I still hate you FAFSA



(WARNING: RANT) I should not have filled out that damn form last night (and lost sleep due to making calculations in my head over how to afford college for my second degree). But since it is a requirement from the university I am applying to (and hopefully get a scholarship for books), I did it anyway. Why would I go for a second degree? Because, as I have told my academic adviser bluntly: “No one will take me seriously as a programmer unless I have a degree to back it up”. Case in point: a friend of mine who is an excellent coder/programmer with over 10+ years of experience can not find work in her field because employers kept passing her over for programmers with actual degrees. So she is also going back to school.

For those not familiar with the FAFSA acronym, it is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid available for graduating high school students, graduate college students, current college students, etc. attending or going to attend a U.S. university or college.  For those familiar with it, the FAFSA is a double-edge sword that was made to troll and hold applicants in suspense before the start of the school year.

My first experience with the FAFSA was confusing and bittersweet: it was the first piece of paper that made me felt so happy that I was an unemployed and broke college student. Since my parents couldn’t help me financially (based on their tax returns and constant unemployment), I managed to secure the maximum Pell Grant (financial need-based aid) every year. But it wasn’t enough for all of my college expenses (food, books, student housing). So I had to borrow money to make ends meet. I have considered every year during my undergrad years the option of living at home and saving some money. The turbulent and unstable situation at my parents’ house would made it impossible for me to live with my mother (and would have forced me to drop out).  I have even tried to find employment during my college years, only to find that I was TOO broke to afford transportation to drive to work (public transportation was non-existent).  Every year that passed and I borrowed, I prayed that my Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) would turn to $0. Every year I hoped that by the time I finished college I would find the kind of job that would help me pay those loans back and hoped never to borrow again. 

Except that didn’t happen for 2 years after graduation. Due to economic hard ship, I deferred my loans as long as possible. When I finally did found work, although I paid large amounts every month, NONE of my payments were going towards the principal, rather towards the projected interest of my loans. This BS was happening in spite of consolidating my loans. This would mean that in 20 years I would have ended up paying over $50,000 for a $38,000 loan. Because the lending company championed by my alma mater felt it can extend my loan as long as it wants, regardless of my large payments. So, fed-up with their BS, I paid off the entire amount and basically told Sallie Mae to go fuck themselves. After this whole crap was over, I swore never to touch that FAFSA again for anything as long as I lived.

Except that I did after nearly 10 years of not going to school.

I am no longer a broke college student limited to that damn FAFSA application.  I was lucky enough to get financial aid that did not involve using that damn FAFSA that can help cover most of my expenses.  But even though that application has changed since I last filled it out, it STILL trolls students and prospective students with the following:

a) It’s good to be flat broke. If you are unable to qualify for merit based aid, unable to serve in the military or not have rich parents (or a trust fund), then the FAFSA is your only recourse.

b) Short change people who have paid taxes for years from using some of the federal aid to go to school in order to advance into becoming a more skilled work force. A skilled work force means higher paying jobs and more taxes paid to the government. Do you have a job? Sorry, no aid other than a loan. Do you have savings? Sorry, but you should spend all of them, regardless of your other needs (medical bills, transportation, etc.)

c) Borrow irresponsibly. Apparently you can’t even accept the information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to help calculate how much you can earn in your field or how the job market will be after you graduate. From personal experience, it is best to expect 20% less than average, assuming you don’t feel like hustling for a raise in pay or you are unable to.  Unless you’ve graduated from an Ivy League school.

Which leads to:

d) Unless you get all of your expenses paid with scholarships and grants, borrowing means you will be broke after graduation. No matter how hard you try. Even if you are lucky to find work before graduating, the first few months are going to be slim: purchasing your own health and car insurance, rent, groceries and other work related expenses do add up. If you chose the wrong kind of loan (a private one) you are royally screwed: the loan companies don’t have to cut your slack on your payments and charge you more interest than the federal ones.  And then there is the job market you are forced to look in. It is much like borrowing money to escape from poverty only to continue or fall into greater poverty after school is over. The FAFSA needs some SERIOUS reform. Universities and colleges need to stop relying on these damn applications to see if a student needs financial help. EVERYONE who has worked and paid their taxes should be able to receive unchained help from the government and not rely on loans.