Students working their way through school often don’t qualify for free financial aid.
By Kimiya Manoochehri, Contributor
Financial aid isn’t a burden for most community-college students until they transfer to four-year schools. But then, those who need grants the most often find themselves in a Catch-22 that has made them increasingly reliant on loans.
Californian community colleges have the lowest fees in the country, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, with only 4 percent of students needing to take out loans, compared to the national average of 21 percent. At Valley College, that means of the $30-to-35 million allocated to financial aid every year, only about $1 million is in loans, according to Financial Aid Manager Vernon Bridges. The number of four-year university students incurring debt, however, is more than 10 times the community college figure, and growing. According to the PPI report, 10 years ago, “less than one-third of California freshmen [at four-year universities] took out student loans, today, almost half do so.”
Aldo Felix, 25, transferred to CSUN from College of the Canyons and is now heavily reliant on loans, though he works full-time to pay for his education. He has been working at Trader Joe’s for the past eight years, and though his income is less than $22,000 per year, that prices him out of the bracket to receive grants as set by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
“Because I don’t get any grants,” Felix says, “I have to continually work 40 hours a week and struggle with school. It’s not like I can focus on being 100 percent a student. I have to work, and then I’m a student second.”
After transferring from community college, the cost of attending school skyrocketed for Felix. The cost of attendance for a Valley student living with family averages $2,931 per academic year. This number is comprised of in-state tuition, fees, books and supplies. The same compiled cost for CSUN students living at home is $15,898. At UCLA, it is $25,992.
“Most of our students hardly spend any money at all in terms of actually going here,” says Bridges. “Most inquiries we get here are about personal expenses. Rent, other living expenses, that’s where we hear the bulk of our concerns. It’s not usually about paying for tuition; it’s everything else outside of that.”
The FAFSA formula determines the Cost of Attendance (COA) at the school you are enrolled in, then subtracts your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to determine how much you will need to pay for the remainder of your education. According to SimpleTuition.com, the FAFSA does not take factors motivating a student to work into consideration, but simply counts that income as “another source of college funding.” Felix falls into this Catch-22 demographic: His full-time work drives his EFC out of grant range, but combined with his loans, still falls short of his needs.
Both grants and loans can be awarded through federal, state, school-specific and private institutions, grants being awarded without interest or future cost to the student, and loans accruing interest as they are eventually paid back. The majority of Valley financial aid is awarded through federal Pell Grants, while the most popular borrowing arrangements are subsidized loans, which do not compile interest while the borrower is in school.
“I only take subsidized loans because I don’t want to pay interest, so I get $2,500 a semester and the rest of it goes straight to my other credit card or out of my pocket,” says Felix. “I’ve actually sold a lot of musical equipment just to make up the rest of the payment, because I’ve still got to pay for parking and I’ve got to buy books, so every semester that’s an extra grand I’ve got to come up with.”
“I’ve sold off more than half the things that I own.”
FAFSA does not consider special circumstances unless students file appeals.
Bridges says, “Financial aid doesn’t turn its back on people who are actually trying and earning a living, but it’s not secret if someone is homeless or has no income at all then they’re going to get more money than someone who has a job, whether it’s part-time or not. That’s just the way it goes.
“You could have someone that is not working but has a lot of money saved versus someone who is working and has two kids and this, that and the other, and they may get the same amount of money – you just never know.”
Bridges urges students to utilize the appeals process since the FAFSA, according to Valley’s Financial Aid Manager, “doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Meanwhile, cash-strapped students try not to lose hope.
Before CSUN, says Felix, “I thought I was probably going to law school, but now I’m realizing … you don’t really have the financial support you think you would have. It just discourages you. I feel like I’m punished because I work to survive.”