The Financial Aid Experience In a Nutshell

I have a feeling that in years past, the position that I have at the university (financial aid administrator) was a pretty cake spot. You help kids fill out forms, you do some calculations, you hand out some checks (this is a rough approximation of how things worked, based on my conversations with older colleagues).

It’s definitely not like that anymore. I could see myself burning out on this job in the next 12-18 months because you can’t say to a kid, “I know that that loan is not enough. I know that the money they say your parents can contribute isn’t there. I know you can’t get a loan from a bank on your own, and I understand that you will be imprisoned by debt for the next 20 or 30 years even if someone helps you to secure one. What can we do for you besides hand out loans? Nothing. You are screwed.”

This is not uncommonly The Truth for people that I talk to, and as a relatively compassionate individual who wants to help the other humans, it’s infinitely frustrating for me. What am I supposed to say instead? How can I, from my position, initiate change? Even if they could create other government-funded programs, where is that money going to come from? How do we fix this?

When the Higher Education Act of 1965 was signed by Lyndon Johnson, it was intended to (and to a great extent, did) allow people who would not normally have access to higher education strictly because of prohibitive cost into that arena. The effect? Universities are no longer the realm of white-male-upper class only.

But people are falling into the margins again. I meet with students every week who are choosing between going to college or supporting their families. Even more, this is an area where Great Pinch of the Middle-Class rears its head– you are well-off enough to not necessarily be living paycheck-to-paycheck, and your parents probably could help you get a loan, but there is no way you can do this WITHOUT a loan, and free money is just not available. The folks that I see getting by are:

  • both extremely poor AND academically strong, or
  • in the military, or
  • among the top 1-3% in academic performance

It is a depressing scenario to contemplate, and I find it extremely unsettling that what I have to say to students more often than not is, “go find some way to get a loan.” I am a living example of the financial prison that is educational debt.

I’m not saying that I always made the best choices about money when I was in college, and I don’t want to imply that I don’t deserve to be paying back what I’m paying back. But just 10 years later, even students who ARE smarter, and will work harder, and have a better idea of what they’re getting into, now lack a choice. If you want a degree, you have to pay for it.

And I don’t know if that’s fair.

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