Brenda Brooks photographed with her son in the 1980s, when Brooks first attended college at Chicago State University. The Englewood native dropped out because of work and family obligations. The 60-year-old wants to return now to finish her degree, but is ineligible for financial aid because of her decades-old grades. Courtesy of Brenda Brooks

Lately, Englewood native Brenda Brooks has had a tough time finding work.

The 60-year-old has decades of experience at CVS and the historic Regal Theater in Avalon Park. But recently, prospective employers have told her, “ ‘You have the qualifications, but this requires you to have a degree,’ ” she said. “And I don’t have that degree.”

That’s why Brooks wants to go back to Chicago State University on the Far South Side, where she first started a bachelor’s degree in the 1980s.

Like 40 million other Americans, she never finished. And like countless other onetime college students who face economic pressure to return, she now faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle to graduating: Her grades from her first attempt at a degree make her ineligible for financial aid, and she can’t afford to pay for tuition out of pocket.

“They’re penalizing me for something in the ‘80s,” said Brooks, speaking from her car in the parking lot of a company where she has a temporary data entry gig. “I don’t think anybody should be penalized for something that happened 40 years ago.”

According to federal rules, students have to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, among other requirements, to keep their government loans and grants. If they fail this standard two semesters in a row, they lose their access to financial aid.

To get it back, they either have to pay cash for their classes and get stellar enough grades to pull their entire grade point average back up, which advocates say is nearly impossible — or they have to file an appeal, which is a burdensome process and one that’s often unsuccessful.

“The policy that exists at the federal level really is kind of taking the most disadvantaged students and kicking them while they’re down,” said Debbie Raucher, director of John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that successfully petitioned to reform California’s eligibility requirements.

Raucher said students who most need financial aid to pay for college, often low-income students or students of color, don’t usually lose eligibility because of a lack of motivation or academic ability. Researchers have found that these students are more likely to have to juggle full-time employment or caregiving as they go to school.

When Brooks first started college as a young adult, for instance, she worked nights at a post office to support her two young children.

“I had a friend of mine make sure she came over to watch them at night while I went to work,” she said. “I’d get off at 8 o’clock in the morning, come home, get them ready, fix their breakfast, get them off to school. Then I had to run to be at class at about 10:30 a.m.”

The daily grind was too much, she said. Her grades dropped below a C average and she lost her financial aid.

“The data are not as robust as we’d like,” said Julie Peller, director of Higher Learning Advocates, one of 30-plus organizations that have asked for federal reform of the financial aid requirements. “But the data we do have shows that, overwhelmingly, students who failed to meet these standards are more likely to be low-income students and students of color for whom losing federal student aid like the Pell Grant can really just be detrimental.”

It has been for Brooks. She was just about to start class in the fall of 2021 when Chicago State notified her she didn’t qualify for financial aid because of her grades from the 1980s. She decided to go anyway. She thought she could get her eligibility straightened out or apply for help directly from her school. She scored three As and a B.

“I was trying to show them at Chicago State, ‘Look, this is serious to me,’ ” she said. “ ‘This is my life.’ ”

But the good grades didn’t raise her overall GPA enough to get her back in the running for financial aid. Now she owes $5,000 to Chicago State for the classes she took.

Without a degree, Brooks said, she can’t earn the money she needs to pay her school back, nor can she pay for the classes she still needs to take to graduate.

“I’m not looking for a handout,” she said. “I’m looking for something that’s gonna make me a more productive human being.”

Peller of Higher Learning Advocates believes students like Brooks who have been out of school for an extended period of time should get a one-time reset of their eligibility. No one tracks the number of students who lose financial aid eligibility, but Peller’s group believes it’s enough of an issue that they are advocating for that change in Congress and have gotten some bipartisan support.

Until then colleges have room to help, said Raucher of John Burton Youth Advocates. Under current rules, students can appeal their loss of aid for three reasons: death of a family member, injury or illness, or “other special circumstances.” Raucher said that last category gives universities plenty of latitude to help students like Brooks.

The problem is, Raucher said, college officials often choose not to — or don’t communicate this option to students. She said it’s because even administrators don’t always understand the rules.

Brooks said she was never informed of the appeals process by the financial aid office at her school. Chicago State University did not respond to an interview request, but a spokesperson said the school’s financial aid policy follows federal regulations.

In the meantime, Brooks is not giving up. She’s driven by something her sister said before she died in early 2020: “She made me promise, she said, ‘You need to finish school.’ … I said, ‘Okay, you know what?’ I promised her I’m gonna do it.”

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.