OPINION: Working class families are getting their students into college, but at what cost?

Domonique Tolliver, Managing for Digital

The cyclical, contaminating nature of money is what prohibits many people in the world from reaching their full potential.
While I initially wrote this piece to highlight the technical pitfalls of our government’s financial aid system, a recent series of tragic events in my personal life has yanked me from the details and into the bigger picture. Death makes money not an object, but a lens into quality of life itself.
Many students made their choice of college based on whoever gave the most money. I spent a year and a half of my life groveling and negotiating with colleges to give students like me more money so that my parents could end the cycle of debt. Having to choose a college with money as a large factor sucked the joy of college from me which has never been returned. I am constantly thinking about being perfect – doing perfect – so that the very money that allowed me to go to this university doesn’t get taken away. So that I don’t put my parents in a position where they have to make their dollar stretch even further. It is depleting, consuming and overall murderous to a young person’s spirit and drive.
While I am privileged that my family can afford to support ourselves, by no means does that mean we can cough up over $45,000 a year for me to receive a cracked door to possible connections. College itself may give you the knowledge, but the world is built on who you know, not really what you know.
Working class families like mine make their money stretch. Our parents work multiple jobs so we can exist on the day to day without constantly wondering “what if.” Many working class families are one step away from living paycheck to paycheck.
But we are not seen as a group the government and the Free Application for Student Aid wants to pour more money into. The way in which the government and FAFSA decides who needs aid is outdated, and doesn’t take into account the current economic situation of the country. Many times I have heard students say that they are low income, but not low income enough for certain aid to be given.
That has always been my situation, and it has put a mix of emotions within my head. Not only do I feel fortunate for my family being able to provide for us, but I feel guilty for asking for more scholarships. That is because the government says my parents should be able to afford it, but where does that leave them? In a cloud of student loan debt that is ultimately not theirs but their responsibility to bear until I am either married, older than 24, or supporting a child.
The decision to look at a family’s pre tax income, and from that number determine whether they can afford a college education, is absurd. That money doesn’t really exist. Part of it is waiting to be confiscated by the government.
I do not mean to say that I do not support the existence of Pell Grants and funding for lower income families. I wholeheartedly believe that funding should be in place and given. However, I believe who we see as low income and working class needs to be expanded.
The government has started to recognize that families across the world are struggling; as of July of 2023, FAFSA will switch from the Expected Family Contribution to the Student Aid Index. This new index will account for extenuating circumstances that aren’t shown on your taxes.
While this is only a first step, it humanizes students to the government and the country. Not as just another number at just another university, but as a family who wants their child to advance their education and, hopefully, build a greater future for their loved ones.
Extra scholarships for students may be the difference between a parent working three jobs or two, taking an extra shift or spending the holiday with family, coming home and taking a breath or constantly fixating on if they will put food on the table next week.
This is not about giving more aid to the 1%. This is giving families stuck in the middle a chance to give their kids more opportunities while not falling into more debt themselves.
This new accommodation should be expanded to every two-income household making under $125,000 a year. That is a large number, however, this means each individual makes approximately $62,000 a year. To put a face to this number, Louisiana teachers make on average about $50,217 a year.
In the end, this issue boils down to a simple question. Who really has the access to go to college? As universities try to recoup money that they lost in the pandemic, student scholarships are disappearing from their accounts and grants are being cut. Students are grappling with taking out more loans – which will set them back even more financially – or finding a non-traditional, alternative path outside of college.
My advice to universities: take a look at the state of the world and ask yourself how many people can really afford to attend your university? Give out more scholarships with income eligibility requirements that aren’t based on FAFSA, and maybe your university will become more diverse. If donors can find the money to donate a chapel, they can find the money to get working class families more scholarships to make the college application process less stressful.
We are not cash cows. We are human beings just trying to do the best we can for the ones we love. Universities and the government can tap into their humanity and see that more people in the country are struggling more than they may think. We must see the investment in college not as numbers on a page, but as human beings trying to change their lives.