Law School

Breaking Barriers: FAFSA and Proving You’re Low-Income

April is Financial Literacy Month and I want to talk about financial aid for school. For the most part, I depended on FAFSA to help pay for college and law school. I was super thankful to have access to grants, scholarships, and loans but it wasn’t easy to navigate the financial aid system with little help. While I’m years removed from filing for FAFSA, I do recall the feelings of anxiety—would this year’s package give me enough to cover everything? How will my mom help pay the family portion? How much will I need to earn this summer? Can I find another campus job?

I’ll be honest that I hella resented students that didn’t have to worry about this. How much easier would my time in school have been (how much better would my grades have been!) if I didn’t always have this overwhelming dread about my financial status?

For the most part, those of us who rely on financial aid understand that this is part of the deal, as bogus as it may be. Then I recently read research on the nature of financial aid, which exposed a bit of (perhaps unintentional) obstacles created to hinder people living in poverty from accessing this help. Though I question whether it’s unintentional.

Basically this research shows that low-income students are hindered the most by the extra hoops required to get your financial aid approved. The author argues that FAFSA is more focused on preventing “unworthy” middle and high-income students from getting aid as opposed to low-income students receiving help. This makes sense in that many seem to think that if you’re poor you’re trying to game the system. That may be why the powers that be approach FAFSA as if the person applying is acting fraudulently and thus needs to prove, many times over, just how poor they are.

That is so bogus!

The paper goes on to talk about how these extra requirements (that could be more easily streamlined) encourages students, who are already marginalized and struggling to meet these standards, give up. Things like mistakes in the system that question income, parents who don’t want to keep proving up their income, or just frustration in general causes students to stop seeking out this aid, and as a result may end up not pursuing their education any further.

This is unfortunate because, as the paper mentions, low-income students are twice as likely to be left with unmet needs. They also are graduating with more debt, which makes them less likely to pursue post-secondary education. And here is a really great point to remember, a lot of financial aid is actually loans. Loans are debt, they’re not really aid. I mean, yes it gets the job done, but debt is debt.

The paper is really worth your while, especially if you’re pre-law and trying to figure out how to get funding for your education. It also has suggestions for “real” technical solutions that are worth reviewing.

But as for us, other than realizing how difficult it is to overcome these barriers, what can we do?

One. No te aguitas. If you’re a pre-law student and find getting financial aid difficult, the most important thing is to not get disheartened or frustrated that you just think it’s impossible. It’s not impossible. I remember when I was applying for law school, I couldn’t afford the LSAC fee. They had a fee waiver option, which I had to apply to THREE times before they finally agreed that yes, I was as poor as I was saying I was. And don’t feel bad for being poor. There’s nothing inherently bad about that, regardless of how others act/treat you. I knew I needed that waiver to get into law school so I kept at it until I got it.

Two. Look for guides. Reach out to your counselors for help. If you’re in college, most def do that because you’re paying for this resource. If you’re in high school, most school counselors will be thrilled to help you. And if you end up with one that tries to dampen your dreams or doesn’t enthusiastically help you—move on. You don’t need that negativity in your life. If counselors don’t work, reach out to older students who are now in college for pointers.  When I was applying for law school I knew 0 attorneys. But two friends had just started law school a year before me. They were so incredibly helpful in giving me pointers and suggestions during my application process. Most people are happy to help, so seek it out.

Three. Give back. For those of us that have been through it, does this experience with FAFSA ring true to you? For me, I’m going to make it a goal to support and promote financial aid workshops in my community because it’s obvious there needs to be a lot of community support to help students get the help they need.

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