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What students say we’re missing about financial aid

Naomi speaks with students about their financial aid experiences at the National College Attainment Network conference. Photo Credit: Nick Fouriezos

Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

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Making college affordable for all students

From much of my reporting, I understand just how much racial identity is connected to the history of this country.

It can determine whether or not you have access to generational wealth, to institutional knowledge about the many intricacies of the education system, to the networks you can rely on when college becomes overwhelming.

So when the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) approached me to talk with students about their experiences with financial aid as part of the organization’s annual conference, I jumped at the chance.

In May, I did a deep dive on the role race plays in state financial aid in the South, where merit-based programs have been in place for a generation. Higher education costs have been at the forefront of the national conversation recently, too, as the White House announced a student loan forgiveness program.

I was so excited to talk to students about the financial support they’d like to see. The three panelists — Morgan Forbes, a junior at Spelman College, Kaila Pouncy, a senior at the University of Alabama, and Zenani Johnson, a recent graduate of a master’s program at Florida State University — were so honest and upfront about their experiences. All three are Black women, and they come from various income backgrounds.

Here are the five things I learned from them about college affordability, the overwhelming process of applying for federal financial aid, and what might make a difference in helping more students get through college:

Students need access to financial literacy.

How can people around a potential college student step in and guide them through the very complex financial aid application process?

For Zenani, she had her parents, who enrolled in Florida’s prepaid tuition program to help save for college. For Morgan, she looked to her high school and then discovered scholarships through organizations like Achieve Atlanta. For Kaila, a first-generation student, she realized quickly that she was starting to rely heavily on her own knowledge through the financial aid process.

“I started looking at the more realistic factors that involve higher education and seeing those big numbers was very off putting and discouraging. As you get closer and closer to the things you really want to do — your goals start to diminish,” says Kaila.

Her mother encouraged her to do her best in school but Kaila also understood that given her family living paycheck to paycheck, she would need to find other ways to afford school.

“I think what a lot of people fail to realize is that starting early requires a point of clarity that a lot of people don’t always have the luxury of exploring. If your survival is based on a day to day mentality: How am I going to get through tomorrow? How am I going to get through this week? How am I going to get through this month?”

With all those balancing priorities, turning to write an essay with an impending deadline or finding the time to research for other ways to pay for college becomes harder.

Students need more help when situations change.

Many things about the financial aid process can become confusing and at times, overwhelming. Morgan’s mother got married, though it was a joyous occasion, it also meant her estimated family contribution changed. She’s no longer eligible for the Pell Grant as well as other scholarships connected to that status.

“This put me at risk of losing all of the scholarships that I had already earned and worked hard for because of a new financial status that is on numbers but doesn’t really affect how much money my family’s willing to put towards my college education. That was a bit confusing,” she says.

In turn, Morgan is looking for more scholarships to continue her education and recommended colleges invest in a better system that helps students find the right avenues to pay for school.

She also called for more federal money for HBCUs and other institutions that would help them provide more financial aid to their students.

Students need better support for things like food and housing.

Getting through classes is oftentimes not the only priority for students. Life outside of school has challenges that are invisible to many but still serve as a barrier to graduation. Zenani recalled talking to one of her friend’s after a student government meeting about the challenges he was facing while trying to make school work.

His car had broken down but it wasn’t just that.

“He is literally going to class for five days and then sleeping in his car. That wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that he had two other students sleeping in the car with him. You have three displaced students, who are in college, and are sleeping in the car together. That has to stop.”

Basic needs insecurity presents a major problem for students trying to persist and graduate from college. How can students focus if they’re unsure where they will be sleeping or where they can get a meal? The past couple of years, colleges have created emergency relief funds and other services with federal relief money they received in the pandemic.

But Zenani said that colleges need to build into their core budgets that same level of support (or more) for needs like stable housing and food so it is not a one-off chance for students to get help because of emergencies created from the pandemic.

“I don’t want to keep talking about it. I want to see money put behind it. There’s no reason we can’t continue to do that,” she said.

Aid is inconsistent and dwindling in value.

When Zenani started college, she had plenty of scholarships her freshman year. But as time went on, she noticed those scholarship opportunities dwindled.

That happened between her sophomore year all the way to when she applied for grad school. It was a trend she noticed that donors and scholarships liked getting students into college, but getting through college was another story.

To figure out what to do next, she spent every Friday with her phone turned off and her focus on researching scholarships to fill in the gaps. But even so, she recommends more funding for students who still need to graduate from college.

The students also emphasized how important the Pell Grant has been to them and advocated for Congress to put more money into the program. This past spring, President Biden called for Congress to double the Pell Grant to a maximum award of $13,000 (right now it is $6,895 for the 2022–2023 school year) by 2029.

Pell Grant once covered over 75 percent of college costs for students but has now dwindled to less than 30 percent.

The need-based grant supports about 7 million students a year, many of whom are students of color (59% are Black students, 51% are American Indian/Alaska Native students, 48% are Hispanic/Latino, and 36% are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander).

For students like Kaila, the Pell Grant was essential, but students still need more.

“My chances at college would have been null and void if it weren’t for that,” she said. “I want more people to understand how many people are in my situation and are reliant on that grant and that federal aid to go to school.”

There’s trauma in the financial aid process.

Going to college is normally a time of excitement and exploration. But heading to the financial aid office to try and find a way to pay for school is not.

One of the things Kaila learned through the financial aid process was just how much of her personal life she would have to explain, over and over.

Those moments are not just frustrating but also a burden for low-income students, she says.

“We get put in a really unique position where if we’re not automatically offered enough funds, and we’ve had to go after that extra help, we also have to release or tell them all of this really sensitive information about our lives that can sometimes include potential traumatic incidents or even situations,” she said. “It’s almost as if they are measuring whether or not we’re worthy of being invested in based off of how hard our past is.”

Katti Gray at Diverse Issues in Higher Education talks with HBCU leaders about growing interest in their campuses and what’s behind enrollment trends. Check out the story.

Who is Native American enough? Oyin Adedoyin at The Chronicle reports on the California tuition free program for Native students, examining the struggles of defining a ‘federally recognized tribe.’ Read her story.

While the rankings of Florida’s top colleges continue to rise, the percentage of students from low-income families at those universities are declining. Divya Kumar and Ian Hodgson at our Open Campus partner the Tampa Bay Times explore what’s at stake.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips, and perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

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