparable debt, and coming at the expense of basic necessities. 

UW-Madison junior Derek Field, the Working Class Student Union’s former finance manager, attributed much of the unintended negative consequences to outdated policies and legislative stubbornness.

“Policy-makers right now are not very friendly toward higher education,” Field said.

He referenced the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant, originally created to close the 33 percent gap between Federal Pell grant offerings and the total cost of a college degree. 

However, WHEG only provided students with 7 percent of their attendance fees in 2013, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs.

“The cost of college ballooned and financial aid did not keep up,” Field said.

The results were disastrous for one Sophia Carter, a homeless UW-Madison student, whose name has been changed for this article. 

The demanding stipulations of Carter’s financial aid package and lagging federal policies compound her difficulty receiving financial aid in the face of diminishing endowments. 

Carter’s “independent” FAFSA status lessens her chances of receiving grants from both the federal and state governments, according to Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.

As a result, Carter lacks the funds to provide for basic housing but is still held to the same scholarly standards as her peers.

“They’re asking me to succeed and do well through extremely unreasonable circumstances,” Carter said. “And they won’t give me year-long financial aid, so I never know.”

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That semester-to-semester uncertainty about future funds nearly negates Carter’s ability to even plan for future housing or devise an academic plan.

“Commitments are luxuries,” Carter said. “If you have the luxury to keep them, good for you, but it’s really hard when you are living on a bench.”

Radomski said herein lies the crux of the progressive push for higher education reform; giving students the ability to plan. Remedy proposals include two-year aid packages.

Still, Radomski suggests, because bureaucratic changes are slow and currently gridlocked, “if we want something done it should be done at the campus level.”

He said he has seen universities across the country create centralized hubs for homeless and underserved students, which offer donated food, school supplies, and financial and academic advising among other things. Not so much at UW-Madison.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know if anyone’s asked,” Radomski said.

Meanwhile, Field sees opportunities for the university to pressure alumni for more donations and the state for more funding.

“If they’re going to freeze tuition they have to give UW-Madison more money,” he said.

Carter said she just wants to feel like somebody is investing in her.

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