"Students With Stories Like Mine Run the Risk of Slipping Through the System"

August 4, 2016

By Joshua Sparks 

NCAN members work with students every day whose unwavering aspirations, dedication and perseverance in achieving their educational dreams illustrates the need for federal financial aid policies that concentrate resources where they are needed most. The Kentucky College and Career Connection (Ky3C) Coalition is one such member and Joshua Sparks is one of those students. (Read more stories like theirs here.)

To ensure financial aid gets to the students like Joshua who need it most, NCAN recommends three immediate policy improvements for the new president and Congress: #FixFAFSA, keep the promise of the Pell Grant program, and provide work opportunities to low-income students.

Growing up, I realized that my childhood was not like those of my peers. In elementary and middle school, I delved into my classes with the hope of fitting in with all of the “good kids” and minimizing the distinction set by my family’s income. When we moved to the Eastern Kentucky region, an area where state evaluations had once placed one in five high school graduates under the category of “unsuccessful,” the path to achievement was not always clear. Coming from a family that typically made under $20,000 per year, I was well aware at an early age that I would be solely responsible for financing any college endeavors. However, while I knew I wanted to attend college, having a mother who completed only a high school diploma and a father who finished with less than that made figuring out how almost impossible.

Despite my situation as a teenager, I was lucky to discover two invaluable resources that helped pave the route to my potential success: the Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs. While these programs provided me with an outlet to explore my educational options, one of their strongest assets was the attention they gave to financial aid resources for kids like me from low-income households. Through education about the FAFSA, grant opportunities, and various other forms of funding, I was able to chart my post-secondary goals with the knowledge that there was support out there for those who have the desire to achieve but may not have the necessary income to afford it. 

The reason why I stress the impact of being a low-income college student is because post-secondary financial aid is more than simply helping with tuition costs. While my hard work in high school -- coupled with guidance from Upward Bound and GEAR UP -- provided me with academic scholarships that helped cover the cost of attendance at Eastern Kentucky University, these awards didn’t replace the shoes that would no longer keep my feet dry in rainy weather, or pay for trips home to reassure my family that I was still doing okay.

There’s a difference between merely funding school and being able to fund one’s life, and financial aid resources such as the FAFSA give numerous students like me the freedom to not have to juggle a 40-hour workweek with a full course load. As both scholarships and grant aid are restricted to a set number of years, students need financial aid now more than ever in order to make ends meet and finish on time with the knowledge and skills to become educated and productive citizens in this ever-expanding society. Without it, the probability of advancement dwindles drastically.  

Thanks to financial aid resources, I was given the opportunity to simply be a student and absorb everything the collegiate environment had to offer. Acknowledging this gift, I graduated in four years from EKU with majors in mathematics, sociology, statistics and cultural studies as the President’s Outstanding Senior in 2010. Since then, I have earned master’s degrees in sociology at University of Toronto, statistics at The George Washington University, and mathematics at Vanderbilt University. As I pursue my doctoral studies in statistics, my dream is to return to a university setting akin to EKU, to help provide students the same opportunities to achieve that I was fortunate to receive years ago. 

As I transitioned in my Upward Bound and GEAR UP roles from student to mentor, I met numerous bright learners who also need support from financial aid to make post-secondary learning a priority instead of tumultuous struggle as they try to make ends meet. I watch them earn internships and engage in service-learning projects, and it is reassuring that they have the backing to fuel their dreams, much as I was afforded mine. 

But as the cost of post-secondary education continues to increase, students with stories like mine run the risk of slipping through the system. It is essential for financial aid resources to continue to improve, as students are now expected to combine their studies with internships, research and co-ops in order to be competitive when they enter the work force, and these opportunities become difficult to balance when the monetary support is limited. This is why such assistance is necessary, for when it is available, students will be able to attain the necessary skills and route their own paths as success stories who can inspire other low-income learners for generations to come.

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