Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Amid a flurry of legal challenges, it remains unclear whether President Joe Biden‘s proposed student debt relief will materialize like many have hoped. But even right now, so many students in need of federal aid are unable to receive it.
In the meantime, there’s more we can do to proactively help students afford a college education. To better serve the economic needs of students in need, eligibility for federal student aid through the U.S. Department of Education should not blindly consider the assets belonging to the family of a student who is considered dependent without taking into account family circumstances.
The department must revise the Free Application for Federal Student Aid’s definition of dependency to reflect the real-world complexity of students’ financial situations and provide individualized assistance to students.
Currently, the eligibility restrictions are based largely on arbitrary standards that leave many students in hopeless situations — and for no clear reason.
For example, FAFSA doesn’t even recognize parents’ or guardians’ unwillingness to disclose financial information as an exemption from providing parent information. Not only may students lack open communication with family members, this requirement could place students facing abuse at risk of physical or emotional harm by necessitating prolonged contact, unless they seek an exemption.
However, becoming exempted from providing parental information is a highly irrational process. For example, students who have left home due to an abusive environment are still expected to collect extensive written evidence ranging from notes and letters to legal documentation to substantiate their claims. Compiling evidence is an absurd burden to place on students who are already dealing with harrowing circumstances in their homes, especially when considering these students are likely struggling to find time to work to provide for themselves and maintain their academic standing.
Even limiting the exemption to students who have left home is illogical. Many students in abusive environments cannot practically leave during their K-12 education, otherwise risking housing or food insecurity, becoming unable to graduate from high school and a myriad of other potential impacts of losing short-term security. And a standardized process for seeking emancipation as a minor, or being granted legal status as an adult, doesn’t exist in most states, including Maryland.
Thus, many of these same students view college as the path away from an abusive home. But students can’t truly become self-sufficient when FAFSA reinforces financial dependence on their families during college, which is supposed to be the very first step on one’s journey toward economic and personal independence.
Moreover, many families, despite having resources that FAFSA deems adequate, are not willing to contribute to the cost of a student’s college education. And this issue is twofold.
First, FAFSA is notoriously unreliable in accurately assessing a family’s financial situation with a limited number of quantitative insights that cannot capture much, if any, nuance. After a student gathers and submits a vast amount of financial information, FAFSA spits out a single number, originally known as the Expected Family Contribution, which supposedly knows exactly how much money a family ought to be paying for their child’s college education.
No arithmetic or advanced formula is robust enough to do that with the individual care and attention individual family circumstances deserve. Then, even in cases when a family may be able to afford to help a student pay for college, many decline to. And FAFSA doesn’t care.
Some expect children to take on their own financial obligations upon turning 18 years old and perceive the large — and still increasing — cost of tuition as unreasonable. Some families have alternative plans for making use of assets later in life, such as savings for post-retirement.
For better or for worse, paying for one’s child to attend college is not a legal obligation. So why is the process that determines whether so many people can afford an education implicitly creating it into a social expectation?
Put simply, the Department of Education must tighten the criteria under FAFSA’s definition of dependency to more accurately reflect the financial relationships between students and their parents and guardians.
For example, the financial aid of students who attest that their parents will not be contributing to their college education should not be negatively affected by their family’s assets. Submitting FAFSA requires declaring under the penalty of perjury that the information a student provides is true, providing a built-in mechanism to prevent fraud.
The department must also streamline the process for seeking a re-evaluation of dependency by funding a casework team designated to help students gather the necessary information. Students looking to be considered independent are, by nature, less likely to have support from an adult experienced with complex government processes, and this helps ensure they still have an advocate.
To be clear, our federal student aid process has improved remarkably over time. And millions of students have undoubtedly benefited over the course of their lifetimes because of it. But the process remains riddled with inconsistencies and cruelty, and we are still leaving far too many behind. Higher education should be liberating — ensuring equitable access is where we must start.
Dhruvak Mirani is a freshman computer science and government and politics major. Mirani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.