As college students, many of us dread filling out the annual FAFSA application. “How much money will I get this year?” “Will it be enough?” “How many loans am I going to have to take out this time?” Many of us have asked these questions or maybe even more. At such a young age, we are expected to take out a large sum of money to pay for our college education, unsure when we will be able to pay it off. To help ease this burden some of us work, save up or hope one day we will have enough money to make our monthly payments.
Today, I am asking a new question: Is FAFSA the best way to determine the financial needs of a student? The quick and simple answer is no. How can an application that is based on you and your family’s tax returns fully explain your current financial situation? It doesn’t.
After you fill out the FAFSA application, you wait until your financial aid package becomes available on SPIRE. The aid that pops up on the screen in front of you is heavily influenced by the Expected Family Contribution. According to the Federal Student Aid, “The EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law. Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits all could be considered in the formula.” Therefore, the lower your EFC is, the more financial aid you will likely receive. Once again, I believe more information should be considered when calculating this number through FAFSA.
On the University of Massachusetts Financial Aid website, it states, “The FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for federal, state and institutional aid programs.” Therefore, based on how much money your family or legal guardians make, you may not qualify for any of the categories listed above. You may ask, “what if my parents aren’t helping pay for my college?” Sadly, the application does not ask this question and that is the exact problem. If a student is not receiving help from their parents, then why would their income matter? This is one example where a family’s tax returns do not accurately reflect a student’s financial situation. Without the help of their parents, they are forced to take out additional loans. Another common problem is that sometimes parents don’t have the ability to take out such large loans. Therefore, the student must carry this weight and put it in their name. If FAFSA asked more questions, this may be avoided.
In order to solve this problem, FAFSA needs to ask the questions we have been asking for years. There needs to be a point or a section where one can explain their financial needs. Every family and every student faces hardships each year, either financial or emotional. Whatever hardships one faces, I believe administrators should consider these circumstances when students fill out their application.
Luckily, I think we are heading in the right direction. According to the New York Times, for the 2022-2023 application, the EFC will no longer determine the amount of financial aid you will receive. Therefore, more families who are struggling financially will get Pell Grants and other forms of support. The EFC is part of the problem of FAFSA. It is a formula that can easily misrepresent the amount of money you and your family can realistically spend towards college. By getting rid of this feature, FAFSA is forced to ask more questions to better understand each student. This step will hopefully help those who need additional aid and give them a chance to tell their story.
If you, like many other students, believe that your FAFSA is not a correct representation of yourself and your family, the University offers ways to help get you through the next four years of college. On the UMass website, under the section financial aid, you can find a document for a Special Circumstances Appeal. This document allows you to explain any hardships you and your family may be facing. This makes the financial aid process much more personal and allows the University to truly understand your financial situation. They consider financial burdens that were not shown on the FAFSA. Other universities should follow suit, as the FAFSA is not the best representation of each individual.
Julie Harrison can be reached at [email protected]